PETER HART-BRINSON is a visiting assistant professor of sociology at Grinnell, 2010-2012. Peter wrote this editorial for the Des Moines Register, where it was published on Nov. 3, 2010. This editorial is a good example of "public sociology," in which we bring sociological research and perspectives into current public debates and, by translating those findings for broader consumption, help better inform those debates."Iowans who voted to remove three state Supreme Court justices cast their votes because of their opposition to gay marriage. But the outcome is likely to have few effects on gay marriage and far greater effects on the checks and balances vital to our democracy. Many years from now, the majority of Iowans who oppose gay marriage will be in the minority, and they may wish they were protected from 'the will of the people.'
Our Founding Fathers worried about the ability of the majority in a democracy to violate the rights of a small, unpopular minority. So they built a system of checks and balances into our government. The judicial branch, in particular, was established to defend against what James Madison called 'the tyranny of the majority.' Reasonable people disagree about whether marriage is a 'right,' but this vote will likely do more harm than good.
Unpopular court decisions have been pivotal moments in the advancement of democracy. Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 US Supreme Court ruling that outlawed segregation in public schools, was against the 'will of the people' in southern states. Imagine the consequences if justices had been intimidated by the majority into failing to protect African-Americans from discrimination.
Ironically, the majority may be harming itself with this vote in regard to other issues, and it will have little effect on gay marriage. Gay marriage is slowly, but inexorably gaining support. Opinion polls about gay marriage have long shown that young people are more likely to support gay marriage. And every year, the overall level of support for gay marriage increases. The rate of change is slow - perhaps 1 percent to 2 percent per year - but it shows no signs of stopping.
This is an example of what social scientists call cohort replacement: When older Americans die, they are replaced in the population by those who are born. If younger people have different attitudes than their older counterparts, change occurs. In this case, younger Americans are more likely to support gay marriage than older Americans, so the overall level of support increases.
My research on how Midwesterners talk about gay marriage shows why this change is happening and why it shows no signs of stopping. In essence, young people are more likely to think of homosexuality as an inherent part of a person's identity, like ethnicity, while older people are more likely to think of it as a deviant behavior, like gambling.
It is not just that young people think you are born gay and older people think you choose to be gay; it is that young Americans take homosexuality for granted. They have always grown up with gays and lesbians in the media, in their high schools, and in their culture. For them, homosexuality is normal. So young people have trouble understanding why gays and lesbians shouldn't be allowed to marry the person they love.
Moreover, there is no evidence that people's attitudes toward gays and lesbians get more conservative as they get older. So unless there is a major change in youth culture, cohort replacement will soon make opposition to gay marriage a relic of the past.
One day, our society may look back on this controversy like we look back at Brown v. Board. What were we thinking? And because the majority today will be the minority tomorrow, they may soon wish they had not been so quick to weaken their own rights."
Congratulations to Peter on the birth of his new baby girl, Emma Ruth, who was born on Sunday, October 16 at 1:12 p.m., weighing 7 pounds, 14 oz.