Two decades ago, when we were a teenager, we knew an older man named Paul. Paul was in his late 50s, a reformed alcoholic and born-again Christian, and he had very conservative views on social issues. In particular, he had a strong antipathy to homosexuality. And he taught us a lesson about the complexity of political identity.The more comments I hear from Democrats about not understanding union workers who are now voting Republican, the more I realize that they expect that everyone has political allegiances that froze years ago. That's simply not true - given the lessening of the economic differences between the parties, the social issues become the focal point and that's what attracts new voters.
From the description above, you'd think he was a member of the "religious right" and thus a reliable Republican voter. But in fact he was a diehard Democrat who detested Ronald Reagan. Why? Well, Paul worked for the U.S. Postal Service, which means he was a blue-collar worker, a federal employee and a union man.
Given his age, he presumably became a Democrat during the FDR and Truman years, when the main difference between the two parties had to do with economic class, with the Dems the party of the workingman. Most of today's "social issues" weren't even on the political radar at that time; what liberals today call "extreme right-wing" views were, for better or worse, merely a matter of longstanding tradition.
We thought of Paul during last night's debate, when John Edwards said this during an exchange on same-sex marriage:
I think the vice president and his wife love their daughter. I think they love her very much. And you can't have anything but respect for the fact that they're willing to talk about the fact that they have a gay daughter, the fact that they embrace her. It's a wonderful thing. And there are millions of parents like that who love their children, who want their children to be happy.
Why bring the Cheneys' daughter's private life into this? Here's a theory: At present, a vast majority of Americans oppose same-sex marriage; when it comes up to a statewide vote--whether in a red state or blue--voters typically reject it by majorities ranging from 60% to 80%. This means there are a lot of Democrats who, like Paul 20 years ago, belong to their party despite its views on social issues. Among these, we would surmise, are many black and other minority voters whose party identification grew out of Lyndon Johnson's civil rights triumphs in the 1960s.
Putting on my curmudgeon hat, I think that too many changes are being forced down our throats rather than allowing some of them to occur organically. Backlash is inevitable and will be ugly when it comes.