Gay rights as a classic case of subconstituency politics

1996_regIn this blog entry, Ben Bishin, author of Tyranny of the Minority shows how gay rights issues result from the interplay of intense groups.

The last few months have seen an increased interest in the civil rights of members of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgendered community. Most recently, this question has centered around President Obama’s unfulfilled promise to eliminate the “don’t ask don’t tell” policy that allows only closeted members of this community to serve in the armed forces. Other similar questions of civil rights are seen in the discussion of states granting rights to marriage and civil unions.

One reason that civil rights for gays is of such interest is because political conditions seem ripe for change. Polls demonstrate that the public is increasingly supportive of granting the gay community equal rights as, for instance, a June CBS poll shows that only about a third of citizens think that gays deserve “no legal recognition” of their partnership status. Similarly, a May USA Today/Gallup poll shows that over 69% think that gays should be allowed to serve openly in the military. Moreover, the last three years have seen a dramatic shift from a federal government unified in Republican hands to one of unified Democratic control.

Despite these major shifts, progress has been slow at best. The federal prohibition of same sex marriage (DOMA) remains the law of the land. Most of the states where gay marriage has been allowed, it has been initiated by the rulings of state courts which have implicitly granted these rights by striking down laws that ban gay unions. President Obama’s very limited order providing spousal benefits to same sex employees of the federal government represents perhaps the only tangible progress on this score. When taken in combination, the absence of change despite strong popular support and Democratic control of the federal government have left many wondering: what will it take for members of this community to gain equal rights?

Some, like UC Irvine professor Charles Anthony Smith, suggest that the gay community is captured by the Democrats and thus they don’t have to provide policy because the community has no alternative as Republicans are worse on the issue than are Democrats (i.e., Smith 2007). The case of gay rights strikes me, however, as a classic case of subconstituency politics—where political outcomes are dominated not by the public’s will (i.e., majority opinion) as classic democratic theory suggests, but rather result from the interplay of intense groups. Politicians acquiesce to, and work for, the preferences of subconstituencies because they provide them disproportionate resources (e.g., votes, contributions, manpower, endorsements). By offering bundles of positions across issues, politicians develop platforms of positions designed to appeal to members of these intense groups.

Historically, the LGBT movement has been disadvantaged by subconstituency politics; while they are passionate about their cause, and very active, they are opposed by an equally intense group, (i.e., fundamentalist Christians) that exists in larger numbers across a wider range of political jurisdictions (e.g. counties, congressional districts, states, etc.). While the size of the LGBT community varies dramatically across these jurisdictions, the fundamentalist community is always larger. In the congressional district representing San Francisco (CA 9), which has the largest adult gay population of any district in the country, for instance, the community of people identifying as fundamentalist Christians is about 2 points larger—a fact that provides their staunchest opponents a tremendous advantage because they are not opposed in those jurisdictions where the LGBT community is small or not vocal. In short, in most places, Republican politicians tend to be opposed to such policy while the Democrats are split, depending on the nature of their districts.

Understanding how these groups are distributed is central to describing political outcomes on this issue because, in places where one group is not represented, politicians have no incentive to reflect the views of the LGBT population. Both Democrats and Republicans will advocate the preferences of the intense group—in this case fundamentalist Christians. In contrast, in places where both fundamentalist and LGBT groups are active, politicians of different parties have the incentive to take opposing positions on the issue. Democrats tend to support gay rights in these districts while Republicans tend to oppose them. Consequently the distribution of groups across states and districts helps to explain why and where we are most likely to see advances in, and higher levels of support for, gay rights.

It also suggests however, that in order for gay rights to be recognized, confederate groups who strongly support gay rights may be needed to pressure politicians in areas where gay populations are small or inactive (or simply not vocal). Fortunately, other groups, especially the young and the well educated, see this civil rights issue as an important question of basic fairness. To the extent that politicians can bring these groups together, when these factions are combined, they provide a more potent alliance of groups. The challenge to those who advocate equal rights is figuring out how to bring these groups together toward their common goal.

Ben Bishin is the author of Tyranny of the Minority: The Subconstituency Politics Theory of Representation. http://www.temple.edu/tempress/titles/1996_reg.html

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