What, exactly, is the relation between socially conservative activism and the economy? Under one view---which we can associate with Thomas Frank's What's the Matter with Kansas?---tough economic times provide the opportunity for conservative political leaders to appeal to people who are suffering economically by scapegoating cultural elites (the sort of people who favor abortion rights and legalizing same-sex marriage) as the cause of their problems. No doubt there is some of that going on now, and if the economy were to become substantially worse, then all manner of dangerous social movements might arise, many of them offering simplistic solutions that scapegoat various minority groups.
But there is another effect at work as well: So long as people hold out some reasonable hope that the economy will get better, they will reward political leaders who appear to be focusing on getting us closer to economic recovery. Under this logic, politicians who focus unduly on cultural issues will earn the ire of all but the hardest of the hard core social conservatives: "How will banning same-sex marriage get me a job?" one imagines people asking.
Consider last week's Iowa Supreme Court ruling and today's Vermont legislative decision, each legalizing same-sex marriage. The timing is certainly coincidental: The Iowa case was in the courts long before the current economic crisis, and the Vermont legislature's decision is, in an important sense, merely the latest step in reaction to the Vermont Supreme Court's 1999 Baker decision requiring the legislature to provide either same-sex marriage or civil unions. The legislature originally chose civil unions but has now changed the law.
Yet if it is only a coincidence that these developments are occurring at the current moment, that fact also may say something about their likely staying power. One suspects that what same-sex marriage needs to survive in any given state is a toehold: As people get used to the idea, they can't muster the political will to take it away, and as more and more couples marry, the unattractive prospect of either retroactively invalidating their marriages or of having a class of "grandfathered" married same-sex couples makes the legalization decision sticky. To amend the Iowa Constitution, it takes a majority vote of each house of the state legislature, followed by an election, followed by another majority vote of each house of the state legislature, followed by popular approval in a referendum. Thus, social conservatives who seek to overturn the Iowa Supreme Court ruling face a built-in stickiness of the sort that has made same-sex marriage stick in Massachusetts. In normal times, perhaps a movement of social conservatives would have the staying power to overturn the Iowa Supreme Court decision, but in our current situation, the sort of sustained campaign necessary could be toxic for any politician associated with it.
That's my hope, anyway.
Posted by Mike Dorf