Learning From Canadian Conservatives
In 2005, the debate about same sex marriage (SSM) was at a fever pitch. Prime Minister Paul Martin got the okay from the courts and decided to create a wedge issue around the definition of marriage. He was suddenly and heavily in favour of SSM, leaving the opposition to the Conservative Party and the traditionalists like myself who were against changing the definition. It was quite a debate, as marriage activists from coast-to-coast were galvanized into action and progressives from coast-to-coast buzzed with a frenzy. When the dust settled, the traditionalists lost. On February 1st of that year, Bill C-38 was introduced. Gay marriage had become legal in Canada.
Since that time, many people have reevaluated their stance on the issue. The screaming rhetoric from both sides has calmed to a whisper and even the most hardcore opponents of SSM have had to admit that the issue was overdone. Frankly, nobody cares about the issue anymore and there are three main reasons for this.
1. SSM hasn’t been a threat to traditional marriage.
The concern back in 2005 amongst conservatives was that SSM would dilute or degrade the meaning of traditional marriage and shift cultural values away from Christian principles like monogamy and family. By expanding the idea of marriage, we wouldn’t become more inclusive as a society, we’d become more cavalier. Marriage wouldn’t mean as much if it’s exclusive status was challenged. This was the fear of many social conservatives.
The cultural degradation of traditional marriage already happened years earlier, because of bad traditional marriages and the no-fault divorces that went with them. Cultural liberalism began normalizing the breakdown of traditional (some might say falsely idyllic 1950’s) society in the 1960’s. When SSM was introduced, mainstream people were culturally ready to accept it, since the absolutes of marriage had already been tested. These heterosexual tests in the past were far more challenging to the traditional definition of marriage and yet the institution lived to tell the tale. Creating an addendum to include gay couples under the marriage umbrella wasn’t truly a threat, because SSM wasn’t similar enough or important enough to the paradigm of traditional marriage in mainstream culture.
Conclusion: Conservatives worried that changing the legal definition of marriage to include non-traditional relationships would spoil the institution altogether. The reason this hasn’t happened is because non-traditional relationships are too negligible and disassociated to have any real impact on the traditional definition of marriage.
2. Law is arbitrary, not reasonable.
One of my biggest hang-ups about redefining marriage was the notion that an age-old institution could be semantically redefined in order to accommodate a minority group of people. I likened it to redefining the colour blue, as green, in order to placate the desires of people who simply want it that way. I bought into the slippery slope argument. This argument was most strongly applied in regards to polygamy. I reasonably surmised that if society redefined marriage in order to accommodate one group of minorities, it could be redefined again to accommodate another. On Nov. 23rd, 2011 the polygamy attempt at redefining marriage was put to rest. The courts determined that polygamy would remain illegal in Canada. But why? If marriage can be redefined to include same-sex couples, why not same-sex couples plus one? We’ve redefined it once, so why not again? After all, hasn’t precedence been set? Aren’t we being bigoted as a society by not being more inclusive? None of it matters, because in the end the law is determined by whatever we want it to be determined by.
This is really hard for law and order conservatives to wrap their heads around, but the reality of life on planet Earth is that “the law” isn’t that important. If we want gay marriage, but not other kinds of marriage, then the legal system can just “speak legalese” until people in courts come to an agreement and make it so. Gay rights have morphed into gay acceptance, and the culture has decided that it’s okay to extend the term “marriage” to this minority. The law simply reflects that decision. There is no consequence, logical or not, regarding marriage beyond that specificity. The law just does whatever...there’s no objective reasoning involved.
Conclusion: Precedents in the law didn’t come to pass, because the law is just made up as we go along and operates on an “as needed” basis. Since mainstream society is less accepting of polygamy right now, polygamy is illegal...until it isn’t...or not...whatever, it has nothing to do with SSM.
3. The amount of gay marriages in Canada is marginal.
Gay people like the idea of the right to marry more than they actually like the act of getting married. Since SSM was legalized, only about 25,000 people have tied the knot. This is roughly the same number of people who claimed “Jedi” as their religion in the 2001 Canadian census.
It’s difficult to determine the total amount of gay people in society, but a general consensus is that the number is roughly 1 - 5% of the population. Of 35 million people in Canada, that works out to 350,000-1,750,000 gay people. Do the math yourself. Gay people wanted an acknowledgement, not a marriage certificate.
Conclusion: The debate was never about marriage, it was about mainstream compliance. It was a symbolic tip of the hat towards gay people by the heterosexual mainstream.
Lessons for American conservatives.
Canadian conservatives who defended the traditional definition of marriage did so mostly with compassion and calm resolve. They were consequently vilified and mocked by the most vocal progressives in the land. This rabid left-wing attitude alienated many quietly sympathetic centrists and they inched toward the Conservative Party in the next election. Stephen Harper won the vote in 2006 and became the Prime Minister of Canada.
Today, 8 years later, Canada has a laundry list of conservative achievements. Taxes are lower than they’ve been in decades; corporate taxes are lower than the U.S.; our Senate is now controlled by Conservatives; the Supreme Court has a majority of judges picked by Stephen Harper; the long gun registry is dead; the Federal budget is being cut; the Kyoto Accord is dead; the GST has been reduced...the list goes on. Dozens of decisions, appointments and policies are filtered through a conservative lens in Ottawa every day, simply because Conservatives are in power.
Conclusion: Lose the SSM debate on purpose and allow your opponents to look vicious towards you while doing it. You will win sympathy, respect and support from both your base and independent-minded centrists who are very quietly in favour of traditional marriage. Later, when the definition debate fades away, focus on other conservative policies and win even more support, this time from SSM supporting centrists for whom the marriage issue is settled and forward looking conservative policy may be attractive. The result is an expanded base, which provides power and the ability to effect conservative change.
All it costs is a tip of the hat.