I know you are asking today, “How long will it take?”….
I come to say to you this afternoon, however difficult the moment, however frustrating the hour, it will not be long, because truth crushed to earth will rise again.
How long? Not long, because no lie can live forever.
How long? Not long, because you shall reap what you sow….
How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.“
—Dr. Martin Luther King, on the steps of the Alabama State Capitol,
March 25, 1965
Barack Obama put himself on the right side of history Wednesday. By supporting the right to same-sex marriage, he did what the best leaders do: He tugged on that arc of history to help it bend towards justice.
His statement is dismissed as a political calculation, forced by the need to raise funds from Hollywood and Silicon Valley, and the desire to rouse the young. It’s decried as too little, with the president leaving states in control where 30 have enacted bans on gay marriage. It’s criticized as too late, coming a day after North Carolina just passed a constitutional amendment with the ban, not before.
But much of this reflects the natural tension between politicians and movements. Obama is a politician, not a saint (notwithstanding my doctor’s recent effusion that he “walks on water”). Movements press for justice; good politicians calculate how to get there.
Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was scorned by abolitionists for only applying to the states in rebellion, offering freedom to slaves where Lincoln had no authority, not where he did. The proclamation didn’t outlaw slavery nor make the freed slaves citizens. It was a calculated wartime measure.
And it was an historic act of leadership. A genuine leader, Dr. King reminded us, is not a “searcher of consensus but a molder of consensus.” While views on gay rights have been moving rapidly, gay marriage is an issue that stirs passion and division. Every state that has considered a referendum banning gay marriage has passed it. The president’s statement will help mold a new consensus.
The Political Effect
What is the political impact? Commentators suggest it may rouse young voters who overwhelmingly support marriage equality. It surely will open the pockets of gay donors, no small matter.
But the act is likely to cost more than it helps. There is deep opposition to gay marriage among African Americans, and in the African-American church. Blacks will still vote overwhelmingly for the president, but this will surely reduce turnout among newly conflicted voters. Similarly, Latinos, overwhelmingly Catholic, will not rush to vote for Mitt Romney, but many more will find themselves conflicted by this act.
The zealous right, needless to say, is already mobilized to oust the president, but this will surely rouse their fury even more. Obama wasn’t going to win their votes anyway, but the biggest effect is likely to register among independent voters. These are, for the most part, not the rational, pragmatic, free thinking voters depicted by the chattering classes. They are low-information, uninvolved voters who pay little attention to politics. They tend to lean toward one party or another, and turn out when that party’s base is excited. There is no question this act will excite the Christian right’s base—and their passion will pull more of their “independents” to the polls.
Perhaps the largest long-term potential effect, however, could be on the Democratic coalition itself. In 2008, Obama began to forge a new coalition for Democrats—the “rising American electorate” composed of the young, minorities, single women and”professionals”—highly educated, affluent, socially liberal suburbanites. Blue-collar white workers—the traditional base of the party—were largely viewed as hopeless. The president needed only to capture about one-third of their vote, and labor union households might produce a significant portion of that.
The president’s bold statement on gay marriage combined with the faltering “recovery” and the president’s often incoherent economic message will surely continue to distance blue-collar white workers from the Democratic coalition.
Contrast the gay marriage statement with the presidential campaign’s $20 million ad buy that tries to sell the jobs growth we’ve got as evidence we’re on the way back. Twenty-two million people are still in need of full-time work. Median wages have continued to fall since the “recovery” began. Declining home prices are driving more families underwater. Most working people don’t believe the recovery has begun—because it hasn’t for them. And two-thirds of voters think the country is on the wrong track. The president is not only challenging the social conservatism of blue collar voters, he’s off tune on their economic concerns.
Blue collar, white male workers have voted majority Republican since Reagan. But a Democratic coalition that views them as vestigial is a jerry-built contraption unlikely to run well. It will be socially liberal, but economically incoherent. It will be timid on taxes and spending, and corporate on trade. It will be hesitant in arguing the case for working people, at a time of growing economic distress. It will follow the tradition not of Roosevelt and Truman, but of Carter and Dukakis. And as Democrats learned in 2010, single women—the most economically vulnerable voters—will be difficult to turn out and win big without a populist economic message that speaks to them.
Personally, I salute President Obama for speaking out for equality. This was an act of courage, no matter what the calculations. But this act makes it more important for the president to champion a big argument on jobs, and drive a populist message about the need to take on the entrenched interests and change direction. He needs to prosecute Wall Street’s crimes, not cover for them. He needs to be the defender of Social Security and Medicare and not the advocate of a “grand bargain.” He needs to champion a make-it-in-America manufacturing strategy, not peddle more corporate trade pacts.
He has to make it clear that he knows this economy is not working for working people—and that in contrast to Mitt Romney’s failed recycled trickle-down tripe, he will fight for a new course to rebuild the middle class and revive the American dream. Without that, he could well win the young and the liberal, the professionals, blacks and Latinos, and still lose the election.
This article originally appeared in The Huffington Post.