MARCHING LEFT. Michael Kinsley notes something that has been apparent for some time:

On no issue is history moving faster than on "gay rights"--an already antiquated term for full and equal participation and acceptance of gay men and women in American life. The work is not finished, of course, but what took black Americans more than a century, gays have accomplished in two or three decades (thanks in no small part to blacks, who designed the template for this kind of social revolution). We still argue about it, but the whole spectrum of debate has moved left. A right-wing thug like Tom DeLay or Newt Gingrich probably has more advanced views about homosexuals than dainty liberals of the past century like Adlai Stevenson or Hubert Humphrey. And whatever the actual views, public expressions of overt homophobia are now unacceptable from any national politician.

Kinsley is right that the speed with which the debate on gay rights has shifted to the left is simply incredible. Think about where we were on this issue just five years or so ago. Howard Dean, we were told by the sage pundits, would inevitably be seen as outside the mainstream, because he signed a civil unions bill in Vermont. Now support for civil unions is the position of the moderate middle. Remember what an enormous to-do it was when Ellen DeGeneres came out? Magazine covers, thousands of articles, much hand-wringing - and that was April 1997, just ten years ago.

And the Republicans? They're just racing to keep up. Find me a Republican politician today who'll say what conservatives used to say - that gays should be prevented from teaching in public schools, or that they should be fired from their jobs. (Note how the hapless Tommy Thompson had to backtrack when he took the latter position). No, today they say they're just drawing the line at marriage, but they don't want anyone to be discriminated against. As Kinsley notes, a couple of decades back they would have been seen as crazy liberals, upending the social order with their radical homosexual agenda.

Not that Democrats have exactly been models of moral righteousness on this subject - they've generally been content to keep a step or two behind public opinion, gripped as usual by fear of offending the people who dislike them the most. Listening to them proclaim their support for civil unions but their opposition to marriage equality, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that they're keeping their actual beliefs secret lest they be tarred as radicals. History won't be kind to that positioning, either.

Though gay rights is the hot-button social issue of the moment, it's important to keep in mind that on a whole range of social issues, the country is moving steadily to the left, and will continue to do so. Forty years or so ago, "conservative" beliefs held that women belonged in the home, not in the workplace - and if they had to work, they should be paid less than men; and that blacks and whites should be strongly discouraged, if not prohibited by law, from marrying, to name just two. Today those beliefs belong to a dwindling number of reactionary bigots (and a couple of Supreme Court justices).

And there is simply no doubt which direction opinions will continue to move: issues like these show a strong "cohort effect," meaning a divide between generations that results in steady change over time. The most socially conservative Americans are the oldest, those who are now in retirement. Each successive generation is more progressive than the one before it, down to today's young people, for whom a racially and sexually diverse environment is a given. I graduated from a public high school in New Jersey in the mid-1980s, and there was not a single out gay person in my class of 500. Today, there are gay-straight alliances in schools all over the country. Those kids aren't going to become more conservative when they get older - this country is simply not going back.

Just as today Republicans call themselves "the party of Lincoln" in order to obscure their (and their ideological brethren's) despicable history on race (as though there is any doubt which side the likes of George W. Bush and Newt Gingrich would have been on in the Civil War), in years to come they will try to distance themselves from the gay-baiting and bigotry in which they currently wallow. My guess is it'll happen sooner than we think.

--Paul Waldman

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