Last week, the future of our nation was decided not upon the merits of its foreign policy, or its tax policy, or its trade policy, or any other subject worthy of so rational a word. Our future was determined by the triumph of Unreason, the negation of the Enlightenment that inspired the country's founding. We are no longer a social contract or consensus of principles, but merely a tribe huddled around a totem, terrified of the darkness that lies beyond the campfire's embers.
That was the conclusion drawn by horrified liberal intellectuals in the days following the election, as the initial spin credited Karl Rove with using the prospect of gay marriage to draw millions of evangelical Christians to the polls. And it's true to some extent; according to national exit polls published in The New York Times this Sunday, George W. Bush increased his share of the white Protestant vote from 63 to 67 percent, as well as marginally improving on his share of voters who attend church at least once a week.
Evangelicals have no problem congratulating themselves for granting Bush another four years. Take Grace, the woman who called the NPR show Talk of the Nation last week to discuss gay marriage. "I'm a first-time voter for the first time in thirty years," she said. "In Louisiana, we had the amendment for -- toward marriage that we had in September, and I registered to vote specifically for that issue. ... Most Christians in this nation trust that God chooses the kings, and that means the president." (To think that the nation might be in the hands of such people, of whom H.L. Mencken once wrote, "Divine inspiration is as common as the hookworm.")
But what seems to have truly doomed John Kerry is even less encouraging. Not only did George Bush get out his core voters, a substantial portion of John Kerry's base -- urban voters -- actually defected to the other side. Again according to exit polls, the Democratic candidate's share of the vote in cities with more than 500,000 residents dropped from 71 percent in 2000 to 60 percent this year. In midsize cities such as Oakland, Fremont, or Concord, the Democrat's share dropped from 57 percent to 49 percent. This is bad news for the left, not only because it defies easy analysis (Did big, red-leaning cities like Houston get bigger? Has outsourcing so killed the labor movement? Was John Kerry's "elite" persona really that lethal?), but because it erodes the only consolation liberals have left -- the satisfaction of being furious at people such as Grace.
But this data may prove doubly painful to the roughly four thousand married gay couples in the Bay Area, who have had to shoulder much of the blame for last week's demoralizing loss. Armed with hindsight's clarity, Democrats have begun indulging their favorite pastime of recrimination, bludgeoning San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom for luring Leviticus-lovin' Christian fanatics out of their caves. Newsom's gay-marriage gambit may have been self-interested calculation, but for thousands of gay men and women, getting married in February was both a political act and an unexpectedly intimate, transformative event -- perhaps the most emotional moment in their adult lives. Nine months later, they have none of the legal rights they demanded. Indeed, civil unions were abolished in eight states by voters who probably wouldn't have bothered if gay and lesbian couples hadn't first taken those vows on the steps of San Francisco City Hall. Straight liberals are looking in their direction, wondering if these adventures in matrimony doomed the nation to war and recession. All these couples have to sustain them is that one moment when they declared their love, and the rest of the Bay Area replied that their love was real.
Is that enough? Or do they think privately that, given the national spasm of bigotry that ensued, the most significant event in their lives was a mistake?
If anything underscores the unique pain that gay married couples must feel this week, it's that almost all the ones contacted for this story denied the obvious fact that old-fashioned homophobia strongly motivated so many Bush voters. They point to Osama bin Laden's video or the Swift Boat veterans, or claim that Karl Rove would have found some other wedge issue with which to motivate reactionaries. "Would I give it up to have Kerry in the White House?" asks Jane Fletcher, a married lesbian who lives in Northern California. "Yes. But that wouldn't have done it. ... I don't think it's a question of being married or having Kerry in the White House. I still don't think that would have made a difference."
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