Obama’s announcement about his feelings towards gay marriage signals a shift in American cultural history. The conservative reactions range from accusations of “radical social engineering” to schadenfreude at how foolishly Obama is behaving. Why does it all matter? There is no action implied – no legislation or acts in process. It matters because of the values enforced. Obama is signaling a shift in what is considered to be normal. He is the authority of the land, and conservative’s top two values are authority and tradition.
A progressives top value is empathy; that is why the President’s announcement was such a happy moment. It really isn’t that everyone knows a gay couple lining up to get married, the issue is one of civil rights. It’s also a testament to a “live and let live” attitude that is part of the American identity.
As the general election heads our way, much of the progressive base was grumbling a bit about Obama. This announcement gives progressives something to point at, we all know in our gut when something goes mainstream. Gay marriage just went mainstream. It’s okay for families to be themselves. This offer of goodwill does so much to energize the base because it strongly reinforces the empathy value. If instead Obama had spoken of some thin legal line that GLBT families could walk to to get some rights, the reception would have been cold. This is an issue based on principles and they are not very complicated.
In hard times, you’ve got to feed your base, otherwise they will become disinterested or disconnected from what is happening. Trying to appeal to the “middle” is no use and while it might look ok on a political calculator the reality is that playing to the middle deactivates both sides of the debate. The middle is imaginary. Averaging positions out over a broad range of socioeconomic issues is not an effective measure of ones political stance; the linear concept of left to right is flawed. Most voters tend to be left, right, ambiguous, or ignorant on each individual issue. People don’t advocate “mostly killing” criminals on death row; they either believe in the death penalty or not. Nuances of the law may also be accepted or rejected, but each decision can be broken down into yes or no answers. All of these answers will not line up neatly on the spectrum of liberal to conservative. That is why when speaking in an empathetic manner, many of those “switches” around issues will be flipped simultaneously to an empathetic perspective. When you change someone’s mind at the very root of their thinking, the cascading effect is exponentially successful to trying to win each individual policy nuance. This is why walking the middle is counterproductive for either side of the debate.
I wrote a previous post about this here.
Even though compromise is necessary to govern, rhetoric goes a long way to building expectations and values as a people. Obama’s move will produce more good than harm because at its root are those empathetic, all American values of peace, prosperity, equality, opportunity, love, and even tradition. We all can relate to that and most of us can attest to a moral code that honors love and committment.