Liberal attorney David Boies and conservative attorney Ted Olson have joined forces to file a lawsuit opposing California’s ban on gay marriage. This unlikely tag team — featuring a pair of strange bedfellows indeed — is intended to illustrate a point: that the marriage issue does not conform to the familiar poles of liberalism and conservativism. Boies claims as much today in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, contending what we have here is an issue of love, not politics.
I humbly disagree. This issue is precisely about politics. Notwithstanding the occasional side-switcher like Olson, gay marriage is not some special case that transcends the political divide. Indeed, it rather neatly encapsulates the different ways in which liberals and conservatives tend to look at the world. On one side we have civil libertarians who don’t give a whit what people do in their romantic lives as long as it’s consensual. On the other side we have traditionalists who long for order (preferably a particular strain of Biblical order) in our social arrangements. It’s the live-and-let-livers against the live-as-I-sayers. And one would be hard-pressed to find an issue that better exposes a fundamental cleavage in our political debate: the question of whether people’s personal lives should be private or whether they should be regulated according to the moral preferences of the majority. Resolving the issues that spring from this division is not a supra-political matter, but a major part of what modern politics is about.
Of course, claiming that politicians and citizens mustn’t “play politics” with political issues is nothing new. It’s a tried and true tactic in political communications. Al Gore says climate change is a moral issue, not a political one. Jim Wallis says the same about poverty. Right-to-lifers say it about abortion. And so on and so forth, ad infinitum. Their point is taken, I suppose: bickering shouldn’t get in the way of solving problems. But when it comes to politics, bickering is part of problem-solving. That’s the way our system works. And to suggest that our own pet issues somehow stand above the political fray is to render the very category of politics almost meaningless.
So it is with gay marriage. We cannot afford the luxury of thinking that merely claiming to be above politics will make it so. Rather, we must engage the political debate head-on, recognizing that the future of America depends in large measure on the kind of politics we ultimately embrace.
Jesse Lava also blogs at jesselava.com.