What New York’s Gay Marriage Law Reveals About American Democracy

Anthony Kammer 

On Sunday, the New York Times ran an important piece by Michael Barbaro called “Behind N.Y. Gay Marriage, an Unlikely Mix of Forces.”  Many publications, rightly so, are celebrating New York’s long-overdue passage of same-sex marriage legislation.  But what’s noteworthy about Barbaro’s piece is that it reveals how this bill actually passed NY’s Republican Senate.

What it uncovers about the state of American democracy is not nearly as reassuring as the passage of gay marriage legislation appears at first glance. The whole article is worth reading, but this quote gets right to the heart of it:

“[The story of how same-sex marriage became legal] was really about a Republican Party reckoning with a profoundly changing power dynamic, where Wall Street donors and gay-rights advocates demonstrated more might and muscle than a Roman Catholic hierarchy and an ineffective opposition.”

 Although a tremendously effective nationwide gay-rights movement clearly helped change cultural attitudes about same-sex marriage, this bill, as Barbaro points out, only passed because several influential, “super-rich” Republican donors managed to push a few Senate Republicans into breaking party lines.

“[T]he donors in the room — the billionaire Paul Singer, whose son is gay, joined by the hedge fund managers Cliff Asness and Daniel Loeb — had the influence and the money to insulate nervous senators from conservative backlash if they supported the marriage measure.  And they were inclined to see the issue as one of personal freedom, consistent with their more libertarian views.”

“Within days, the wealthy Republicans sent back word: They were on board. Each of them cut six-figure checks to the lobbying campaign that eventually totaled more than $1 million.”

While the article also draws attention to NY Senator Kruger’s personal change of heart and NY Senator Addabbo’s decision to poll his district, the overarching lesson remains: social policy only gets passed in this country when business interests throw their weight behind it. Same-sex marriage, in other words, was only able to pass because there wasn’t significant corporate pressure opposing it.

Our purportedly democratic institutions increasingly allow only for legislation that earns the favor an already moneyed minority. Thankfully those interests depend less and less on homophobic opposition to marriage between same-sex, consenting adults.  Yet, corporate sponsorship should not be a prerequisite for legislative activity.

In the face of weakening civic institutions and rapidly rising economic inequality, it’s clear that those who can afford to influence policy often pursue policies with little concern for the broader public.  A real test of this democracy’s health would be passing legislation that is meaningfully adverse to the interests of those same corporate entities that in the past 3 years gave us some of the worst economic and ecological disasters in the nation’s history.

The government’s inadequate response to BP, the half-hearted Dodd-Frank bill, and Dodd-Frank’s even more half-hearted implementation don’t do much to restore confidence. And frankly, the back-room deals that produced NY’s same-sex marriage bill shouldn’t either.

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