Tipping Points

happy coupleThis is an extraordinary moment in American politics. The possibility that the Supreme Court will declare some or all of the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional is already sufficient reason for that label. But that is just one piece of a larger shift, a movement in the tectonic plates of national politics.

In 1996, 27% of Americans said they favored gay marriage. By 2006, that proportion had risen to 35%. In 2010 it was 41%. The latest poll last month showed 49%. This shift applies to every possible grouping, from the most opposed (white conservative evangelical Protestants over 65) to the most in favor (liberals under 30).

Malcolm Gladwell might call this a tipping point. Yet the idea of a “tipping point” focuses our attention on one moment, and obscures the long history of any significant change. The issue of gay rights and discrimination against gays came into public attention in 1969 in New York City. Now, 44 years later, the gradual shift in the American public’s understanding of who is gay and what it means to be gay could be reflected in a momentous reform of American law.

Such a repositioning of voter attitudes is not always reflected in the views of elected politicians. When Pat Brady, the chair of the Illinois Republican Party, urged Republican legislators in the state house in January to support gay marriage, he faced calls for his resignation. Although 100 prominent Republicans have recently signed a friend-of-the-court Tipping Points directed at the Supreme Court in favor of gay marriage, Republicans currently holding office remain nearly universally opposed.

Another issue which might have reached a different kind of tipping point is interracial marriage. In 1987, only 48% of Americans believed that it was acceptable for blacks and whites to date. Tipping Points has steadily risen to 83% in 2009. Increasing approval goes hand-in-hand with increasing practice. The proportion of interracial marriages among newlyweds in the U.S. more than doubled between 1980 (6.7%) and 2010 (15%). As in other shifts in social attitudes, younger Americans lead the way: 61% between 18 and 29 said that more people of different races marrying each other was a change for the better; only 28% over 65 agreed with that.

Here the tipping point is not about legality, but about acceptance. I see interracial couples much more often on television, both in regular programming and in advertisements. I am reminded of the belated appearance of African Americans in leading roles on TV in the late 1960s. The cautious, and thus conservative, people who decide what issues might negatively affect viewers have finally decided that interracial couples are part of the new normal.

News from Washington indicates that another tipping point may have been reached about immigration, after decades of acrimonious debate. Republican and Democratic politicians negotiating about how to deal with more than 10 million undocumented immigrants in America appear to be nearing a compromise, which might offer a path to citizenship. Here the political shift closely follows the public shift in attitudes. In 1994, 63% said that immigrants were a burden because they take jobs and health care, while only 31% said they strengthened the US. A survey last month showed the reverse: 49% said immigrants strengthen us, while only 41% said they were a burden.

Unlike their stance on gay marriage, Republicans in Congress perceive clear electoral liabilities in their anti-immigrant rhetoric. President Obama won 71% of the Hispanic vote, which is 10% of the electorate and growing.

I did not pick these three issues randomly: I was looking for places where American attitudes had been moving toward a new consensus. On other politically important issues, Americans have not changed their minds. The proportions who say abortion should be legal under any circumstances (about 25-30%), legal under some circumstances (about 50%), and illegal in all circumstances (15-20%) have not changed since the 1970s.

The shifts away from conservative positions on gay and interracial marriage and immigration signal the decline in the attractiveness of major elements in traditional Republican ideology. In all three cases, young voters lead the way in opposing positions taken by Republican politicians. Barring some unlikely reversal of attitudes, such a conservative platform will turn away more and more voters in the future.

The key to this moment is the increasing disconnect between the official line of the Republican Party and the center of American politics. That divergence has been developing for decades, too. On key issues, the American public has become more liberal, while Republicans at the national level have become more conservative. The polls I cited above also measure party affiliation. Over the past two decades, respondents who identified as Republicans fell from nearly 30% to under 25% in 2012, with corresponding gains among Independents. That small displacement is enough to lose elections.

steve hochstadtSince they lost in November, Republican politicians have begun to discuss the possibility that their platform is a losing proposition. That’s the bigger tipping point. The Republican Party is threatened with irrelevancy, because its ideology is shared by fewer and fewer Americans. Between now and the next election, we may see a historic shift in the Republican platform.

Steve Hochstadt
Taking Back Our Lives

Monday, 1 April 2013

Image: Big Stock Photo


  1. JoeWeinstein says

    I protest this article’s needlessly careless misuse of the term ‘gay’ – instead of a more careful term like ‘1-gender’ – as an alleged descriptor of a marriage or other lifelong-commitment pair-partnership. This is the kind of misuse which delights anti-marriage-equality propagandists. It promotes their aim of misrepresenting 1-gender marriage as merely a device to legitimize what many folks still believe is inherently inferior or immoral: homosexual intercourse. This misuse anyhow promotes silly, confusing and sometimes dangerous misconceptions: that the mere condition of marriage automatically either does or must (or anyhow ought to) reflect the individual partners’ sexual orientations (homo or hetero) or their actual sexual conduct (whether between themselves or with others).

    Quite the contrary: neither in law nor in fact does the status of marriage require anything of the orientations of either of the partners. In any marriage – whether 2-gender or 1-gender – the partners can be two homos, one homo and one hetero, or two heteros. And moreover these orientations need not determine the partners’ actual sexual conduct – whether with themselves or involving others.

    • Steve Hochstadt says

      I’m not sure why Joe Weinstein wants to be so critical of “this article’s” use of a term that virtually everybody uses. If he wants to influence discussion in the direction of other terms, like the awkward “1-gender”, which I never saw before, he will need to make a clearer argument and recognize that “protest” is the wrong tactic.

      Steve Hochstadt

      • JoeWeinstein says


        Yes, in the case of a generally fair-minded writer like yourself you are correct: ‘protest’ is the wrong tactic. Especially when in fact I have no demurral but rather applaud just about everything else in your article other than the terminology.

        But terminology counts for something. We should not worry overmuch that ‘virtually everybody’ uses the term ‘gay marriage’ and that a more accurate term would allegedly be ‘awkward’ – i.e. slightly longer. We need accuracy and clarity – especially when the opposite is precisely what the anti-equality folks exploit.

        Some of these folks also like to use another ill-fitting term: ‘traditional marriage’ – as if that term inevitably characterizes 2-gender marriage in 21-st century USA. In most of the world – for centuries past and even now – ‘traditional marriage’ has been the result of a legal contract between two men to transfer the subordinate or chattel status of the bride from control of the one (bride’s father) to the control of the other (husband, or – if husband is not yet adult – husband’s father).

        Indiscriminate use of the term ‘gay marriage’ insinuates what need not be true: that a given 1-gender marriage exists (or should exist) only if the partners are gay. A person who is not gay but whose closest friend and peer happens to be of the same gender should be acknowledged to have the freedom to marry (i.e. be legally recognized as being in a preferred partnership with) that peer. If we truly acknowledge equality of rights irrespective of sexual orientation, then from the claim that gays have a right to be in 1-gender marriages it follows that straights too have that right.

  2. webcelt says

    “Tipping point” seems a fair analogy for gay marriage and immigration. The dismal attempts to make a rational argument by the anti-marriage side before the Supreme Court in two cases in the same week seem to have ended the debate, and now we’re just putting equality into effect, but I suggest the last election was the tipping point. It showed we moved beyond growing acceptance to being able to win. Conservatives were shocked to lose all four states. So the election both reflected change and helped bring it. Same for immigration. The tipping point was Republicans doing badly in the election and reacting out of a sense of self-preservation. Interracial marriage didn’t have such a tipping point. It was legalized in the Loving v. Virginia decision in 1967, but acceptance has slowly grown rather than jumped — though I was unaware that there was such a generational difference there too.

    How sad the Newtown massacre only energized the pro-sanity side on gun regulation, but wasn’t a tipping point after all. If even this massacre wasn’t enough to sway conservatives, and even 90% public support for background checks doesn’t sway elected officials, I don’t know what it’s going to take. Any polls showing a generational difference on guns?

    • Steve Hochstadt says

      I freely used different kinds of “tipping points” here. As webcelt says, interracial marriage was legalized long before it was broadly acceptable. At that time, opponents of legalization used the same arguments, religious and secular, that they use today against gay marriage.

      Tipping point itself is a vague term, that may obscure more than it reveals.

      Steve Hochstadt

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