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Friday, January 03, 2014

Prohibition and gay marriage

Those familiar with Strauss and Howe--led by myself--have been busily comparing the last twenty years or so to the period 1920-40 or so.  In each case, social issues gave way to economic crisis--although with very different political and economic results, so far at least.  What struck me this week, reading about the Utah federal judge who overturned the state's ban on gay marriage, is that gay marriage is playing the same role in this crisis that Prohibition played in the last one, and with the same result.

When Prohibition was ratified in 1919, it commanded very broad support.  Only two states, Connecticut and Rhode Island, failed to ratify the 18th amendment.  Progressives viewed it as an engine of social improvement, while conservatives thought it would hold down the restive lower orders.  Similarly, gay marriage in the 1990s entered American politics as something to be against, and very few politicians stood up for it.  The Congress passed the Defense of Marriage Act, refusing
any federal recognition of gay marriage, by votes of 85–14 in the Senate and  342–67 in the House.  Although Bill Clinton typically both opposed gay marriage and the bill, he signed it.  But the issue heated up in 2004, when the Massachusetts Supreme Court argued that the Constitution required recognition of gay marriage.  Facing a tough re-election battle, George W. Bush, with Karl Rove's encouragement, decided to make this a national issue once again. Bush endorsed a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, which went nowhere.  More importantly, ballot measures to prohibit it went on the ballots of a number of key states that November, including Ohio.  They were uniformly successful and undoubtedly helped pull morally conservative voters to the polls.

It took 13 years for the United States to decide that Prohibition had been a catastrophic mistake, giving rise to organized crime as we know it, and to elect Franklin Roosevelt and repeal the 18th amendment.  A lame-duck Congress passed the twenty-first amendment, repealing it, in December 1932, The twenty-first amendment, repealing prohibition, and 36 special state conventions ratified it by the end of 1933.  Yet there was a catch. The repeal amendment carved out an exception to the commerce clause and gave every state total power over the production and sale of alcoholic beverages within its territory. That is why Pennsylvania state troopers can still confiscate cars they stop carrying out of state liquor into the Keystone state, and why I cannot mail-order wine here in Massachusetts.  Several states remained dry for decades.  The question is whether the resolution of the gay marriage issue will be similar.

Several dozen states now recognize gay marriage, and the Supreme Court, in a narrow vote, struck down the Defense of Marriage Act.  The trend is running overwhelmingly in favor of it because of a huge generational divide on the issue.  The vast majority of young people support it; the older people who feel threatened by it are dying off every day.  And federal judges can claim, as the one in Utah did, that failure to recognize gay marriages conflicts with the equal protection clause of the fourteenth amendment.  Other judges in other districts have however decided the issue differently, and it is headed for the Supreme Court.

I will be surprised if the Supreme Court follows the Utah decision's lead.  This seems like a good opportunity for Anthony Kennedy to line up with his conservative brethren.  But based on the experience of Roe v. Wade, and I will not be especially disappointed if the Supreme Court leaves the issue in the hands of the states.  Our regional divide is already a terrible national problem.  It will take longer for Texas, Mississippi, Oklahoma and various other states to come around on this issue, but I am confident that they will.  It will be healthier if their own people and their own legislatures make that decision.  What is important is that opposition to gay marriage, which was taken for granted only 17 years ago and helped win a presidential election ten years ago, has now become a liability and is clearly in retreat.  Like prohibition, homophobia is destined for the dustbin of history.


Unknown said...

Your critique of the similar paths these two issues have taken is very interesting. I hadn't realized you, and as you mentioned, others, have been comparing the progression of prohibition to gay marriage. Thank you for yet another thought provoking blog. While I look forward to each, this article is also personally appealing.

P.S., Have you seen the new "robot" defying checkers? For ardent readers who have problems seeing the odd fonts used, another method might be better and still safe. Some sites use a method where one is requested to provide a sum of two numbers, with one quantity written as typed text and one in numerals. In past, I've been stumped by the squiggle font type you are currently using and given up after multiple tries to input the construed letters that most readers apparently find easy to decipher. Perhaps before my eyesight problems, it would have been simple, but now it limits my chance for communication. Thanks for considering.

Bozon said...

thanks for this valiant effort.
An analogy I have trouble seeing, sorry to say.

In any event, issue politics, like these, gun rights, etc. really have been the opiate of the American masses have they not.

all the best,

Unknown said...

I think more logical comparison in this case would be that between prohibition, which created a massive crime wave, and the huge problems with illegal substances like marijuana, cocain, heroin, etc. and the legalization of marijuana taking place in Colorado, for example. The war against drugs has cost the lives of tens of thousands in Latin America and the USA and jailed millions of Americans on petty drugs charges, giving the USA the highest imprisonment rate on earth by far. I read an article which discussed this issue, stating that ignoring drugs use and sale and oing after violent criminals saves the police and society massive costs and puts the right people behind bars. Legalizing of drugs is one more step to pacifying the inner cities and Latin America.

Gay marriage is a progressive social issue like women's rights to work and get a divorce, a no-brainer. But pro- or con-gay marriage stand does not cause social upheaval problems as does the drug and crime issue since the 60s and alcohol in the 1920s(prohibition movement long ongoing since 19th century).

I personally think alcohol is more ok than marijuana as you can get it out of your blood stream quickly and then it won't affect driving ability but misuse of any drug/alcohol at any rate is problematic.

A single divorced women in 1890 with a single kid was in a world of hurt and a pregnant single female in 1950s was amoral. After the 1970s it was ok for a woman to control who own body and do what she wanted. Nowadays being gay is an extension of this mindset, sex is just a bodily function, a private social decision. Relgious morality and small town social pressures have disappeared.

Ezra Silk said...

Hi David,

I hope you are well! It was nice to see you (albeit briefly) at Tess Hyams' wedding.

I have been following your excellent blog, and I was pleasantly surprised to see that you are publishing a book about FDR's management of the World War II mobilization.

The reason I am particularly interested has to do with a project I have been working on since September. I have partnered with a young Harvard graduate who is just now completing her Ph.D in clinical psychology. Her name is Margaret Klein. Our goal is to create a smartphone app that enables individuals to pledge (Grover Norquist-style) person-to-person to support a WWII-style, government-led mobilization effort to stabilize the climate and transition the United States into a clean energy economy. There is a hidden consensus among environmental groups that such an effort is necessary to prevent a catastrophic collapse of the global ecological system by mid-century, if not earlier.

So, we are both very interested in your forthcoming book! Margaret is especially captivated by the history of the WWII mobilization.

I read the first 70 pages (and skimmed the rest) of Strauss and Howe's Generations over the past few days, and I was interested to see that they predict a Great Secular Crisis of 2020, possibly driven by environmental decline or the depletion of nonrenewable resources. I've attached a few links from the Guardian and OECD projecting that there will be a severe energy crunch, followed by a major stagflation, by 2020, if not earlier, due to the global depletion of cheap, easily recoverable oil (also known as peak oil), caused by rising demand, population growth and globalization.

I have a lot of other thoughts about Generations, but I will spare you until I actually finish the book. If you are interested to learn more about our proposal, send me your email, and I can send you a pdf in which we lay out our basic movement strategy. We hope to launch it by early spring.

Ezra (my email is ezra.silk@gmail.com)



Jennifer said...

Being an opponent of gay marriage does not make one fearful of homosexuals or the homosexual movement as the term "homophobic" implies. The continued use of this misleading and inaccurate term, especially by well-educated and well-spoken people baffles me.

David Kaiser said...

Dear Jennifer,

Webster's defines homophobia as "irrational fear of, aversion to, or discrimination against homosexuality or homosexuals."

Not allowing homosexuals to marry one another is, in my opinion, discrimination against them. Segregationists also used to argue that their views did not mean they were hostile to Negroes (as we said in those days.)

starfishlady said...

Why stop at "gay" marriage. Repeal the marriage license and make it obsolete.