The Supreme Court's recent decision to make gay marriage legal nationwide was a significant victory for liberals. In next year's election, however, the decision will hurt Democrats. Success, after all, presents it own set of challenges.
As sociologists Mayer Zald and Roberta Ash pointed out in their classic 1966 study of social movement organizations, the two biggest challenges of a social movement are complete success and complete failure (Social Forces 44 (March)).
The ideal situation for maintaining a social movement, they wrote, would be to "over time always [seem] to be getting closer to its goal without quite attaining it."
Now that the social movement to enact gay marriage has achieved complete success, it will no longer be a mobilizing force in elections. This is bad news for Democrats.
While Democratic candidates will, no doubt, remind voters of Republican opposition to gay marriage, the important points are that 1) other issues will be a priority to voters, 2) donors who mainly want to make gay marriage legal will no longer give money, and 3) volunteers mostly concerned about gay marriage will be less likely to give their time. The energy of the gay marriage movement has been sapped and will no longer be useful for Democrats.
Also, the nation has not moved in as much of a liberal direction as some pundits might have you believe. While the Court's gay marriage ruling, and President Obama's electoral victories appear to suggest a leftward swing, the reality is quite different.
Currently, the nation is ruled by Democrats with regard to the White House and most large cities and ruled by Republicans with regard to Congress, most state legislatures and most state governorships. Each party can count on the support of about four and a half members of the Supreme Court, with degrees of variation depending on the issue.
In other words, political power is divided between the two political parties. Republicanism is not dead, as liberal Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen suggested after the Supreme Court gay marriage decision.
Results from a Washington Post poll published Wednesday show that most Americans already believe the country has moved too far left. When asked if they were "comfortable or uncomfortable with the country['s] overall direction on social issues these days," 63 percent answered "uncomfortable." The same percentage of self-identified moderates agreed.
The gay rights movement will continue to work on other issues, of course. Non-discrimination ordinances will likely be the focus of most of its efforts. Much of the debate over these ordinances will center on the wording, or existence of, the religious exemption. Will religious organizations that believe homosexuality is a sin be forced to hire non-celibate gays, for instance?
While the movement for gay marriage was a coalition of liberals and libertarians, the gay rights movement's agenda after gay marriage will likely be smaller, especially if it overreaches by seeking to infringe the religious freedom of gay marriage dissenters.
As Scott Schackford wrote for the libertarian website Reason.com, there are a few issues where the gay rights movement can still count on libertarian support, but on many other they will "part ways."
The gay rights movement can advance a moderate agenda with broad support, or it can seek a narrow agenda that mobilizes its most loyal supporters to oppose Republicans, but it cannot do both.
Either approach to religious freedom by the gay rights movement will make it less of a force in the next election. If it promotes its agenda while supporting religious freedom, it will not present a clear partisan divide, which means it will be less of an issue in the election. If it promotes its agenda while not supporting religious freedom, it will alienate moderate voters.
The future is not pre-determined, of course. Gay rights is only one factor among many that will determine the outcome of the next election. The important point is that the Supreme Court's gay marriage decision will hurt more than help Democrats from this point forward.
What ultimately happens in the next election will depend on the choices made by people. As The Christian Post previously pointed out, if Republicans do not fix their own electoral problems, they could lose big for many elections to come. Similarly, Democrats can make adjustments to help them win the next election.
Additionally, Republicans have demonstrated a capacity to lose winnable elections by making dumb remarks that turn off voters. Democrats can hope this will happen again. But, while "hope" can be a campaign slogan, it is not a campaign strategy.