Thursday, May 11

A Tale of Three Deans

I never liked Howard Dean. Call me crazy, but long before his infamous scream, I felt that his liberalism was smoke and mirrors. To me, he has always been exactly what conservatives accuse the Democrats of being: a waffler whose positions shift with the wind and who can always be counted on to tell liberals what they want to hear, while pandering to more conservative elements. Howard Dean embodies everything that is wrong with the Democratic Party. His recent remarks on the Christian Broadcasting Network in support of traditional marriage demonstrate his belief that GLBT Americans have nowhere else to turn but to the Democrats, so it’s safe to throw them under the bus every now and then. Like so many Democrats (including John Kerry), Howard Dean takes the GLBT vote for granted.

Way back in 2004 when the opponents of same-sex marriage in Massachusetts were beginning to amass their minions and an amendment was proposed within the state legislature to replace marriage for same-sex couples with civil unions, civil unions were quickly denounced by the equal marriage forces as inherently “separate but equal.” While I agreed with them, I found it more than a little ironic that back in 2000, many of those same GLBT leaders had sung the praises of Vermont and its governor Howard Dean for signing into law the pioneering legislation creating civil unions for same-sex couples. Many GLBT leaders were too busy celebrating to realize that by creating civil unions instead of same-sex marriage, Vermont was reinforcing the notion that gay and lesbian couples are second class.

At the risk of sounding smug, I was not one of those people. At the time, I had just begun working at the Boston University School of Theology (a United Methodist seminary) whose courageous dean had taken on the Methodist leadership for their stalwart position against the solemnization of same-sex unions and the ordination of openly gay men and lesbians. I remember a frank conversation with the School’s trustees who were called upon to back the dean’s controversial stance in support of GLBT rights, and during the conversation the subject of Vermont’s recently enacted civil union law came up. Many of the trustees (mostly all of whom were former Methodist pastors or bishops) were still uncomfortable with the idea of same-sex marriage, but they supported civil unions as a good “middle of the road” position. I diplomatically pointed out to them that to me, civil unions, while well-intentioned, bore the taint of separate but equal. The dean agreed.

The point here is not that I’m smarter than everyone else. I don’t believe that to be the case. Rather, it is to say simply that I’ve been suspicious of Howard Dean ever since he signed Vermont’s civil union bill into law. When given the choice by the Vermont Supreme Court of legalizing same-sex marriage or creating civil unions, the Vermont legislature chose what they perceived to be the less controversial of the two—civil unions—and Dean supported this decision. Many praised him for taking the path of least resistance in order to ensure that gay and lesbian couples be afforded some legal recognition and protection. At the time, many claimed Vermont as a victory for GLBT rights. Progress, they argued, needs to happen incrementally. The traditional wisdom tells us that making too much progress too quickly is sure to produce a backlash.

What Howard Dean, the Vermont legislature, and GLBT advocates everywhere who initially praised civil unions seem to forget is that most Americans who oppose same-sex marriage also oppose civil unions. And it’s not as if everyone in Vermont was happy with the law that created civil unions, just because it reserved marriage as a special right for heterosexual couples. In the following election year, seventeen Vermont lawmakers who supported civil unions lost their seats, and the newly-elected Republican majority in the House attempted to impeach the Vermont Supreme Court and overturn the civil unions law. Ultimately their efforts failed, and perhaps the backlash would have been fiercer had the Vermont legislature and Howard Dean opted for same-sex marriage when given the choice by the Court. However, it remains to be seen whether or not the backlash against same-sex marriage in Massachusetts will be any more successful than the backlash against civil unions in Vermont.

The point is that incrementalism doesn’t work. It too produces a backlash. In the end, how much did John Kerry’s statements in support of traditional marriage help him in 2004? Not an iota, I would argue. But I know they made me never want to support another Democrat. Call me stubborn, but I’m not willing to support a party that’s willing to sacrifice my rights in order to appeal to conservative voters. I’m not Mary Cheney.

Howard Dean and the Democrats are often in the unenviable position of being too liberal for conservative Americans and too conservative for liberals like me. Does Dean really think that he’s going to successfully woo evangelicals and other conservative voters into the Democratic Party by reminding them that he defines marriage as the relationship between one man and one woman? This seems to me to be the classic mistake made by the Democrats in recent years. They try so hard to lure conservative voters, that nobody knows what the Democrats even stand for anymore. Plus, they risk alienating progressive voters who want their party to stand for genuine equality, and not some watered down version that the party thinks is going to fool conservatives into abandoning the Republicans.

It’s not like I believe that Howard Dean secretly loathes GLBT people. I just think that he’s fallen prey to a failed political strategy. His statements in support of traditional values mean nothing to conservative voters. They do nothing to strengthen the Democrat’s support base. If anything, such statements serve to weaken the party by making genuinely progressive voters like me more willing to abandon the Democrats for a third party alternative. Even those liberal voters would never think of “throwing away their vote” by casting it for a third party candidate end up supporting the Democrats only reluctantly because they feel like they have no other choice. The Democrats want GLBT Americans to believe that we have no choice but to vote for them. “We know we have your vote in the bag,” they say to themselves, “so we’re going to devote our energy to courting the Right.”

Howard Dean’s remarks prove once again that the Democrats continue to take us for granted. I long for the day when liberal voters wake up and realize that the best way to effect change is to withdraw their support from pseudo-progressive Democrats like Howard Dean and John Kerry. Once the Democrats have been abandoned in favor of a genuinely progressive alternative (or alternatives), perhaps then they’ll go back to courting us for a change.

3 Comments:

Anonymous L said...

Let’s pretend that there’s a voter out there that feels strongly about 3 issues (i) civil rights, (ii) exit strategies for Iraq, and (iii) tax reform as a means of stimulating economic growth. Let’s then pretend that this voter has three candidates to choose from:

(i) The Right Winger. This candidate (i) opposes gay marriage and civil unions, (ii) believes that we need to remain entrenched in Iraq, and (iii) supports across the board tax cuts.

(ii) The Moderate. This candidate (i) opposes gay marriage, but supports civil unions (ii) believes that the US should work with the international community to achieve a negotiated pull out of US troops from Iraq over time, and (iii) supports tax cuts for certain businesses, and elimination of the Alternative Minimum Tax.

(iii) The Left Winger. This candidate (i) supports gay marriage, (ii) demands the immediate and unilateral withdrawal of all US troops from Iraq, and (iii) across the board tax increases.

Let’s assume:

(i) The voter completely disagrees with the Right Winger’s positions on marriage/civil unions, Iraq, and taxes.

(ii) The voter completely agrees with the Moderate’s positions on Iraq and taxes. The voter disagrees with the Moderate’s position on marriage/civil unions.

(iii) The voter completely disagrees with the Left Winger’s positions on Iraq and taxes. The voter completely agrees with the Left Winger’s position on gay marriage/civil unions.

Who should the voter endorse? Which issue, at this moment in time, is or should be most important to the country? When is political compromise appropriate, if at all? Should it matter that the Right Winger and Moderate are locked in a political dead heat and that even minimal support for the Left Winger will ensure election of the Right Winger?

5:36 PM  
Blogger Ryan said...

very well said and I totally agree with you on howard dean!

2:56 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The problem is there arent any third party candidates out there. And yes I agree with you that the democrats don't really stand up for gays, but we have to choose the lesser of the two evils. You either throw your vote away on a candidate who cant win or you don't vote and the religious right wins again. Its a lose lose sitiuation.

1:53 AM  

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