Everything about the decisions on the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and California’s Proposition 8 suggests that the justices fully recognize the direction the national debate is heading in and were not prepared to stand in the way. The throngs outside the Supreme Court were dominated by supporters of same-sex marriage, and their jubilation showed that they regarded Wednesday as a momentous day in the movement for marriage equality.
By every measure, more and more Americans are coming to accept the idea that such unions should be legal, part of a cultural change of enormous significance.
But the shift in public opinion is neither fully realized nor held consistently nationwide, or among all demographic groups. Same-sex marriage continues to divide Americans on the basis of ideology, political party, age and region, which is why legal and political battles will continue after Wednesday’s rulings. The justices seemed aware of that as well.
The court said it will provide federal recognition (and therefore benefits) to the legalization that has taken place in a growing number of states but not require the states that still bar such unions to overturn those laws. Yet in doing what it did, even in stopping short of declaring same-sex marriage a constitutional right, the court provided strong assistance to proponents for the battles ahead.
In one sense, the politics of same-sex marriage already had reached a tipping point. Less than a decade ago, Republicans considered the issue a valuable political weapon with which to rally conservatives and put Democrats on the defensive. Today, although a majority of Republicans continue to oppose same-sex marriage, Republican leaders and candidates are on the defensive. Their positions may not have changed but many of them are silent on the issue, particularly in the context of political campaigns.
Thirty years ago, the culture wars split the Democratic coalition and left the party on the defensive in national elections. Whether it was abortion, affirmative action, drugs, gay rights or the broader debate over traditional values, Democrats were divided, Republicans united.
Today it is the opposite. President Obama and the Democrats use the issue of same-sex marriage — or gun control or climate change — to try to broaden and deepen their coalition, particularly among younger voters. This coalition, along with the votes of African Americans and Latinos, propelled Obama to reelection in November and it keeps growing larger as the nation’s demographics continue to change.