The American left is exultant: Expanding civil rights and the retreat of discrimination on race, gender and now sexual orientation mark major milestones for the traditional liberal worldview.
The American left is in mourning: Income inequality has soared to levels not seen since the Gilded Age and the Roaring Twenties, anti-tax orthodoxy is ascendant on the right, the safety net is under attack, and labor unions are barely hanging on.
If the country is becoming more liberal on accepting minority rights, why is the left having such a hard time making progress on its bread-and-butter issues of class and economics, which were once its central, animating concerns? Why is liberalism half-dead, half-alive?
New York’s vote in favor of same-sex marriage captures this peculiar condition. The state that became by far the most populous to legalize gay marriage is also home to the financial industry, which has played a large part in expanding the glaring gap between the ultra-rich and everyone else. Helping push the marriage vote were billionaire financiers who have spent heavily to elect Republicans and block Democratic efforts to regulate Wall Street. And the hero of the vote, Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo, has garnered praise from the right for balancing New York’s budget by cutting public education and public employees, instead of raising taxes on millionaires, as liberals preferred that he do.
Some argue that this state of affairs was inevitable — that liberalism in this country has always been most effective when it has aligned itself with ingrained notions of American individualism. Despite notable exceptions, such as Social Security and Medicare, “in general, Americans are more liable to support movements from the left or from the right that talk in terms of rights and individual freedom than talk about collective rights or responsibilities,” said Georgetown University historian Michael Kazin. This extends to the courts, Kazin said, which have lately been more supportive of claims to individual freedoms (say, the right to sell violent video games to kids) than of arguments against big business (see the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling permitting direct corporate spending on elections).
Gay rights advocates say this is the main reason they are seeing a nationwide increase in support for same-sex marriage — because they are seeking simply to affirm the individual freedoms all Americans share. “We’re not trying to take anything away from anybody,” said Fred Sainz, spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign. “Our movement is unique because we’re trying to give people more equality and access. It’s one that’s trying to even the landscape for all. So we insulate ourselves from the attacks on other movements.”
Ken Mehlman, a former Republican Party chairman who is openly gay and was active in the New York lobbying effort, puts it more bluntly. Same-sex marriage is a more successful part of the liberal agenda, he contends, because it’s not necessarily liberal. “This is an issue where there are important conservative arguments for people being treated equally under the law,” he said. “If you believe in maximum freedom and that it’s important to promote strong families and that the golden rule is a good thing to follow, all of those things argue for allowing people to marry the people they love.”