Monday, May 14, 2012

Why the President's Interview on Gay Marriage Shouldn't Matter

Like the President himself, I am a bit late in responding to the issue of the President's "evolution" interview on the topic of gay marriage and marriage equality. In my case, that's not because my thoughts have been "evolving," it just took me a while to find time to write them down.

From the outset, let me say that I'm perfectly happy that the President said what he said. I've been in favor of marriage equality for years, have family and friends in committed same-sex relationships, and haven't found an argument against marriage equality yet that doesn't boil down to "because my interpretation of the Bible (Koran/what have you) says so". Since we haven't yet repealed the First Amendment, I don't see how you can square being an American under our current rules with wanting to impose your particular religious views on everybody else. Obviously, some North Carolinians disagree - but then, I knew that already.

I'm also not going to take the President to task for being "late" with his announcement. If I had a nickel for every "it's about time" comment/meme/tweet/blog post I ran across last week, I would at least be able to take myself out to a nice dinner. Obama has been attacked from some parts of the Left for this being "too little, too late". Others inclined to agree with the President in a more charitable fashion simply said, "Yay! This is a big deal!" and were happy about it. I think both are, in an important way, wrong.

Ever since Teddy Roosevelt, we've become accustomed to Presidents using the office as the "Bully Pulpit" - a chance to preach to the masses. Whether this works or not is an empirical question; there's a lot of evidence to suggest that, especially on divisive issues of social policy where the parties have already taken sides, it doesn't move a lot of minds. But I think Presidents have the same free speech rights as the rest of us - if he wants to air his opinion, he's welcome to do so.

It's our reaction to those opinions that bothers me a bit. I don't mean whether we agree or disagree with them - Obama knew long before he opened his mouth who would agree and who would disagree, because the pollsters had already told him. What bothers me is the weight that we attach to these Presidential Pronouncements. The way this took over not only the media cycle (which corporations control) but the social media sphere (which we control) last week indicated that, whether you agreed or disagreed, everybody thought that the President's comments were a Really Big Deal.

And this is where we've got it backwards. If you want to live in a country where you wait for the Supreme Leader to issue an opinion, and then line up behind that, there are plenty of other places on earth. And for those on the Republican side thundering about Obama's "War on Marriage" - if you spend all that energy complaining about how government has become "too big and powerful", why are you lending his words the power of credibility? If you really thought that the government was "too much in Americans' lives," you wouldn't argue with him - you'd say (with some truth) that his opinion is largely irrelevant, and that the people themselves decide issues of this magnitude. The Right is feeding the power of the President even as they complain about it.

See, we've managed to reverse the horse and the cart in our democracy. Our "leaders" are leaders only insofar as they are supposed to understand, absorb, and reflect the will of the people. Yes, sometimes leaders can "lean forward" on particular issues - although the elected ones almost always do so only when they know which way the momentum is going. In this case, 20 years of polling data tell you all that you need to know - Americans are moving increasingly towards tolerance of same-sex relationships, including granting them the rights of marriage. What the Screaming Right is doing is fighting a rear-guard action which they have no hope of winning. Obama knows this, and so he's hardly sticking his neck out here.

Real "leadership" is in fact doing exactly this. Mitt Romney's claims to the contrary, the country doesn't need a CEO - somebody to boss us around and tell us what to do. We had a shot at that over 200 years ago when we tried to make George Washington king - which he wisely declined. What we need are leaders who can listen to us and help us have the conversations that we can't organize on our own. If gay marriage is eventually legalized across the country - as I suspect it will be - it won't be because this or any other President said so. It will be because we the American people said so, in sufficient numbers to lay real claim to being the Will of the People. If some churches or individuals don't want to recognize those marriages on moral or theological grounds, that will be their right - just as some (an increasingly dwindling number) have refused to recognize inter-racial marriages.

For all those who would criticize the President, therefore, I think we're missing the point. This isn't his call - and to his credit, he never said it was. This is our call. If a TV interview spurs the conversation among us ordinary Americans, then the President has done his job. But he - who has practically zero power to actually legalize or illegalize gay marriage - isn't the center here. We are. Maybe, even in an election year, we should pay less attention to what the President says and listen to each other a little more.

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