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Henningsen: Gay Marriage And Democracy

01/21/10 7:55AM By Vic Henningsen
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(HOST) Watching the defeat of gay marriage legislation in Maine, New York, and New Jersey in recent months, commentator Vic Henningsen notes that the struggle over gay marriage reflects differing understandings of how a democracy makes decisions.

(HENNINGSEN)  The Founders believed that democracy's greatest danger was the tyranny of the majority: 51% of the people denying rights to the other 49.  They sought government by representatives resistant to the ebb and flow of public opinion - unbiased legislators ruling in the public interest.

Over time, however, representative democracy faltered, as many legislatures fell into the hands of special interests.  By the 1890's, California's assembly was controlled by the Southern Pacific Railroad.  In Pennsylvania, Standard Oil did everything possible to the legislature except refine it.   To get around unresponsive or corrupt state legislatures and give government back to the people, progressive reformers helped establish direct democracy - letting citizens make, and at times unmake, laws themselves, through devices such as petitions, referendums, and ballot initiatives.

We've seen both forms of democracy in state struggles over gay marriage.  Practicing representative democracy, our legislature ruled in what its members believed was society's long term best interest, despite offending many Vermonters' cherished values. After protracted debate, the New York and New Jersey legislatures ruled the other way, for the same reasons.  This process has the virtue of careful deliberation and the defect that decisions on fundamental issues can be ensnared in the log-rolling and concerns for re-election that often dominate legislative politics.

Direct democracy, like the ballot initiative that overturned Maine's gay marriage law, reflects immediate public opinion on a particular issue, free from interference by an unresponsive or overly partisan legislature.  But in the last twenty years voter initiatives have become big business. Wealthy sponsors pay to gather signatures necessary to place an initiative on the ballot and spend millions on advertising to shape the outcome.

The passionately committed and the easily swayed appear in large numbers to vote on that issue only. The fact that single-issue interest groups can determine laws at the polls suggests that voter initiatives are becoming the tools of special interests they were intended to control.

Regardless of which form of democracy a state uses, recent decisions have gone against gay couples.  But they've been close. In California 52% of voters amended their constitution to prohibit gay marriage; in Maine 53% repealed a gay marriage law.  In the New York senate, gay marriage legislation failed by 8 votes; in New Jersey by only six.  

That's important.  In the long run, the debate won't be resolved by the way the choice is made, but by those who make it.  People over 60 are the largest group opposing gay marriage, while a clear majority of people under 30 support it.  Older folks vote; those under 30 often don't. But as they age, those younger people will vote and will gradually form a majority.  

Gay activist Harvey Milk once said that crusades for equal rights always triumph because newer generations are more inclusive than older ones. All we need to do, he said, "is turn the pages of history a little faster."  

And it may be that's what's going to happen.
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