SUPPORTERS OF SAME-SEX MARRIAGE have reason to cheer after last week's election. Supporters of democratic self-government, even those of us who oppose gay marriage, do too.
On Nov. 6, for the first time ever, voters in three states – Maine, Maryland, and Washington – redefined marriage by popular vote. In Minnesota, residents said no to a constitutional amendment enshrining the traditional understanding of marriage as the union of a man and a woman. There is no denying the significance of these results: Previously the issue had gone to the ballot in 32 states, and in all 32 same-sex marriage was defeated. Gay-marriage advocates have insisted for years that it is outrageous to put what they consider a question of civil rights to a vote, but going 4-and-0 on Election Day presumably made the outrage a lot easier to swallow.
In nearly all of America, of course, marriage still means what it has always meant. Obviously a once-settled consensus has been changing, and last Tuesday may eventually prove to have been a tipping point. At the moment, however, there is no new consensus and it's anything but clear that the battle to redefine the core institution of human society is a done deal. The votes in Maine, Maryland, Washington, and Minnesota – Democratic strongholds all – were close, and in each one Barack Obama got a lot more votes than gay marriage did. Even in four deep-blue states, in other words, many voters who wanted to see the president re-elected drew the line at same-sex marriage.
Plainly the political and philosophical struggle over the definition of marriage isn't going away any time soon, no matter how much gay-marriage backers wish to declare the issue over. But now that gay activists have turned to the ballot and won, perhaps we can finally dispense with the claim that there is something unjust or illegitimate about deciding a question as momentous as marriage by referring it to the people (or to their elected lawmakers.)