In 1964, it might have been obvious to those staunchly opposed to the Civil Rights Movement that the game was about to be up. Conservatives are arguably in a similar position today with respect to gay rights, and would do well this time to not end up on the wrong side of history.
The commonalities are striking. All of the same signs of progress are present. The military is preparing to integrate homosexuals fully. More progressive states are already embracing marriage equality. Lawrence v. Texas, which decriminalized sodomy, could be said to be the modern Brown v. Board of Education.
And the opposition has fallen back upon the same arguments. They are espousing support for states’ rights for the purposes of proscribing marriage, and an opposition to “judicial activism.”
The great thing about political philosophies, which no one is comfortable admitting, is that their logical consistency is startlingly easy to cultivate. This makes them virtually meaningless outside of the practical purposes of advocacy and coalition-building.. It is a fundamental feature of mankind to rationalize individual beliefs into a coherent paradigm. The issue of gay marriage is no different.
Take an example. Conservatives often suggest that the Constitution is not just a venerated document, but was in fact providential. They would (and do) say that marriage equality goes against the hallowed principles enshrined in the founding, and that a strict reading of the Constitution provides no basis for marriage protection.
Seemingly inconsistent with this argument, however, is support for ballot initiatives that have banned gay marriage, such as Proposition 8 in California. Perhaps the most profound principle of the founding and the Constitution, after all, is the commitment to republican government based on the very notion that Democracies produced tyrannies of the majority. It was explicitly warned about by James Madison in Federalist Paper 10. Ballot initiatives are nothing more than legislative deference to majority rule.
Policy is pragmatic. Political philosophies are just another weapon to be wielded in support of a position. They are merely convenient pseudo-truths.
The reality, of course, is far messier.
It would not be fair to say that Conservatives are inherently bigoted, either today or 40 years ago. That’s another similarity. But they today (and yesteryear) do (and did) practice a sort of bigotry.
It’s the “soft bigotry of low expectations” that is really driving the policy discussion. When the cleaner arguments of the abstract and philosophical fail to persuade, and democratic sentiment begins its inexorable drift away, this is what Conservatives get their hands dirty with.
Cries that gay couples can’t raise good children, or that they will degrade the institution of marriage, are the evidence of this mode of thinking. They are two things: paternalistic, and unsupportable.
Adhering to this argument will be looked back upon from the vantage point of history just as poorly as those who thought the rights of states to oppress their citizens trumped equal protection for all, or that the black race was biologically inferior.
Only rarely is the path forward so clear. Somewhere, hermetically sealed in the Conservative collective conscience, is understanding. But if they make civil rights the front line in a broader ideological conflict, they will yet again sow the seeds of their own defeat, to the embarrassment of their posterity. Yet again.