Last week former Democratic presidential candidate, George McGovern, passed away at age 90. If he was at all cognizant during the Democratic National Convention this year he would have seen a convention somewhat reminiscent of his own in 1972. For the first time the Democratic Party officially endorsed marriage equality. Forty years earlier, McGovern had similarly pushed for a platform, albeit vaguely, supporting gay rights. The 1972 Democratic National Convention featured pro-gay speakers although they were often filmed after most television stations had gone off the air at night.
Nonetheless for its time it was a remarkable stand to take in a remarkable platform that included ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment and nearly included a pro-choice plank (the loss of that plank was largely attributable to infighting occurring between Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan that isn’t necessary to cover here).
Of course today we don’t speak of a former President McGovern but of the unfortunate victor, Richard Nixon. Southern Democrats, already making bedfellows with the modern Republican Party, launched an “Anyone but McGovern” campaign with the blessing of another future president, Jimmy Carter. The rest of the various “machines” in the Democratic Party – Daley’s Chicago, Connolly’s Texas and George Meaney’s AFL-CIO – refused to endorse McGovern and many of them openly endorsed Nixon instead.
McGovern’s vision was undermined not only by his own party but by the swelling influence of his radicalized conservative contemporaries like Phyllis Schlafly whose name is inextricably linked to the failure of any number of liberal planks in the 1970s and 1980s. Now 88, Schlafly made a career out of trying to ensure other women couldn’t have one. Her opinions on federally-funded daycare (or on the very notion of daycare in general), were undercut by her own employment of nannies to take care of her six children while she busied herself at the helm of Eagle Forum.
The ensuing four decades were a futile attempt to lure a myth that went by names like “blue collar Democrat” or “Reagan Democrat” into the arms of the Democratic Party. The majority of those four decades would be occupied by Republican presidencies. The House of Representatives would be turned over to social conservatives in 1994. A Democratic administration would oversee the passage of the Defense of Marriage Act and the executive order that became known colloquially as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” barring openly gay service members in the armed forces. The AIDS epidemic became one of the darkest chapters in the history of homophobia in the 1980s. The 2000s brought an onslaught of anti-gay marriage amendments throughout the United States after the legalization of gay marriage in Massachusetts in 2004.
It was after the ratification of a similar amendment, North Carolina’s own national embarrassment, “Amendment One,” that President Barack Obama’s gay marriage position finally finished “evolving” and he unhesitatingly endorsed full marriage equality. Gay marriage finally ceased to be too radical or too liberal for a party that had spent forty years attempting to triangulate between the Republican Party’s increasingly homophobic platform, the New England and California liberal wing of the Democratic Party and an electorate who seemed evenly divided on the issue of marriage equality.
Of course, the 2012 Democratic Party platform is still the best platform money can buy. Acceptance of gay marriage now falls within the moral sphere of the party’s wealthiest donors. A question of why a “marriage” of any sort is necessary to have certain legal benefits is never raised. Other countries for which the question of gay marriage or partnership has been settled for up to 23 years now lack a similar prejudice against unmarried partners in matters of insurance, hospital visitation and inheritance. The victory of the repeal of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” is still tainted by the fact that openly gay service members have no new rights or benefits other than the fact they can’t be fired and that transgender service members are still subject to discrimination. A similar civilian protection that would have been afforded by the Employment Non-Discrimination Act has never been passed.
It’s absurd to call this pointless incrementalism “two steps forward and one step back.” It is a weather vane approach in which political strategists and lobbyists use fickle polling data on issues to make decisions. Had there been any sort of genuine backlash to the president’s post-Amendment One revelation you can be assured a sudden respect for “state’s rights” would have emerged from the DNC’s damage control team. The referendum process still uses a majority rules approach to basic civil rights. In Maine and North Carolina, rights that once existed were retroactively illegalized void ab initio. The political reality is that an issue that should be as simple as gay rights or gay marriage is incorporated into a political calculus that diminishes its importance. Voters, even in the LGBT community, who might otherwise be impassioned about gay rights, are forced to consider the “bigger picture” of the economy and national security and that the very issue that affects them on such a personal level is relegated to the political backburner.
The much-touted upcoming generation’s apathy regarding homosexuality is another wash promulgated by the rosy appeal to probability that at some undetermined future point gay rights will just simply happen in a world that gets more liberal with each succeeding generation. This of course fails to take into account the massive rural makeup of the United States where the majority of this new generation is raised and educated in a repressive ethos. Apathy, by its very nature, can never translate into political outspokenness for LGBT rights much less into political activity. To not care what another does in his bedroom is not the same as caring about his or her rights. The “I don’t care what they do as long as they don’t do it in front of me” will never motivate a voter to push the button against an anti-gay referendum.
Another great figure who passed this year, Neil Armstrong, once remarked in an unrelated context, “I fully expected that, by the end of the century, we would have achieved substantially more than we actually did.” I can easily imagine George McGovern having a similar sentiment toward the end of his life.