The vehemence surrounding the culture wars that Rick Santorum has made central to his presidential campaign signals a kind of desperation on the right about what is seen as the moral decay of the country.
Another way to see it is that those supporting Santorum sense they are losing ground and so have rallied around the most extreme moral crusader in the campaign.
Evidence can be seen in Washington state, where Gov. Chris Gregoire signed a bill this week allowing marriage equality for gay and lesbian couples. That makes Washington the seventh state, plus the District of Columbia, legalizing gay marriage. The others are Vermont, New Hampshire, New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Iowa. In addition, a federal appeals court has found California’s referendum banning same-sex marriage to be unconstitutional, and Maryland is moving closer to a law allowing gay marriage.
No wonder there is a backlash and that opponents feel more desperate to turn back the tide. Conservatives rallying around Santorum believe that another term for President Obama would spell the doom of the United States. Others view the same events and see them as a sign of progress, of broadening tolerance and the end of bigotry.
Santorum is famous for a statement several years ago likening homosexual behavior to bestiality. He tends to frame his views in the most extreme and divisive language. Recently, he declared that Obama’s policies would foster conditions like those that produced the French Revolution and the guillotine.
There was a time in American history when the French Revolution was a big issue. Thomas Jefferson tended to view the revolution favorably, while Federalists such as John Adams viewed it with horror. Attitudes toward Britain on the one hand and France on the other divided the Founding Fathers.
But it’s been a long time since Americans were asked to worry about the guillotine. Santorum, however, is appealing to a strain of paranoia that has persuaded some people that we are veering toward dangerous, alien ideas and that Obama is a socialist or worse. What some people view as a sign of greater tolerance — Washington’s new gay marriage law, for example — others view as a nail in the coffin of America.
Obama has in his favor a new political reality: There is reason to believe the great mass of middle-of-the-road independents populating the vast suburban regions that constitute so much of our nation have little stomach for the moral denunciations and preaching that characterize Santorum’s politics. Vermont saw in the battles over civil unions and gay marriage that the issue tends to ignite fierce objections from a dedicated band of conservatives but that over time people grow more accepting and understanding. Pietistic language wears thin quickly, and eventually people grow tired of it. It is striking that advances on the gay marriage front are taking place even as the opposition has grown more vociferous and one of its champions has risen to prominence in the GOP primary.
Washington voters may overturn the new marriage equality law in a referendum, as voters in California did. But the issue is no longer as volatile as it was in the past — politicians can abandon their 10-foot poles — which, in itself, is a sign of progress.
Some advocates of gay marriage reject the idea of backlash. There are forces favoring gay marriage and forces opposed; to label the opposition as a backlash is to suggest that the uproar is the fault of people who pushed too hard and brought the backlash on themselves. Instead, they view the battle in which they are engaged as a prolonged campaign requiring years of effort against people who will fight them every step of the way, even after victories that appear to have secured true equality.
There will always be a Rick Santorum with his ardent followers. As their numbers dwindle, their rhetoric can be expected to grow more fierce, and that is what appears to be happening now.
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