What has the past half-century of our history achieved if not a moral transformation? Equal rights and respect for black people have been a moral cause. So, too, have equality for women and open acceptance of gays. Liberals have advocated each of these causes, often turning to the courts when elected leaders were slow to respond. Insofar as politicians have welcomed and supported these movements, they have chiefly been Democrats. And the Democratic Party has paid for its principles from one decade to the next, losing support in the South, among men, and among those with more traditional beliefs.
By the 1990s, though Democrats still had a rough parity with Republicans, they were no longer a majority party. The 2000 election proved the tipping point, and 2004 has finished the process, reducing the Democrats to a minority position. As the Democrats’ Senate losses confirm, the political realignment of the South is now a done deal. In the presidential vote, a substantial Republican majority among men has outweighed a smaller Democratic majority among women. And the reaction against gay marriage has triggered a huge evangelical turnout, probably tipping Ohio and thus the Electoral College.
Could any of this have been avoided? Only at the margins, though margins matter in close elections. The campaign for same-sex marriage was to 2004 what the Nader campaign was to 2000. Although they worked their effects in different way -- Ralph Nader diverted support from the Democratic nominee, while the gay-marriage issue brought out the Republican vote -- both were the product of groups on the left that have little interest in majoritarian politics.
The gay movement thought it could win from judges what the electorate overwhelmingly opposes. In a decision that was bad law and worse politics, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court set the issue in motion. Then local officials cocooned in San Francisco and other liberal areas contributed to the countermobilization that resulted in 11 states passing constitutional bans on same-sex marriage. If the gay-marriage movement were only self-defeating, its significance would have been limited. But the damage was wider.
During the fall campaign, many people said that this election was “the most important of our lives.” It was, and when the Democrats lost it, an era came to a close. George W. Bush’s 51 percent of the vote may seem too slim a margin to produce conservative hegemony, and ordinarily it wouldn’t have that effect -- except that Republicans have now consolidated control of the government. The Democrats’ prospects for regaining a congressional majority are dismal. The party has lost not just the Deep South but also such border states as Tennessee and West Virginia, not to mention the Mountain States and the Plains. And, as the Texas redistricting showed, domination is self-reinforcing.
Judicial entrenchment will be the next step. Given the likely vacancies on the Supreme Court, conservatives may well get the additional votes to undo not just affirmative action and Roe v. Wade but also a long line of precedents regarding governmental powers. Goodbye to a good deal of labor and environmental regulation.
This shift will likely take years to play out, but the implications will eventually become inescapable. Conservative domination of the Supreme Court will prevent minority groups and reformers from turning to judges for vindication of their view of the law. These groups -- and liberals generally -- will have no other way forward except the rebuilding of a political majority.
But here we come to a contradiction. Many of us have expected that the opportunity for a new Democratic majority lay in the growing Hispanic vote, which Bill Clinton and Al Gore won by nearly 2-to-1 margins. This year Hispanics turned out in much higher numbers, but, according to exit polls, the share voting for Bush rose to 44 percent after a Republican campaign in Spanish-language media emphasizing opposition to same-sex marriage. Unless Democrats draw sharp lines on such issues, they’re not going to get the kinds of numbers they need from Hispanics.
Most liberals don’t want to hear the message that these voters and others in the red states are sending. But in a democracy, you can only make so many enemies until you can no longer do any good for the people who depend on you. Liberals need to decide what is central to the great moral achievements of the past half-century -- and what isn’t. Going down to perpetual defeat isn’t a moral choice.
Paul Starr is co-editor of The American Prospect.