Is there Enough Libertarian and Conservative Support for Gay Rights for it to Matter?

One major argument against my proposal for a compromise between gay rights advocates and those conservatives and libertarians who are not implacably antigay is that the latter group is too small to matter. After all, everyone knows that conservatives are categorically against anything that seems pro-gay, while libertarians are too small a group to count. Right? Sometimes, however, what we all think we know turns out to be wrong. Conservatives are not monolothic on gay rights issues and libertarians are not as negligible a factor in American politics as they may seem.

A recent Pew survey show that there is considerable conservative support for at least some items on the gay rights agenda. 36% of self-described "conservative Republicans" support allowing gays to serve openly in the military, 30% of Republicans (and 20% of conservative Republicans) support gay adoption rights, and only 41% of Republicans say they "strongly oppose" gay marriage rights. A 2005 survey shows that 41% of Republicans and 31% of self-described "conservatives" support gay civil unions. Perhaps even more surprisingly, the same survey showed that 19% of Republicans and 14% of conservatives actually support gay marriage.

By contrast with conservatives, no one doubts that most libertarians (probably a large majority) strongly support much of the gay rights agenda. However, it is often asserted that there are too few libertarians for this to make a difference. However, as David Boaz points out, various studies have shown that people with a broadly libertarian outlook (favoring strict limits on government power on both "economic" and "social" issues) constitute as much as 20 percent of the population. Only a small proportion of these people are closely familiar with libertarian ideology, but the same can be said of most of those who describe themselves in surveys as "liberal" or "conservative." They too are not sophisticated ideologues, as I have pointed out in my own work on political ignorance. And even if we discount libertarian voters, there are numerous influential libertarian intellectuals, academics, and policy wonks. Many of these people have influence that goes far beyond their fellow libertarians.

There is no denying the fact that most conservatives oppose gay equality and that libertarians hardly dominate American politics. However, it is also the case that there is more than enough conservative and libertarian support for key aspects of the gay rights agenda to make cooperation between some right-wingers and gay rights advocates worthwhile. As I argued in my previous post, gays will need substantial conservative and libertarian support in order to prevail quickly on the issues they care about the most. Conservatives and libertarians will need to negotiate with gays in order to limit the possible harmful slippery slope effects of some pro-gay policies. There is at least a modest-size pot of gold at the end of this particular rainbow coalition. Hopefully, we can go out and get it!