By now, everyone knows the story. Phil Robertson, star of A&E’s popular reality show “Duck Dynasty”, told a GQ reporter what he thinks of gay people:
Out here in these woods, without any cameras around, Phil is free to say what he wants. Maybe a little too free. He’s got lots of thoughts on modern immorality, and there’s no stopping them from rushing out. Like this one:
“It seems like, to me, a vagina—as a man—would be more desirable than a man’s anus. That’s just me. I’m just thinking: There’s more there! She’s got more to offer. I mean, come on, dudes! You know what I’m saying? But hey, sin: It’s not logical, my man. It’s just not logical.”Gay and lesbian organizations were outraged, and let A&E know it. Robertson was suspended from the show. The Robertson clan issued a statement saying that the rest of the family would not carry on the show without Robertson.
Conservatives have rushed to defend Robertson. But why?
What Are Conservatives Defending?
It’s not surprising that Robertson’s suspension riled conservatives. The show has become a cultural touchstone for the right-wing. The combination of down-home, bible-based social conservatism and great wealth proved an irresistible combination to conservatives. But what does the rush to defend Robertson say about where GOP is headed compared to the rest of the country?
`As with the controversy over Chik-fil-A CEO Dan Cathy’s anti-gay comments, Republicans have portrayed their defense of Robertson as a defense of the First Amendment. But that argument shouldn’t hold water with anyone who has an elementary civics education, as First Amendment attorney Marc J. Randazza explained during the Chik-fil-a brouhaha.
The First Amendment protects you from government action suppressing your right to free speech. It does not protect you from private individuals’ negative reaction to your speech. As an extreme example: In my younger and more impulsive days, I punched out a guy who offended my then-girlfriend (now wife). He said he was exercising his First Amendment rights. I agreed and told him that I would defend him if the government messed with him, but the First Amendment didn’t protect him from a private punch. I broke a few laws that day, but I didn’t violate the First Amendment.
Similarly, the First Amendment does not protect you from criticism. Sarah Palin infamously took us all back a few steps by ignorantly criticizing the media for its negative commenting on her views. She said, “I don’t know what the future of our country would be in terms of First Amendment rights and our ability to ask questions without fear of attacks by the mainstream media.” This statement is utterly wrong. The First Amendment does not protect you from scrutiny or criticism by the media or others. No branch of government was involved in Robertson’s suspension, or any aspect of the response to his comments. So, whatever conservatives are defending here, it isn’t the First Amendment, or freedom of speech as defined by the First Amendment.
It seems that to conservatives, “freedom of speech” means speech without consequences. They want to be able to speak without negative reactions. They want to be able to speak without criticism or scrutiny, from the media or others. They want to be able to speak, and have their opinions go unchallenged.
The 45 Percent Non-Solution
Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, said that Robertson’s views of gay people are “traditional” views, during an appearance on Fox News Sunday. Conservatives rallying to defend “traditional values” is nothing new. Huckabee tried to drag President Obama into the controversy by pointing out that Robertson merely expressed the same beliefs that Obama expressed during the 2008 campaign.
It’s a ridiculous claim, of course. It’s impossible to imagine Obama agreeing with a sermon Robertson delivered at a Pennsylvania church in 2010. TMZ posted a video of the sermon, in which Robertson denounced LGBT people as “insolent” and “evil,” and told the congregation, “They invent ways of doing evil.”
Huckabee omitted that Obama “evolved” on marriage equality by 2012. The Democratic party evolved with him, and incorporated marriage equality into its national platform. Both moves reflect a shift away from what Huckabee defines as “traditional” views.
WaPo’s Sean Sullivan points to a May 2013 Pew Research Center poll that shows how views on homosexuality have shifted.
In 2003, 55 percent of Americans agreed that homosexuality was a “sin,” while 33 percent said it wasn’t. Nearly a decade later, 45 percent of Americans say homosexuality is a “sin,” and 45 percent say it’s not. That’s a ten point decline in the “Yes” column, and a twelve point increase in the “No” column.
This isn’t surprising. A majority of Americans now support marriage equality. Even a slim majority of Republicans under the age of 50 support marriage equality. As younger voters age, a solid majority of Republicans will soon support marriage equality. A March 2013 Washington Post/ABC poll showed that just 24 percent of Americans believe being gay is a “choice,” while a 62 percent majority agreed that it’s “just the way they are.”
That’s probably why Republicans are defending Robertson’s “freedom of speech,” rather than the substance of his speech. Freedom of speech is not an issue in Robertson’s case. But defending Robertson’s right to express his views is a way for Republicans to appear to align themselves with the substance of his views, without explicitly supporting them, which would appall most Americans — perhaps even most Republicans.
Maybe Republicans are defending “Duck Dynasty” in hopes of securing evangelical votes in 2016. White evangelicals are half of the GOP’s primary voters, and represent a third of the Republican base. But it may be a “45 percent non-solution” for the GOP. In 2012, white evangelicals represented the same percentage of the vote as in 2008 — 26 percent. Winning 74 percent of the white evangelical vote wasn’t enough to put Mitt Romney in the White House.
The Times, They Are A-Changing
This year, the Supreme Court ruled overturned the part of the Defense of Marriage Act that denied federal benefits to same-sex couples. At the time, some legal scholars believed that the Court dealt a fatal blow to state bans on marriage equality. It looks like they may have been right.
Same-sex marriage is now legal in 18 states and the District of Columbia, compared to zero states in 2003.
While Republicans defend the “traditional values” of bygone era, more states will go the way of New Mexico and Utah, and fewer Americans will share the views Robertson expressed and the GOP has rallied to support. Embracing “Duck Dynasty Conservatism” will drive the GOP even further out of the American Mainstream, and that’s not a road to short-term or long-term political viability.