Why gay marriage won't hurt Obama

Independent voters are more concerned about the economy.

The big news is that President Barack Obama is coming out in favor of gay marriage. The bigger news is that few people, not even the Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, preoccupied as he is by more pressing material concerns, seem to care much.

It all started on Sunday when Vice President Joe Biden told NBC's Meet the Press that he was comfortable with "men marrying men [and] women marrying women" and that gay couples "are entitled to the same exact rights, all the civil rights, all the civil liberties."

Then shortly afterward Arne Duncan, the Secretary of Education, was asked on a news show on MSNBC whether he supports same-sex marriage. He said yes and that he'd never been publicly asked that before.

It was awkward. Their boss's official position had been "evolving." Obama had previously supported civil unions, pushed for repeal of the Pentagon's Don't Ask Don't Tell policy, and ordered the Justice Department to stop defending the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act. But because this is an election year, Obama had been cagey about where he stands on gay marriage.

Until now. After three days of intense questioning by the White House press corps, Obama chose to announce his views not during a press briefing but during an interview with an ABC News reporter. Part of the interview was released last night but most of it will be aired on today's Good Morning America.

"In the end the values that I care most deeply about and she cares most deeply about is how we treat other people and, you know, I, you know, we are both practicing Christians and obviously this position may be considered to put us at odds with the views of others but, you know, when we think about our faith, the thing at root that we think about is, not only Christ sacrificing himself on our behalf, but it’s also the Golden Rule, you know, treat others the way you would want to be treated," the president said.

Now the pundits are turning their attention to the politics of Obama's coming out. Will it hurt him with coveted independent voters? With African-Americans, who tend to oppose legalizing same-sex marriage?

The honest answer is no one knows. But the educated guess is probably not. Polls show independent voters are more concerned about the economy and other material concerns. Black voters, too, tend to vote with their pocketbooks, not on social issues. Indeed, social issues are less important this year than they were in 2004 when "Gays, Guns and God" superseded even the Iraq War. According to a survey by the Pew Research Center, just 28 percent said they cared about gay marriage. Respondents were concerned instead with the economy (86 percent), jobs (84 percent), deficits (74 percent), and health care (74 percent).

Even Mitt Romney doesn't care. Well, he does, but not much. In an interview in Colorado, a reporter asked Romney about gay marriage, in-state college tuition for the children of illegal immigrants and medical marijuana. He told the reporter that he opposes all of these, but then, when she challenged him, he pushed back:

"Aren't there issues of significance that you'd like to talk about: the economy, the growth of jobs, the need to put people back to work ... there are enormous challenges that we face," Romney said.

In 1996, when the US economy was the best it had been, the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) sailed through Congress and was signed by Bill Clinton, a Democrat. It defined marriage as between a man and a woman. It therefore does not recognize the validity of gay marriage in the six states and District of Columbia that legalized it. Though some states are banning it (most recently North Carolina), resistance has waned. A new Gallup poll shows that half of Americans (52 percent) believe same-sex marriage should be legal. More importantly, for Obama's re-election chances: 57 percent of independents support legalization. Only 22 percent of Republicans do.

Some of those Republicans really, really want gay marriage to be a wedge issue, probably because Republicans do so poorly when bread-and-butter issues, like jobs and health care, are at stake. Brian Brown, of the National Organization for Marriage, said: "President Obama has now made the definition of marriage a defining issue in the presidential contest."

Maybe. Well, probably not. Actually, no.

Even Shepard Smith, a Fox News anchor, suggested the GOP would lose this one. He asked a reporter:

"I am curious whether you believe in this time of rising debt and medical issues and all the rest, if Republicans would go out on a limb and try to make this a campaign issue while sitting very firmly without much question on the wrong side of history."

New York City Clerks Offices opened its first Sunday for Gay Marriages, Photograph: Getty Images.

John Stoehr teaches writing at Yale. His essays and journalism have appeared in The American Prospect, Reuters Opinion, the Guardian, and Dissent, among other publications. He is a political blogger for The Washington Spectator and a frequent contributor to Al Jazeera English.

 

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Trade unions must change or face permanent decline

Union membership will fall below one in five employees by 2030 unless current trends are reversed. 

The future should be full of potential for trade unions. Four in five people in Great Britain think that trade unions are “essential” to protect workers’ interests. Public concerns about low pay have soared to record levels over recent years. And, after almost disappearing from view, there is now a resurgent debate about the quality and dignity of work in today’s Britain.

Yet, as things stand, none of these currents are likely to reverse long-term decline. Membership has fallen by almost half since the late 1970s and at the same time the number of people in work has risen by a quarter. Unions are heavily skewed towards the public sector, older workers and middle-to-high earners. Overall, membership is now just under 25 per cent of all employees, however in the private sector it falls to 14 per cent nationally and 10 per cent in London. Less than 1 in 10 of the lowest paid are members. Across large swathes of our economy unions are near invisible.

The reasons are complex and deep-rooted — sweeping industrial change, anti-union legislation, shifts in social attitudes and the rise of precarious work to name a few — but the upshot is plain to see. Looking at the past 15 years, membership has fallen from 30 per cent in 2000 to 25 per cent in 2015. As the TUC have said, we are now into a 2nd generation of “never members”, millions of young people are entering the jobs market without even a passing thought about joining a union. Above all, demographics are taking their toll: baby boomers are retiring; millennials aren’t signing up.

This is a structural problem for the union movement because if fewer young workers join then it’s a rock-solid bet that fewer of their peers will sign-up in later life — setting in train a further wave of decline in membership figures in the decades ahead. As older workers, who came of age in the 1970s when trade unions were at their most dominant, retire and are replaced with fewer newcomers, union membership will fall. The question is: by how much?

The chart below sets out our analysis of trends in membership over the 20 years for which detailed membership data is available (the thick lines) and a fifteen year projection period (the dotted lines). The filled-in dots show where membership is today and the white-filled dots show our projection for 2030. Those born in the 1950s were the last cohort to see similar membership rates to their predecessors.

 

Our projections (the white-filled dots) are based on the assumption that changes in membership in the coming years simply track the path that previous cohorts took at the same age. For example, the cohort born in the late 1980s saw a 50 per cent increase in union membership as they moved from their early to late twenties. We have assumed that the same percentage increase in membership will occur over the coming decade among those born in the late 1990s.

This may turn out to be a highly optimistic assumption. Further fragmentation in the nature of work or prolonged austerity, for example, could curtail the familiar big rise in membership rates as people pass through their twenties. Against this, it could be argued that a greater proportion of young people spending longer in education might simply be delaying the age at which union membership rises, resulting in sharper growth among those in their late twenties in the future. However, to date this simply hasn’t happened. Membership rates for those in their late twenties have fallen steadily: they stand at 19 per cent among today’s 26–30 year olds compared to 23 per cent a decade ago, and 29 per cent two decades ago.

All told our overall projection is that just under 20 per cent of employees will be in a union by 2030. Think of this as a rough indication of where the union movement will be in 15 years’ time if history repeats itself. To be clear, this doesn’t signify union membership suddenly going over a cliff; it just points to steady, continual decline. If accurate, it would mean that by 2030 the share of trade unionists would have fallen by a third since the turn of the century.

Let’s hope that this outlook brings home the urgency of acting to address this generational challenge. It should spark far-reaching debate about what the next chapter of pro-worker organisation should look like. Some of this thinking is starting to happen inside our own union movement. But it needs to come from outside of the union world too: there is likely to be a need for a more diverse set of institutions experimenting with new ways of supporting those in exposed parts of the workforce. There’s no shortage of examples from the US — a country whose union movement faces an even more acute challenge than ours — of how to innovate on behalf of workers.

It’s not written in the stars that these gloomy projections will come to pass. They are there to be acted on. But if the voices of union conservatism prevail — and the offer to millennials is more of the same — no-one should be at all surprised about where this ends up.

This post originally appeared on Gavin Kelly's blog