Remember a few months after the end of the primaries when all of a sudden the media discovered the “swing voters” and the “undecideds”. That was not an accident. Karl Rove had told a reporter in Florida that the electorate had been frozen in a 48 - 48 red-blue divide for so long that the only votes left to get were the undecided and the swing voters…and he was going to get them.
The media and the Democrats fell for it. While endless rolls of newsprint analyzed the swing voters, and the Democrats spent thousands of hours of phone banks and canvassing to reach undecided voters in swing states, Karl Rove was quietly collecting church directories. He knew that the real mother lode of votes was in the 4 million evangelicals that didn’t vote in 2000. These were the religious people who considered politics ungodly, and stayed away from the voting booth. He knew that if he could motivate them, Bush could win. But how could he convince them to vote?
He didn’t motivate them with morals, despite what the media is telling today. He motivated them with fear. Not with fear of war, or job loss or even terrorism. He motivated them by surfacing a primal fear, one that is always present in their subconscious - fear of loss of sexual identity, and with it, their entire worldview.
Rove understood three key truths about evangelicals – actually about fundamentalists of any religion according to a study by the Unitarians:
- All fundamentalist religions share a hierarchy based on a strict-father model—a model in which men are the dominant gender and women exist only to please and serve men and to make more sons
- Fundamentalists are insecure—actually, terrified - that a secular, democratic country with equal rights fro men and women is undermining the strict-father model upon which their faith and their sexuality is based
- Fundamentalists’ faiths serve to protect insecure men from the medical and psychological fact that sexuality is not cut-and-dried male or female, but is a spectrum and all of us fall at different places on that spectrum at different times in our lives; that is, sexuality, including their sexuality, is ambiguous.
Rove knew that evangelicals will flock to the Republican ballot if the subconscious fear of t sexual ambiguity can be surfaced. He surfaced those fears with two issues: gay marriage and abortion rights. Those two issues (and stem-cell research by linking it to abortion rights), generate a primal fear in men who are drawn to fundamentalist religions – in this case, evangelical Christians.
Why? Both issues drive a stake into the heart of every man insecure about his sexuality – which is by definition, most men and all men drawn to a fundamentalist faiths. And both issues drive a stake into the heart of the male-dominant, strict-father model of the family and the sate. If two men or two women can function as a family, the dominate father is not only unnecessary, but suspect. If a lesbian can be a father figure, the fundamentalist strict father is no long necessary or valid. If a gay man can be a mother figure, the male dominated family model is no longer necessary or valid. And if some men are mother figures and some women are father figures, every man must question his own absolute sexuality…he might be gay, or at least a bit effeminate.
But of course Rove couldn’t say this. He had to find mechanism to surface the fear in a framework that did not threaten to reveal the subconscious sexual insecurity of fundamentalist men,. His framework also had to the fit the good vs. bad single-issue models the press loves, and it had to make liberals the bad guys so he could appeal beyond the evangelical voters. Gay marriage fit the bill perfectly.
By making up the myth that gay marriage threatened the institution of marriage – absurd on its face – he created the perfect wedge issue. It:
- Surfaced the primal sexual fears of evangelical men and most men in general
- It appealed to a wider constituency who were married and supported marriage
- It could be supported Biblically by stretching two Old Testament passages to make them seem to condemn gays, but didn’t have to be
- It used a fear already present – he did not have to sell a new fear; he did what ad campaigns do – surface an existing need, in this case, protection of masculinity
The Supreme Court of Massachusetts, in its finding for gay marriage, handed him a double whammy – he could recruit the troops by surfacing their primal fear of sexual ambiguity and simultaneously appeal to a second familiar Republican frame, “activists judges” (despite the fact that the MA decision was a strict reading of the state Constitution). Mayor Gavin the SF gay marriages gave him the video to make the threat real, and attract the media.
All of this ignored the data that the lowest number of divorces occur in liberal northeastern states, with Massachusetts being at the bottom, and that the highest rates of divorce, teenage pregnancy and venereal disease occur in the Bible Belt.
The second issue he used was Abortion rights. Reproductive rights for women have been an issue for the same reason as gay rights. Women can escape the strict-father male dominated hierarchy by controlling their reproduction. For 3000 years men have tried to prevent women from controlling their bodies because access to sex is the most powerful leverage a woman has to maintain equality with men. He wants it; she can put conditions on his getting it. But if she is pregnant or a mother, she has to depend on a man for support, particularly if the pregnancies just keep coming. Abortion and birth control – the next target of the Religious Right – give women independence, undermining men’s superiority and the strict father model.
Gay people should understand that opposition to gay marriage has nothing to do with gays getting married. It is a tool used by Conservatives to drive evangelicals to the polls by appealing to the fear resident in their reptilian brains. Even evangelicals who have gay friends or who are related to gays fell for it . If gays gain equality in marriage and other institutions conferring social status, the entire foundation of fundamentalism is called into question and the primal fear of ambiguous sexuality is unleashed.
Was Rove successful? Not completely, but enough. Exit polls showed that the number of self-described “religious” people who voted for him increased by 3%, while the number of self-described not-religious people who voted for him went up 2%. In absolute numbers the increased were 1.2 million more religious than in 2000, and 900,000 more non-religious votes than in 2000. Not the full 4 million he was after, but enough to win the popular vote.
As the media has trumpeted, Rove was also able to make “moral issues” – meaning abortion, gay marriage and stem cell research, which are sexual, not moral – the top vote driver, but in reality not by very much. The media has made much of the 22% of people who said they voted because of moral questions – which means that 78% voted for other reasons. The 22% of the voters is just over half of the number of the American electorate that are evangelicals, so even with them he was not 100% successful. And since the American Religious Information Survey (ARIS, based at CUNY) found that the number of people who identified themselves as religious has fallen by 9% and the number of Christians has fallen by 3% since 1991, playing the religious card will have a diminishing effect on American politics. Message to the Democrats: the sky is not falling and you will not be smited by lighting bolts from above if you don’t rush to your local church and genuflect to Dobson and Fallwell..
But what about all those ballot measures. There the primal fear worked well. Enough religious and non-religious men felt their sexuality was threatened by the specter of gay people marrying that they struck back by voting for measures that promised to end sexual ambiguity, or at least the threat of it being public.
So what next for gays? Don’t fight back with anger and outrage. Use Rove’s weapons against him and his Religious Right allies. Reframe gay marriage in way that:
- Allows men to ignore threats to their sexuality
- Is a macho libertarian fight to defend freedom
- Protects of the sanctity of marriage
Agree with the evangelicals that marriage is a sacred institution and should be protected as such. Introduce a “Sanctity of Marriage Act” which stipulates that marriage is a sacred institution, and as such may not be performed or regulated by government at any level, but performed solely by church officials, and that only the civil legal aspects of a mutual partnership may be handled by governments in the form of civil unions. All persons wishing to form a civil union for any purpose must do so following the laws of the state. Those persons wishing to sanctify the union, can only do through the authority of an official or representative of any religion.
This framework tells evangelicals that Progressives will protect the sacred state of marriage and keep government from regulating an institution that belongs properly only to God. It protects the legal responsibilities and benefits of civil to gays, as well as to co-habiting couples and others. It also allows them to find priests or rabies or other church “officials” to marry them (including officials of pagan churches for atheists who want the ceremony), leaving evangelicals the option of personally refusing to recognize such marriages as they personally refuse to recognize the validity of non-evangelical churches in general. It also prevents the government from telling us whom we may not marry – a strong libertarian position. It does not completely eliminate the threat to maleness, but it allows men who feel threatened, to ignore married gays by not recognizing the marriages – with no practical effect on the couples themselves. And it will be hard for Conservatives to vote against a law that sanctifies marriage.