Political Animal


November 07, 2012 3:43 PM Gay Rights and Our New Libertarian Normal

By Simon van Zuylen-Wood

Last night signaled a monumental victory for gay rights. Same-sex marriage laws were passed by ballot referenda in Washington, Maryland and Maine —with Minnesota voting to block a potential gay marriage ban. Few predicted this result; E.J. Graff thought “one, maybe two” of the four would tilt they way they did.

There are several factors that help explain last night. First, most obviously, a generational shift has tipped public support for same-sex marriage over fifty percent in the past few months. Second, the country growing increasingly secular. What’s more, religious, non-evangelical voters aren’t necessarily likely to express their faith in conservative terms. Despite his supposed thwarting of their religious liberties, Obama won over Catholics 50-48, signaling that the ultra-conservative U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops who determine much church policy, and the Wall Street Journal columnists who back them, are out of touch with average Catholic voters. Finally, the Christian right’s influence in grassroots organizing, already diminished in the 2000s, was fully eclipsed in the past four years by groups like The Club for Growth and FreedomWorks, which aim almost entirely to reduce taxes, spending, and regulation.

But this last point hints at a broader, possibly more significant reason for the gay marriage boomlet: Americans are more libertarian than ever. For two decades, CNN has asked voters about the role government should play, on both social and economic issues. In June, 2011, the poll registered more libertarian sentiment than ever before. From Nate Silver’s summary:

Some 63 percent of respondents said government was doing too much — up from 61 percent in 2010 and 52 percent in 2008 — while 50 percent said government should not favor any particular set of values, up from 44 percent in 2010 and 41 percent in 2008. (It was the first time that answer won a plurality in CNN’s poll.)

Yesterday’s other ballot initiatives largely bear this out. Marijuana possession and use was legalized for the first time, in Washington and Colorado. Massachusetts and Montana also legalized medical marijuana dispensaries, and Arkansas* nearly did too (51-49).

On the right side of the libertarian spectrum, Oklahoma banned affirmative action of any kind. Michigan, so reliant upon its auto workers, voted down a constitutional amendment that would have enshrined the right to collective bargaining, along with one to adopt new energy standards. Florida struck down three new potential taxes, and New Hampshire voted to codify an income tax ban into its state constitution, though its 57% margin wasn’t enough to do it. Three states passed anti-Obamacare referenda, while another, Missouri, voted to refuse to implement the healthcare exchanges that the law provides. Other measures to increase taxes and public pensions failed, in Arkansas and Illinois, respectively. The list goes on.

To be sure, all 174 of yesterday’s ballot referenda didn’t yield libertarian outcomes. California, for instance, voted for tax hikes to pay for higher education, and failed to repeal the death penalty. But broadly, this year’s referenda are of a part with the libertarian trend. And when examines the grassroots political movements on either side of the political spectrum, it makes sense that the voters are increasingly mistrustful of government. The Tea Party, despite its fair share of Richard Mourdocks, is a party predicated upon diminishing the size of government, not restoring evangelical values. Occupy Wall Street, for all its antipathy towards rapacious capitalism, didn’t have many ideas about how government was meant to solve its problems. For the most part, it railed against the “one percent’, and the bank bailout, even drawing its fair share of Ron Paulians to rallies. And anti-war sentiment has been strong on both poles.

What does this mean for liberalism? Short of habitual union-led efforts against deregulation and the curtailing of collective bargaining, the general public, and even mainstream Democrats, are not heavily invested in traditional protectionist, big-government policies. (Obama education policy for instance, relies on free market principles, rather than guarantees, to disburse its government grants.) For better and for worse, then, we should go ahead and get used to being left on our own.

Simon van Zuylen-Wood is a writer for Philadelphia Magazine.


  • bkmn on November 07, 2012 3:52 PM:

    The Roman Catholic church and its handling (protection) of its own pedophile priests has had an impact on how church members look at the upper hierarchy of the church.

    They did it to themselves by shielding the pedophiles.

  • Danny on November 07, 2012 3:52 PM:

    Zuylen-Wood: "Obama's win is excellent news for John McCain and Reason magazine. Cool story bro.

    Oh how PA has fallen since Steve left.

  • c u n d gulag on November 07, 2012 3:58 PM:

    Oh goody...
    So, we're about to jump from the Conservative frying pan, into the Libertarian fire?


  • Sean Scallon on November 07, 2012 4:02 PM:

    "Despite his supposed thwarting of their religious liberties, Obama won over Catholics 50-48, signaling that the ultra-conservative U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops who determine much church policy, and the Wall Street Journal columnists who back them, are out of touch with average Catholic voters."

    It doesn't mean they're out of touch, it just means Catholics are just like any other average voter. Why continue to single them out as a slice of the electorate?

    Thanks for the Ron Paul shout-out. Maybe now some people will understand what it was about.

  • Anonymous on November 07, 2012 4:12 PM:

    Your kind of a simple Simon aren't you. Giving the tea party credit for having some kind of coherency albeit a misguided libertarian one is really stretching it don't you think?

  • K Wilson on November 07, 2012 4:20 PM:

    I think that interpreting the increasing support for respect and equal rights for gays and lesbians as an effect of libertarian attitudes is probably a mistake. One of the major factors in the defeat of the anti-same-sex-marriage amendment in Minnesota was the very public opposition of many churches and religious leaders. One does not have to be a libertarian to disagree strongly with the Christian Right.

  • abguy on November 07, 2012 4:24 PM:

    That would be mid-south Arkansas rather than 'Bama. The initiative had a provision allowing anyone not living within 5 miles of a dispensary to grow their own. That probably was a little too much for simple-minded bible belters.

  • boatboy_srq on November 07, 2012 4:24 PM:

    it makes sense that the voters are decreasingly trustworthy of government

    [ahem] Actually, it would make sense that the voters are increasingly distrustful of government...

    /grammar police

    Libertarian positions on some items are useful - particularly bedroom issues. I think a lot of that particular trend was a "keep Big Gubmint out of my personal bidness" attitude.

    But I think a lot of it is backlash against the Teahad as well. With the FRC, NOM, AFA and the whole host of other entities laser-focused on "one man, one [subservient] woman" marriage definitions having shot themselves repeatedly in the foot over the last few years, the whole "traditional marriage" whinge has lost a lot of steam as the people who advocate loudest for it have been repeatedly unmasked as intent on punishing Teh Sinful rather than protecting society, especially Teh Children as they have insisted. Some of the "legitimate rape" gaffes by GOTea candidates probably helped cement the image of the Grand Auld Pahtee as the province of provincial, moralizing, uptight old caucasian geezers as well. And the MSM's waking up to their antics and calling them on their prevarication hasn't exactly hurt either: Perkins' squirming over pointed questions in a recent CNN interview, for example, was priceless.

    It's also at least as likely that the GOTea obsession with the anticolonialist-Kenyan-IslamoFascist-usurper has distracted the plurality of the party from the culture war issues. Maybe that resulted in a "let the initiatives go - we can fix those once he's gone" attitude; maybe all the money went to push Multiple Position Mitt and there wasn't enough left to mobilize against all the various initiatives. Either way the fixation on Obama paid off for the rest of us when they neglected downballot races and decisions.

  • John Sully on November 07, 2012 4:57 PM:

    Montana did NOT legalize medical marijuana yesterday. We already had legal medical marijuana and IR-124 basically rolled back the existing voter approved system and left a rump law which provided the appearance of legal MM, but really was completely unworkable and essentially left MM illegal again.

    The correct pro medical marijuana vote on IR-124 was NO.

  • bob on November 07, 2012 5:37 PM:

    You completely misinterpreted the failed Illinois referendum issue. It was NOT a measure to "increase public pensions." It was a proposed amendment to the Illinois constitution that would have required a 3/5 majority vote in the state legislature for future benefits increases under any public pension or retirement system. It was OPPOSED by teachers' unions and other public unions, and by the League of Women Voters of Illinois. Its defeat was a victory for progressives, not for libertarians.

  • Doug on November 07, 2012 6:50 PM:

    Just because it wasn't until 2012 when Akin and Mourdock so eleoquently laid bare the repulsive soul of many modern Republicans doesn't mean much of their agenda was apparent BEFORE. Say, 2011. Then add in the two year campaign against the, non-existent, government takeover of medical care.
    I get the feeling that Mr. van Zuylen-Wood doesn't realize there are TWO "big governments". There's the real one that interferes un-necessarily in the private lives of the citizenry and then there's the one that's the boogey-man of Republican invention.
    The first is rightly resented, the second isn't.

  • TCinLA on November 07, 2012 7:04 PM:

    The Tea Party is not some separate "party" from the Republican Party. The Tea Party IS "the Republican Base."

    You demonstrate your lack of political understanding and your general lightweight-ness by stupid things like failing to understand something this obvious.

  • Rick B on November 08, 2012 12:13 PM:

    Tell me, Simon. Did the repeal of alcohol prohibition also represent an advance of libertarian views, or was it simply the recognition that outlawing alcohol use and applying policing methods of control were simply creating a massive criminal market with very attractive profits?

    America's "war on drugs" created first the Colombian cartels, and when those were shut down by Plan Colombia, the cartels along the northern Mexico border came into being. Then NAFTA eliminated Mexico's protective tariffs on corn, beans and pork putting over 2 million subsistence farms in northern Mexico out of business and driving that population to try to find work in the U.S. or in the cartels.

    The more effective U.S. drug interdiction has gotten the greater the profits for the cartels. Along with that the Zetas and the Sinaloa cartels have branched into human smuggling and control of crime generally in Northern Mexico, while they have expanded into the U.S. (but limited the violence.)

    Legalizing and licensing the use of the drugs, controlling and taxing the suppliers and using the funds to support strong drug recovery and education programs is the only solution. It has worked for Alcohol. Is it libertarian to think it will work for all kinds of addictive drugs? Or just good government and business sense?