Nineteen years ago, then-San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom sanctioned same-sex marriages. As mayor of San Francisco — both a city and a county — he had the authority to perform marriages, though not same-sex ones. That didn’t matter.
“We didn’t have the formal authority,” he once told me in an interview several years ago, “but I felt we had a moral authority to challenge the law.”
Back then, same-sex marriage was illegal across the country except in Massachusetts. It would become legal in California that June. Newsom’s move ignited legal challenges, ballot propositions and a national debate intended to settle the issue once and for all.
Many criticized Newsom both for the marriages he sanctioned in San Francisco and for his brazen 2008 prediction that same-sex marriage was “gonna happen, whether ya like it or not.” His actions galvanized opponents and became an effective fear-mongering tic for Proposition 8, California’s anti-gay marriage initiative.
But in the end, Newsom was right: same-sex marriage won, eventually becoming legal in all 50 states.
And conservatives were wrong. Unlike Newsom, their spasmodic predictions never came to pass. Traditional marriage survived, and continues to thrive. Society didn’t collapse into Roman Empire-like debauchery. No one started marrying farm animals. Sadly, no one ever tracks down the naysayers to ask why their fear-mongering predictions failed to materialize. But then, fear-mongering is often the last bastion for those with no facts to back up their claims.
Consider the marriage arguments:
- It’s “unnatural.”
- It’s contrary to God’s will.
- It’s about illicit sex, not committed relationships.
- The majority of Americans oppose such marriages.
Sound familiar? They should. They were the arguments posited in 1948 when Andrea Perez, a Mexican American woman, and Sylvester Davis, an African American man, challenged California’s interracial marriage ban in the state Supreme Court. The arguments reappeared when miscegenation went to the U.S. Supreme Court 19 years later in Loving v. Virginia.
In each case, the plaintiffs won, just as same-sex marriage eventually won.
This pattern repeats throughout American history: Cultural shifts emerge that expand individual freedoms, conservatives vigorously and even violently oppose such changes, but their opposition ultimately fails. Their intemperate arguments prove wrong, their melodramatic fears are unwarranted, and their panic-laden predictions are downright laughable.
The Virginia trial judge who upheld the 1958 conviction of Richard and Mildred Loving wrote that their interracial marriage, a violation of Virginia state law, was also a violation of God’s law.
“Almighty God created the races,” he wrote, “and he placed them on separate continents ... The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.”
Talk about a facepalm moment.
The arc of American history has always gravitated toward liberalism. Not in the political sense, but in the broader moral code that has always stood for expanding individual rights, social equity and equality under the law.
Pick the conflict. Abolition, suffrage, desegregation, immigrant hoards from Europe reviled by nativists, worker’s rights, women’s rights, equal rights, interracial marriage and gay marriage. The walls to all of them have crumbled over time or will completely crumble in due time. GOP pollster Jan van Lohuizen perfectly illustrated the futility of conservative resistance with a prescient warning to Republicans in a 2012 memo: Evolve on same-sex marriage or risk marginalizing into irrelevance.
It’s a lesson conservatives seem unwilling to learn, let alone admit, despite how many times it has happened. They defended the institution of slavery, ignited a Civil War, opposed Reconstruction, founded the Ku Klux Klan, imposed segregation and Jim Crow laws, and assailed the advancement of civil rights in the 1950s and 60s.
This needs some clarification. You’ll often hear today’s Republicans and conservatives claim it was the Democratic Party advocating such policies and practices. That is correct. Democrats of the 19th century did indeed defend slavery, secession, the Civil War and so forth.
But what today’s Republicans, conservative pundits, and even some historians fail to point out is that the Democrats of that period were the conservatives of the day. So don’t be fooled by titles. Their label might’ve said “Democrats,” but their political ideology was conservative, and those conservatives were on the wrong side of history.
By contrast, the Republicans of the Civil War era were the liberals of their day, which explains why they opposed slavery and segregation and supported Reconstruction. They wrote, passed, and ratified the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments that abolished slavery, granted black men citizenship, and gave them the right to vote.
Liberals did that. They just happened to be called Republicans at the time. Conservatives did not do that. They just happened to be called Democrats back then.
The Southern Manifesto of 1956 was a full-throated outburst against the civil rights legislation of the 1950s and 60s. Over 100 members of Congress, all from states that had once comprised the Confederacy, signed the document. All save one were Democrats, but all were ideological conservatives and, as you might have guessed, proponents of segregation. They lashed out at the Supreme Court’s 1954 landmark decision Brown v. Board of Education, which declared that segregated schools were inherently unequal. The Manifesto attacked Brown as an abuse of judicial power and a violation of states’ rights. It called upon Southerners to exhaust all “lawful means” to resist the “chaos and confusion” that school desegregation would cause.
Sound familiar? Take out segregation and replace it with same-sex marriage, or today, gender identity, and the conservative pearl-clutching sounds exactly the same.
They might not have lost, however, if the legislation hadn’t the backing of so-called Rockefeller Republicans. Those Republicans, which included figures like Dwight Eisenhower and George Romney (Mitt Romney’s father), held moderate-to-liberal views on social policies. They supported a social safety net and FDR’s New Deal programs (though they sought to run those programs more efficiently than Democrats).
Again, what mattered was their ideology, not the name they went under.
So, what happened to all those conservatives who called themselves Democrats? Salvation! When Barry Goldwater, the GOP presidential nominee in 1964, came out against the Civil Rights Act, Democratic segregationists realized the Republican Party could be their new home. A safe space, even.
The Southern Strategy of Richard Nixon, which won him the presidency in 1968, moved the GOP immutably to the right. After Ronald Reagan’s presidential victory in 1980, there was no going back. The party continued down a path toward the divisive conservative extremism we see today.
This is a salient point. Conservatism isn’t the problem, but we no longer have conservatism. What we have now is conservative extremism. In the past, that visceral extremism would rear up against changes in social and cultural norms. Now, it’s 24/7 outrage. Like those faux celebrities famous for being famous, now it’s angry for being angry. It taints all forms of reasonable, relevant conservatism whose denizens now, sheepishly, shamelessly, show no backbone to stand up to the lunatic fringe. (Liz Cheney, a notable exception.)
Any philosophy or ideology taken to an extreme simply is not useful, whether liberal or conservative. Society works best when the liberal drive toward progress needs to be tempered by conservative caution. Rather than obstinate and ultimately fractious opposition, it’s more like tapping the brakes.
That conservatism is far different from the hateful intransigence of conservatives who have collapsed into apoplexy throughout America’s history of social and cultural paradigm shifts, and who now dominate the Republican Party. You can trace the thread from the Civil War through the civil rights movement to the explosion of the Tea Party reacting to Barack Obama’s election as the nation’s first Black president. Each faux-outrage was an attack on egalitarianism in defense of privilege and hierarchy.
Some have argued that conservative outbursts are a reaction to liberal passions moving too fast. Critics viewed Newsom’s past actions as too much too soon, boldness in the worst sense of the liberal imperative for social change.
Often, though, matters of equity have to be challenged in the courts or with civil disobedience to begin the long grind toward legal resolution. Think of the Black college students who sat at that Woolworth lunch counter, or Rosa Parks sitting in the front of a bus. They were breaking segregation laws and local ordinances. People could, and probably did, use the same argument: Why are these people pushing this on us?
But Newsom was right, and we look back now, wondering what all the fuss was about while laughing at the ones who made all the fuss.
Future generations will probably wonder the same thing when looking back at today’s shrill, shrieking Republican hyperbolists, and the current convulsions over “wokeness,” transgender people and public school curriculum will be just another chapter of also-rans in the lens of history.
The increasingly common experience of living in a world of previously marginalized and denigrated people eventually outweighed the fear-mongering, and will do so again and again.
In such matters, familiarity breeds acceptance, not contempt, whether ya like it or not. And if you don’t like it, history won’t care. It will move along just fine without you.