Tomorrow is D-Day in California: the day that the state’s Supreme Court will render its decision on the constitutionality of Proposition 8, the initiative passed last November to put an end to legal gay marriage in the state.
Nobody has a clue which way they’re likely to rule. Activists on both sides have been scrying the tea leaves and chicken bones on this ever since the court heard the case back in March, but have divined nothing. But there’s one forecast I can offer right now: if Prop 8 is overturned by the courts, the backlash from the right is likely to be far more ferocious and intense than anybody on the left reckons right now.
In recent weeks, I’ve been in discussions with some of the state’s gay leadership about how the hardcore right across the country is likely to react if Prop 8 is overturned. From their viewpoint, even a loss in the courts will only be a momentary setback. In that case, they’ll simply put the issue back on the ballot, over and over, for as long as it takes to regain their right to marry. They know (and the most recent polls support them in this) that time, demographics, and the generally tolerant culture of California are all on their side. They may or may not be able to outspend the Mormons and the Catholics; but they know for sure that they can outwait them.
For that reason, they’re not particularly worried about the right-wing reaction to a decision in their favor. In their view, victory is (sooner or later) preordained. In the long run, the anti-gay-marriage forces are fighting a losing battle. If they’re not irrelevant now, they will be soon. And so they’re not much worried about that.
But they should be.
Yes, the right wing is losing on gay rights issues. That is, very precisely, why they’re more dangerous now than they have been in the past. Their impending irrelevance is not a reason to worry less; it’s a reason to worry more. And getting Prop 8 overturned in the courts would ignite the situation, because it will hit absolutely every angry-making right-wing button there is:
1. The biggest state in the country, comprising fully 1/8 of the nation's population, will have legal gay marriage. That, right there, will be pretty much the end of the war, and they know it. The five states currently on board are worrisome, but they're small and not considered the kind of cultural juggernaut California is.
2. Overturning Prop 8 would push every button the right wing has about Godless liberals on the coasts imposing their moral values on them. “Pushing their immorality down our throats" has always been one of rural America’s major recurring complaints, particularly among evangelicals who seriously believe that God will withdraw his special blessing from America – and possibly destroy the country -- if gays can get married. (I know, I know. But they are what they are.) While the feelings about this have always run strong and deep, they’ve become much more intense since their political power began slipping away from them in 2006, and particularly since Obama took office and they lost Congress.
In this brave new world, the perverts don't even have the basic decency to feel shame about it anymore. They don't even know where to start with that. It makes them absolutely desperate with rage.
3. The fact that the deed was done by a bunch of California liberal activist judges who had to reverse the outcome of a statewide election -- an election that every conservative church in the country had at least an emotional stake in, and often a financial stake as well -- is going to be the straw that breaks the camel's back. They hate judges. They really hate liberal judges. They really, really hate California liberal judges, and have since Earl Warren. Having judges undo what they considered to be a major moral victory for their side could push their fury from merely seething to absolutely explosive.
So we’re left with a scenario in which their entire moral fight for the soul of the nation was lost because of nine liberal judges in California. I can't think of a narrative more guaranteed to push every hot button on the right, unless maybe one of the judges was Perez Hilton. Naw, maybe not even then.
And you can bet that right-wing True Believers across the country are going to be looking for targets to take out their frustration on. As I’ve written recently, they already think this government is not their own, and are moving into opposition to it. They really believe that the continued greatness of America is at stake, and they are the last line of defense against complete moral chaos. If this happens, God will withdraw his blessing from the US, and America will lose everything. They will not let that happen. Passing a gay marriage law in California -- the biggest and most influential state of all -- will be their Harper's Ferry, their Pearl Harbor. After that -- the deluge.
That's why a positive decision for California’s gay community could create considerable negative -- and potentially violent -- blowback throughout the nation. Since they can't get at California’s judges, they may decide to strike out at local gays, gay-owned businesses, gay bars, and their own local judiciary, wherever they happen to be. If I were associated with any of these things in a conservative patch of the country, I'd be spending today thinking through some serious security precautions.
In the worst case, this decision could become the catalyst for a new round of large-scale domestic terrorism from the right. As I've noted, everything I'm seeing points to a subculture that is gearing up for this kind of heroic last stand in defense of a lost cause. And this time, it's not going to be just a few white supremacist/militia/patriot/anti-choice wackos. The new crop of right wing militants is better connected, better trained, better armed, and absolutely determined to go down fighting. And, as the SPLC keeps telling us, there may considerably more people motivated to support them than there have been in the past. It’s not unthinkable that between 15 and 20% of the country could be inclined to start -- or at least support -- a civil war over this.
It’s a sad irony that the best possible outcome for America’s gay movement could also turn out to be the tipping point for the biggest anti-gay, anti-liberal backlash we’ve seen yet. Tomorrow, we’ll know one way or another which way this will go – and whether a new court-ordered opportunity for America's gay community could also turn out to be a potent new source of danger from the right as well.
Update I: Some readers have suggested that I didn't make one important point clearly enough, to wit: I'm much more worried about violence in the hinterlands than I am about reactions in California. In state, the conversation is being had openly, and people are working both sides of the issue directly.
But imagine you're a conservative living in, say, Arkansas. Imagine your working-class church raised a couple thousand dollars to promote Prop 8, and invested a lot of emotional energy in passing it, and celebrated it as a major moral victory when it succeeded. Imagine your preacher telling you that this is the Last Stand, because if California goes, the war is over and you've lost and God is going to smite America because you failed to stop Satan in time. And then imagine how you feel -- and what you might do -- when a bunch of liberal judges snatch that huge cultural victory right out of your hands.
Or imagine that you're a wacko loner like the guy in Knoxville, who spends his days listening to Sean Hannity and believes that if the government won't keep gays in their place, it's now up to you. Or you're a guy who's recently back from the sandbox, where you got some pretty strong religion along with a whole bunch of cool commando skills and a taste for blood. So you go shoot up the local florist shop, or gay bar, or UCC congregation, in order to do your part to save America.
It's not the people in LA who worry me. They've got each other, and the cops are looking out for them. I'm worried about the people in the great Out There who are going to feel a very personal stake in this, and who are already primed to see this as the End of the World, and yet who have no legitimate standing in California's conversation either way. And I feel a certain urgency to get the heads-up to gay people who are living in these same small towns, and get them ready for the possibility that they're about to become the most handy targets for a hot, terrifying wave of right-wing frustration.
Commenter Cyrano put it another way:
The conservatives got burned bad in the 2008 elections. Their one saving grace was their Prop 8 victory; it was like aloe on their wounds.Can I get an amen?
For them, Prop 8 affirmed that (i) the right-wing populist spirit can triumph, even in a blue state, (ii) the silent majority is on board with homophobia, and (iii) the liberals shot themselves in the foot by appealing to African-American voters who are religious and who do not like gays (haw haw, stupid liberals).
None of those things are true, but that's immaterial. The point is, it was a huge symbolic victory that let them assuage their wounded pride and crow at their enemies. To take it from them - and to do it using the courts - is going to drive them absolutely bonkers.
Update II: The scuttlebutt on the activist lists is that the court will probably reaffirm the existing marriages, but refuse to allow new ones, effectively allowing Prop 8 to stand.
Fortunately, the polls suggest that if it went back to the ballot next year, there's a good chance a reversal would probably pass. A lot of Californians who stood on the sidelines are feeling embarrassed into action; and the African-American community in particular is realizing that if the voters can strip away gay civil rights with a wave of a ballot marker, they can strip away racial equality rights in exactly the same way -- and that's a situation that ought to make them very nervous. And then there are simply those who resent the idea that the Mormons and Catholics are imposing their values on the state, and using money raised from all over the country to do it.
So there's been considerable progress in the last six months, as people have done some more thinking on the issue, and the No on 8 organizations have continued their educational and outreach efforts. They're in this for the long haul: even if they lose tomorrow, I'd bet on them to win it in the end.