As the campaign over Amendment 1 enters its final month, a controversy has erupted surrounding one of the leading national organizations to oppose marriage equality: the National Organization for Marriage (NOM).
NOM has been at the center of a legal fight in the state of Maine concerning campaign finance laws. Two weeks ago, following a court order, a number of NOM documents and strategy memos were leaked. Those memos show that the organization charted a strategy both to persuade minority voters to oppose marriage equality and to use the marriage issue to sow racial and ethnic division within the Democratic Party—in other words, to accomplish broader right-wing goals.
One memo outlined a "strategic goal ... to drive a wedge between gays and blacks—two key Democratic constituencies." This is to be accomplished by identifying as spokespeople blacks who oppose the idea that same-sex marriage is a civil right, and then "provoke the gay marriage base into responding by denouncing these spokesmen and women as bigots."
Another NOM memo argued for appealing to Latinos as part of a global campaign to "reverse the tide on cultural and legal respect for core family values like marriage." That memo argued "our ultimate goal is to make opposition to gay marriage an identity marker, a badge of youth rebellion to conformist assimilation to the bad side of 'Anglo' culture." As the political commentator Michelle Goldberg wryly noted, "That's a bit rich given the right's usual attitude toward Latino immigrants who refuse to assimilate."
As political scientists like to say, politics ain't beanbag. In a sense, there's nothing surprising here. NOM fervently opposes marriage equality. It knows it is swimming against an increasingly strong tide—to use its own metaphor—of acceptance of gay rights in general and marriage equality in particular. But the memos also reveal desperation about the degree to which the larger goal of peeling minority voters off from the Democratic Party is fading from conservatism's grasp.
African-Americans have voted overwhelmingly Democratic for decades. And their support has peaked in the age of Obama—a staggering 95 percent of black votes were cast for Obama in 2008.
This longer-term trend is hardly surprising. Over the past generation, American conservatism has battled against affirmative action and attempted to make that a wedge issue; has worked to slash the social safety net, which the just-passed House budget takes to historic extremes; and has used issues like crime and welfare to push coded messages about African-Americans for electoral purposes.
GOP presidential contenders during this election cycle have certainly not helped the cause of appealing to black voters. Among a series of racially inflammatory comments, Rick Santorum's "gaffe" in Iowa in January stands out. While answering a question about government handouts, Santorum said, "I don't want to make black people's lives better by giving them somebody else's money." Santorum had not been asked about blacks specifically and he was in Iowa, after all, a state in which blacks comprise less than 4 percent of the population. Famously, Santorum later tried to backtrack by saying he hadn't said "black" but rather had said "blah," or something to that effect.
Furthermore, even on the issue of gay marriage itself, there has been a sea change in African-American attitudes. According to a recent Wall Street Journal/ NBC poll, 50 percent of African-Americans now say they support marriage equality. That's a dramatic jump from just three years ago, when roughly a third expressed such support. On the issue of gay marriage itself, and on the larger goal of turning black voters against the Democratic Party, NOM's aims appear delusional.
NOM's hopes for Latino voters seem no less so. Polls show that solid majorities of Latinos support marriage equality or equivalent recognition of same-sex couples. Beyond that, the American right has declared open war on issues that are important to Latinos in the U.S. For example, about nine in 10 Latino voters support the DREAM Act, the federal legislation that would provide a path to citizenship for undocumented youths who go to college or serve in the military.
That act failed in the Senate in 2010, on a mostly party line vote, with all but three Republicans voting against it and all but five Democrats voting for it (disgracefully, Sen. Kay Hagan was among the Democratic "no" votes). Additionally, the all-but-certain GOP presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, has vowed to veto the bill were it to pass Congress if he is elected. Romney has taken a particularly unsympathetic stance against undocumented immigrants, vowing to make life bad enough for them here that they will "self-deport."
Meanwhile the Obama administration has been responsible for a record number of deportations, overwhelmingly involving people of Hispanic origin. More generally, Democrats over the past 25 years have often been far from stalwart defenders of a robust social safety net—Exhibit A being the welfare "reform" debate under President Bill Clinton in the 1990s.
It's true that the Democrats and President Obama are far from perfect vessels for representing concerns of vital importance to communities at the center of the NOM controversy. To note just two examples, President Obama remains opposed publicly to same-sex marriage, though he says his position on the issue is "evolving."
Those Democratic deficiencies notwithstanding, using gay marriage to try to exploit potential grievances African-Americans and Latinos might have with the Democratic Party is unlikely to be successful. Central to that effort has been an appeal to a so-called silent majority that has grown increasingly angry and resentful about the forces of social change buffeting American society and the perceived breakdown of previous moral standards associated with that change. Linking minority groups to the social pathologies that are said to be destroying the traditional pillars upon which the "real America" was founded— whether gays and marital breakdown, African-Americans and welfare or Latino immigrants and a purported crime wave associated with them—has long been central to right-wing political appeals.
The NOM memos' goal of pitting those demonized groups against one another is consistent with the right's larger approach to politics. And it's worth considering that context when pondering the motives of some of those public officials—as opposed to ordinary private citizens—who have most aggressively pushed for passage of Amendment 1 in North Carolina.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Divide and conquer."