The Silent Majority

Political observers were surprised last week when legislation to approve gay marriage in New York went down to a substantial defeat.  But some of the explanations offered were even more surprising.

“Certainly this is an emotional issue and an important issue for many New Yorkers,” said Senator Tom Libous, the deputy Republican leader.  Yes, that’s true enough, and if feelings run high on a contentious issue one could expect politicians to fear a backlash from voters.  But then he went on to add: “I just don’t think the majority care too much about it at this time because they’re out of work, they want to see the state reduce spending, and they are having a hard time making ends meet.” (See, “New York State Senate Votes Down Gay Marriage Bill.”)

What could he possibly mean? If voters don’t care, what do legislators have to fear?  Presumably, that would make it easier for them to vote their consciences or, at least, vote to satisfy a vocal minority fighting for what they see as their rights.  And, then, what does this have to do with unemployment or budget deficits?

But maybe he really meant that voters do care about it.  And could he be implying that with so many bread and butter issues to confront, legislators fear being seen spending too much time on “trivial” issues like gay marriage.  On the other hand, polls indicated that most New York voters supported the bill, though a substantial vocal and virulent minority opposed it, as well as New York’s Roman Catholic bishops.

The Times reported that during the debate, “Opponents remained mostly silent; all but one of those who spoke on the floor supported the measure.”  Possibly the silent legislators were afraid of provoking an attack from those who opposed the bill, an attack worse than the almost certain attack they will get from gay activists.  Perhaps they were afraid of the bishops. Perhaps they just afraid of change.

Sometimes, an unconscious motivation can be traced to its avoidance or its denial.  It’s not always the case that when someone says they “don’t care” they really mean they do.  In this case, however, that explanation gains further plausibility from Senator Libous’ final comment to the reporter who interviewed him:  “I don’t mean to sound callous, but [what I said is] true.”

He must think he sounds callous. But we are still left wondering, what actually is “true?”