Gays on the Ropes

Democrats, liberals and gays are all in denial about the meaning and extent of the defeat they suffered on Election Day — and about the sea change in the nation’s politics that defeat confirmed.

I have argued, since 9/11, that the dastardly terrorist attacks that day cemented a tectonic shift to the right in the nation’s politics which had been under way for over two decades. Since the first Reagan presidency, progressive values in electoral politics have steadily eroded, as the money-and-poll-driven Democrats have scurried — sometimes furtively, often openly — to their right. This election only reinforced my conclusion that we are in for a period of reaction that may well last several generations.

There have been a few who have captured the atmosphere in which America’s politics now breathes — but they have been dismissed contemptuously by the liberal elites in denial. For example, The New York Times’ Maureen Dowd got it absolutely right when she wrote a post-election diagnosis of "a scary, paranoid, regressive reality," with "strains of isolationism, nativism, chauvinism, puritanism and religious fanaticism." All of which, by the by, are the symptoms of what I’ve identified as the base reactionary demagogy whose success was guaranteed by 9/11. But, in a rare attack on another pundit, D.C.-style liberalism’s Pope of the Obvious — the Washington Post’s David Broder — reflected the Inside-the-Beltway Democratic establishment’s thinking when he wrote a sniffy, mocking dismissal of Dowd’s dire diagnosis as "exaggerated," and portrayed the election results as just another quadrennial pendulum swing that left the Democrats "a sturdy base from which to climb back into power."

Typical of liberalism’s Pollyanna politics of denial was an article in The Nation for November 29. The magazine’s editor, Katrina Vanden Heuvel, and Robert Borosage (director of the Campaign for America’s Future) co-signed a manifesto urging progressives to "get ready to fight" for a series of sensible, if rather mild, shifts in political attitude. But the article by my friends Bob and Katrina was seriously flawed by its delusional overestimation of progressive political strength: It asserted that "progressives drove the debate" during the election campaign, and that "progressives drive this [Democratic] party now."

Well, just about every single post-election autopsy of the presidential campaign — from Time to Newsweek to Kerry’s hometown Boston Globe — has emphasized how the Democrats’ campaign was reactive to Bush’s demagogy, rather than pro-actively driven by progressive values. No less than James Carville, the snarling face of knee-jerk Democrats, told Newsweek’s Eleanor Clift that, "We lost because we didn’t say anything," just like in 2000. Does that sound like a campaign in which progressives "drove the debate"? Cueball Carville added that the Democrats failed to break out of the box framed by Bush’s "narrative forged in the ashes of 9/11. ‘I’m going to protect you from the terrorists in Tikrit and the homos in Hollywood’ is how Carville summed it up." Running a reactive campaign devoid of real content — instead of an aggressive, pro-government, progressive-populist one — is the principal reason why a post-election Pew Poll released November 11 found that, when asked to rate their party’s campaign on a report card, only 37 percent of Democrats gave it an A or a B. The average score was a grudging C-.

Moreover, all across the country, Democratic House and Senate candidates scampered away from even the milquetoast liberalism of the party’s watered-down national platform — led by the Democrats’ defeated Senate leader, Tom Daschle, who dumped on the presidential candidate of his party on Meet the Press and distanced himself from the party’s positions on "social" questions on the stump, in a failed genuflection to the "family values" mood imposed by the Republicans.

As to the assertion that "progressives drive the party now," the election of the Mormon abortion foe and corporate-coddling lobbyists’ darling Harry Reid (who also opposes marriage equality for gays) as the party’s Senate leader — and thus its most public face for the next four years — is only the latest refutation of such unwarranted optimism.

The election was also a rebuttal of the liberals’ favorite mantra: that the bigger the turnout, and the more new voters who could be registered, the better it was for Democrats. The latest, post-election New Voters Poll sponsored by Rock the Vote and Pace University, released November 18, not only underscores the emptiness of such febrile notions, it gives much reason for pessimism about the future — since new voters are heavily skewed toward the young. By a significant margin, new voters say they’re political conservatives, not liberals (36 percent to 29 percent). And 55 percent of new voters say their vote was affected by the gay-marriage issue (much higher than the one in five of all voters who said so in the last, pre-election national Gallup survey). A lopsided majority of white women (65 percent) among new voters say gay marriage affected how they voted — worse, so did 61 percent of college students. Similarly, the study said that "We found considerable support for the conventional wisdom that pro-life, rather than pro-choice, voters are the most likely to vote on the abortion issue," with a 15-point advantage to Bush over Kerry among new voters who said the issue was key in determining their vote. So for new voters, the study concluded, "Moral values, gay marriage and abortion appear to be their motivating issues."

There is similar bad news in that November 11 Pew Poll, which — when it asked voters what had motivated them — found that "a plurality of 27 percent selected moral values, followed by 22 percent who chose Iraq and 21 percent who selected the economy and jobs. Terrorism was chosen by 14 percent; education and health care were chosen by 4 percent each and taxes by 3 percent." That "moral values" number is a full five points higher than in the much-disputed National Election Pool exit polls taken for the TV networks on November 2.

More so than any other Americans, gay people have reason to fear both the election results and this description of our current political topography. The Republicans scapegoated gays to win the election. Now, the dominant Democratic Leadership Council’s Democratic right wing — and the Gitlinesque and Tomaskyish pseudo-liberal commentators, with their endless crusades against identity politics — are blaming the election loss on gays for, as California’s indigestible Senator Dianne Feinstein put it, wanting "too much, too fast, too soon." These scapegoatings come just as a new FBI report, released November 22, shows that violent anti-gay crimes have now become the second-highest category of hate crimes, right after race — and the FBI doesn’t even track crimes against the transgendered, 21 of whom have been murdered in the past year.

Of course, the Democrats harvested gay dollars this year in the multimillions — and gave nothing in return. In not a single referendum state did the party or its leaders lift a finger to help defeat the vicious, hate-building referenda, nor try to educate its own base about these blatant electoral manipulations of bigotry and fear. Is it any wonder we got creamed — or that a part of the Democrats’ working-class base was lured into voting for the gay-baiting Republican president when more gut-grabbing, bread-and-butter issues were off the table?

And now, as the Democratic establishment tries to shove gays asking for fairness not just to the back of the bus but to the back of the closet, we face a theocratic rollback agenda of frightening dimensions. The GOP hasn’t even waited until the New Year to begin tearing down what remains of the wall separating church and state — that essential dike against new tsunamis of primitive religious bigotry. On November 17, the lame-duck Republican House passed the California Missions Preservation Act, which provides $10 million to "restore and repair" 21 mission churches, 19 of which have active congregations, and all of which are owned by the Roman Catholic Church — the same church whose bishops this year preached electoral homo-hate from the pulpit. And there’s a lot more to come.

We in the gay community will have few national allies as the Democrats squirm even further into the "family values" cocoon, leaving us isolated and blamed for the ’04 defeat. The U.S. Supreme Court’s refusal to review the Massachusetts court’s decision on gay marriage means very little: Not only will the composition of the Supremes change during Bush’s second term — making the court even more conservative and anti-gay — but in at least half a dozen states the right is already planning new anti-gay referenda to ban marriage equality, domestic partnerships and the like in the wake of the November 2 success of 11 similar referenda. And for every step forward we win in the courts, under the Republicans’ renewed legislative assault we will be forced two steps back.

Doug Ireland can be reached through his blog, DIRELAND at

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