CAVALA: Proposition 8 – why did it prevail?


Do you support gay “marriage”? Both early polls and the final result tells us that California’s voters do not support gay marriage.

Why is that?

Is it antipathy to gays? To lifestyles associated with gays? Simple bigotry? Well, certainly there was some of that – perhaps even a great deal of that. But Californian’s also dislike discrimination by their government. And when the Prop 8 “title and summary” was rewritten by Attorney General Jerry Brown into language perceived by many voters as discriminatory, the polls showed it being narrowly defeated.

The subsequent campaign against Prop 8 has been roundly criticized by many. I, myself, wasn’t involved in the ‘no on 8’ decisions, so don’t know the context and choices faced by those that were. Clearly it made sense for the reason described above to depict it as discriminatory rather than as adverse to “gay rights”. More people oppose discrimination than support gay rights. Equally clearly, however, the attack by the ‘yes on 8’ forces that claimed it’s defeat would result in teaching gay things to California’s school children raised doubts by swinging the context back to “gay rights”. The ‘no’ side was slow to respond, and did so without focus or volume.

But those are the “trees”. The “forest” is the lack of consensus among voters on the institution of marriage. Organizations like the Roman Catholic Church don’t recognize “marriage” outside of Church rites. A Catholic marriage is performed by a priest in a Church. Church dogma precludes priests marrying gay couples. Mormon theology contemplates a complex afterlife reuniting ‘family’ members that makes marriage a central part of their orthodoxy. For these and other religious institutions, gay marriage – even as performed as a civil rite – involves government intrusion on central tenants.

Among the non-devout married in a civil ceremony, other issues remain. Married people are given different tax status by the government. One could argue that’s because couples make society more stable and the government has an interest in a stable society. But the truth is more simple: the tax treatment of married people (joint return) is but one of many subsidies for the children we assume they will produce. Gay couples can, of course, adopt children. But the inequity of childless couples (gay or straight) getting a tax break meant for children isn’t lost on voters when the issue of marriage becomes a matter of public decision.

With half the marriages in California ending in divorce, we should remember that voters learn about the legal aspects of marriage when they or someone close to them undergoes this procedure. Issues of custody are typically resolved in favor of the mother in the household. How would those precedents apply to gay couples with children?

All this is to say that our views of marriage differ, and that these differing views make the politics of gay marriage complex. I doubt, for example, that if all the laws on straight marriage were suddenly erased there would be a consensus to replace them as they are.

I write this because I see many progressives arguing that the key to overcoming the Prop 8 forces is by substituting Obama-like “grass roots” activity for “top down” paid advertisements on television. That’s a silly debate: both are techniques for providing voters with information. Rarely are they mutually exclusive in effect. Which is emphasized depends on a variety of things (resources, among others). But campaign techniques do NOT win elections.

Credible information that helps shape the context of choice and which responds to questions that voters – not supporters or opponents – think are relevant is the requirement for victory.

Bill Cavala was Deputy Director of the Assembly Speaker’s Office of Member Services where he worked for over 30 years. He attended undergraduate and graduate school in the 1960’s and received a doctorate in political science at UC Berkeley. He taught political science at UC Berkeley during the 1970’s while he worked part-time for the State Assembly.

Cavala left teaching at UC Berkeley for Assembly Speaker Willie Brown in 1981 until his tenure as Speaker ended in 1995, and he has worked for his five successors as Speaker. He now manages election campaigns for Democratic candidates.


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