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When America Changes its Political Mind

July 4, 2015

by J. Andrew Zalucky


With the recent ruling by the Supreme Court concerning state recognition of same-sex marriage, a lot has been made about the speed at which America changes its mind.

Take this Bloomberg article for instance, where Alex Tribou and Keith Collins detail how opinions on various issues change.

Social change in the U.S. appears to follow a pattern: A few pioneer states get out front before the others, and then a key event—often a court decision or a grassroots campaign reaching maturity—triggers a rush of state activity that ultimately leads to a change in federal law.

In a strange way, it’s kind of a vindication of our federalist system: even when things are left to the states, that spirit of American experimentation eventually pulls the rest of the country with it. But of course, not all of these instances were positive, prohibition being the most obvious example. It’s also interesting to see how often the Northeastern states tend to lead in this social change, perhaps echoing the location of the American Revolution itself. I know this all sounds a bit romantic, but it is Independence Day!

But let’s turn for a moment to electoral politics and how things shift there.

Since the 2008 election, I’ve loved using the site 270towin, which shows historical Presidential election results and allows the user to create possible outcomes for the upcoming election. And it’s amazing to look back at how the colors on the map shifted over time.

Take 1956 for instance, when Ike (R) ran for re-election against Adlai Stevenson (D):


Pretty solid win for General Eisenhower. Though civil rights was not a central issue in this election, it’s worth bearing in mind where the Democratic party still had its base of support, in the south. It was only two years since the Brown vs. Board of Ed decision, which held segregated public schools to be unconstitutional. At this point, issues related to the Cold War (e.g. Hungary, Suez, Nuclear proliferation) and the booming American economy where more present in voters’ minds. But it does show the durability of the allegiances of old Dixie in that Missouri, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina all went Democrat.

Just as a side note, this was also the time when the Confederate battle flag started popping up around state capitols and the Mississippi state flag, as a political symbol against desegregation imposed by the rest of the country. Those flags hadn’t stayed up since the Civil War as some beacon of antebellum nostalgia, but rather it was in direct opposition ending state-sponsored racial apartheid. Nice “heritage” huh? Too bad that flag of yours couldn’t stop the Union artillery from crushing Pickett’s Charge. So though I’d never dream of banning the flag (or anything else), it’s presence on government property just seems self-evidently absurd.

Now look at 1964, when Lyndon Johnson (D) went up against Barry Goldwater (R):


What the hell happened?!

Lyndon Johnson enjoyed a lot of goodwill in the wake of the Kennedy assassination in 1963, with a great deal of Americans swept up in the myth of “Camelot” and the idea that Kennedy’s legacy (whatever that is) had to be carried forward. Johnson also ran on a civil rights-heavy agenda and was able to position himself as a moderate in contrast to Barry Goldwater’s strident form of conservatism. Though Goldwater supported civil rights in principle (he voted in favor of both the 1956 and 1960 bills), he was skeptical of the federal government superseding the role of the states. In this way, the 1964 civil rights act could be seen as an exception to the rule of Gay Marriage, Abortion, Prohibition and Women’s suffrage- in that the federal government jumped ahead of the states and the courts.

But the election flipped the support enjoyed by the Democrats in the south to the Republicans, though Goldwater did win his home state of Arizona. Though it’s not as if things changed irreversibly then, look at 1968:


The yellow portion represents those states won by George Wallace, running as an independent who explicitly supported segregationist policies. Richard Nixon (R) would win the election, taking advantage of a Democratic party in chaos and a country ripped apart by urban riots, the Vietnam war, racial tensions and a variety of other issues. In 1948, president Truman had faced a similar insurrection in the south when Strom Thurmond won a few southern states, but the New Deal Coalition was still strong enough to withstand such a challenge. By 1968, that coalition was turning on itself. For anyone concerned about racial tensions, urban violence and war in 2015, I’d advise you to look at the year 1968 and consider yourself lucky.

A lot of these colorful changes in American politics played out as a long-term legacy of how the various states where founded, along with the Civil War and the shaky results of Reconstruction. How things will play out electorally in terms of same-sex marriage remains to be seen, but George Will has some calming words for those conservatives losing their minds over the latest ruling:

Conservative wariness is wise. So too, however, is recognition that Chief Justice Warren was not wrong when, in a 1958 case concerning the Eighth Amendment’s proscriptions of “cruel and unusual punishments,” he said: “The amendment must draw its meaning from the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society.”

Such evolution is real and relevant. No one today thinks that branding and ear cropping, which were punishments practiced when the Eighth Amendment was ratified, are today compatible with this amendment.

He goes on to note how marriage has already changed in the eyes of Americans, regardless of what the courts decided on behalf of their neighbors:

During April’s oral arguments, Chief Justice John Roberts said that people seeking same-sex marriage are “not seeking to join the institution” but are “seeking to change what the institution is.” But this institution has been changed by American attitudes and behavior. Marriage in America will be, over time, what Americans say it is, and last week’s decision came with almost three in four Americans already living in states where same-sex marriage is legal.

Although there is no interesting debate about this (or anything else) among Democrats, among Republicans there is a lively debate about whether the judiciary’s primary duty is to facilitate majorities’ powers or to protect individuals’ rights. Which makes this a perilous moment for Republican candidates, who might compete to propose constitutional amendments that dramatize their dismay about the same-sex marriage decision.

This is a good example of Will’s standard position political position: “Can we all just relax for a moment?” I think we could all use a bit of that, and look to see how the parties position themselves in terms of the court’s decision, along with other pressing issues. I’d be interested to see how individual Republicans try and dance around the issue, and how individual Democrats try to compete over who supported Gay rights first.

Personally I’m pulling for a Rand Paul vs. Jim Webb race, which I’ll write about another time to address why members of each party should support those two in particular. Though at the moment that prospect sounds impossible, a guy can dream right?

Happy Independence Day!


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