One does not attend the local gatherings of Republicans or Democrats (much less joint meetings) in hopes of witnessing or participating in actual disputation, even at the university level, where it might be reasonably expected. One is still required to observe, however, if for no other reason than to gain some measure of the parties’ temperament and what passes for their ideas. Often the pronouncements made at these gatherings are even less tolerable than those coming from the national organizations simply because the local apparatchik tends to take party ideas seriously – at least the national leaders know that these are merely props to attract the rabble, to be bargained away for an extension of power (fiscal responsibility on the Republican side and the public option on the Democratic were both forfeited to this end). Occasionally, however, a local member is able to espouse an opinion or, more seriously, cite a fact that runs counter to the reality claimed by the party.
This then is the wider story of the debate that took place on the third of March, between the ISU College Republicans and ISU Democrats on “The Definition of Marriage in Iowa.” Each side fitted the mold of their respective party (smugness on the part of the Democrats and paranoia for the Republicans), though there was one important deviation from state and national thinking on the Republican side that, perhaps, portends a shift in policy on the right.
We do seem to have made some progress concerning the acceptability of same-sex coupling, at least with the four members of the College Republicans, as the debate was not about the fitness of such couples to raise children or contribute positively to society but rather the ownership of the institution of marriage. For Republicans, it seems, marriage is a religious matter in which the state is allowed to participate. For the Democrats it is, of course, a civil matter in which religions are offered some part. All confusion and disagreement on the subject of civil unions versus marriage follows from this division.
The Democrats came out in their best high school debating form to argue that the Iowa Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriages was part of a long tradition of affording equal opportunity to minorities. In portentous tones we were reminded of nearly every legal decision related to the rights of minorities, though the Democrats took care not to mention the fact that their party has consistently opposed such rights. Let us remember that women were not given the right to vote until Republicans gained a majority in both houses of Congress in the 1918 election (this was not mere opportunism: the Republican Party embraced women’s suffrage in 1896), and that progressive Vice President Henry A. Wallace was removed from the 1944 Democratic ticket in part because he spoke out against the poll tax at the nominating convention. Lest I be accused of pettiness at recollecting purely historical Democratic misdeeds, I remind the reader that “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT) and the “Defense of Marriage Act” (DOMA) were both passed under President Clinton and that DOMA received overwhelming support by both parties. Only DADT is under consideration for repeal – and rather too slowly and clumsily at that – by the Obama Administration. The constitutionality of DOMA was upheld by his Justice Department in June 2009.
The Democratic side also voiced disagreement to a compromise offered by the College Republicans: granting same-sex couples all of the civil rights of married peoples under the rubric of civil unions. This was denounced as nothing less than a policy of separate but equal, and perhaps it is, though the Democrats offered no reasons as to why this might be so. Unfortunately, this sort of intellectual laziness has become common practice with Democrats. They fail to engage in debates with ideas and in doing so offer arguments that are only convincing to other Democrats. Witness their continual citation of legal precedents on minority rights, as though this somehow ends, rather than begins, the debate over gay marriage, or, nationally, the insipid Democratic response to Bush-era torture policies and health care reform.
The most hypocritical moment of the night, something one usually assigns to Republicans but that went to the Democrats instead, concerned the question of overturning the state Supreme Court’s decision on marriage through a constitutional amendment. We were told that this would be an immense waste of resources (true). But more significantly, we were told that the role of the judiciary is to interpret the law and, apparently, once they have done so it is end of the matter – except for those decisions the Democrats disagree with, in which case judicial decisions are slightly less than sacrosanct. The proper policy is then to call for additional legislation or constitutional amendments, as the Democrats are now seeking to do in order to overturn the Supreme Court’s recent interpretation of campaign finance law in the Citizens United v. FEC case.
As for the opposite side of the debate, it must be said that the College Republicans comported themselves with much more tact and civility than Republicans in general seem capable of late: none of the pettiness and mean-spiritedness that seem de rigueur since the Republican National Convention of 2008 were on display. They didn’t even appear to need to suppress a smirk at the mention of the Ward Churchill affair (Provost Elizabeth Hoffman received an award for her defense of Churchill at the event).
Most notable was the Republican insistence about their not being homophobic. As the Family Values plank of the Iowa Republican Platform (IRP) is manifestly homophobic, this assertion should be met with more than a little skepticism. Now, when I say that Iowa Republicans are homophobic I do not mean to impute a simple hatred of fags to them (on this point we’ll have to take for granted the seriousness of their “hate the sin, love the sinner” tripe). I mean that they are afraid of what homosexual empowerment will do, and has done, to society. How else are we to interpret the following points from the Family Values section of the IRP?:
1. Traditional, marriage-based (one male and one female) families are intrinsically procreative and thereby essential to a stable, thriving, and lasting civilization. Therefore, public policy must always be pro-family, encouraging marital and family commitment, while also supporting parental rights and responsibilities.
2. We oppose adoption by same-sex couples.
3. We oppose any law, ordinance or policy that would approve the practice of homosexuality.
It is with some interest, then, that upon asking President Jason Covey for the official stance of the ISU College Republicans on the IRP Family Values plank, he responded that they didn’t have one but that the four members of the debate were personally opposed to it. (I must beg Mr. Covey’s pardon for having asked him to clarify the stance of the College Republicans on this matter in the bathroom after the debate.) Mr. Corey Becker, another College Republican, went so far as to claim that being gay isn’t a choice. In fact, we may even count these four Republicans as fellow travelers of sorts, which is certainly how the Iowa Republicans will treat them, for they stated their full support for the granting of civil unions to same-sex couples. This would confer all of the rights of marriage, under state law, to them, with the minor proviso that we not use the term marriage to describe the unions.
This clear-eye appraisal of reality on the Republican side, even though employed somewhat awkwardly, proved both advantageous and disadvantageous. It forced the Democrats, for instance, to argue against separate but equal, something they were unable to do convincingly, but also reduced the Republican argument to one of semantics. We were made to understand that marriage is their word, a word imbued with what they imagine to be a rich religious history, and one that cannot be bestowed, because of religious connotations, on homosexual unions.
Although not stated explicitly by the participants, the Republican formula for marriage is a union of one man and one woman within a religious context. The College Republicans seem to be unaware that this construction of marriage would necessitate the recognition of certain religions sects, at the very least, to the exclusion of those that choose to sanction same-sex marriages, by prescribing what is and is not acceptable religious practice. For instance, religious sects accepting of gay couples would never be allowed to marry them, even though marriage is an exclusively religious affair for the Republicans. Contrast this with the irrational Republican fear that the government will at some point force religious institutions to marry same-sex couples (given that the government won’t even demand the cessation of a practice that mutilates the genitalia of infant boys on religious and cultural grounds, I wouldn’t be especially concerned), and you will understand that not only is the Republican conception of marriage in blatant violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment but that it also poses a much greater threat to religious freedom in America than allowing homosexuals the right to claim that they are “married.”
The Republicans also made much of the fact that the various statutes of the Iowa legal code haven’t been updated in accordance with the state Supreme Court’s decision. Because the Republicans dwelt on this fact at length, at one point going so far as to brandish the code about with significance, there is no doubt some deep legal implication, which I am ignorant of, concerning the discrepancy. But it doesn’t seem outlandish to me as a layperson to assume that existing legal codes are implicitly amended by court decisions. After all, the fact that the 18th Amendment is still part of the U.S. Constitution doesn’t mean we continue to practice national prohibition.
Despite the incoherency of the Republican argument, let us not forget that the continuance of same-sex marriage in Iowa is not a foregone conclusion, and that we have much work to do at the national level. If we are to win full equality for gays against a mollified Republican party (and they will eventually accept same-sex unions, as the College Republicans have), we must be prepared to argue our side using ideas.