Why We Need to Reframe the Civil Rights Debate

I’ve been a fan of Nate Silver’s fivethirtyeight.com since last summer. At the time, the site was very focused on aggregating and interpreting various polls about the presidential campaign. Most famously, the site predicted which candidate would win per state, updating as new information became available. His prediction was stunningly close to the actual results last November.

Since the end of the election, Silver and the growing list of commentators have kept on talking about the statistics of politics. Usually it’s not germane to my little blog, but yesterday Silver uncovered an interesting phenomenon. When asked about marriage rights differently than we’ve been asking, people answer differently. (Go to the link for the entire article.)

And it turns out that if you frame a polling question in this particular way, as Gallup and USA Today did recently, you get a very different set of responses. Take a look at what happens:


When USA Today asks whether gay marriage is a private decision, or rather whether government has the right to pass laws which regulate it, 63 percent say it’s a private decision. This contrasts significantly with all other polling on gay marriage. The highest level of support gay marriage has received in the more traditional, positive-rights framing is 49 percent, from a ABC/Washington Post poll in late April. The average support is closer to about 41-42 percent. And indeed, this same survey organization, Gallup, last month released a poll that put the number of Americans approving of gay marriage at 40 percent.

But even though gay marriage had already become — however briefly — the law of the land in California, that wasn’t how the debate unfolded on Proposition 8. Instead, look at what Equality California said on its website at the time:

Every Californian should have the choice to marry the person they love. It’s a personal and fundamental freedom guaranteed by the California Constitution.

Emphasis mine. True, Equality California mentioned that gay marriage had already been established under the state’s constitution. The problem is that Proposition 8 wasn’t an argument over how to interpret the state constitution — it was an argument about whether or not to amend the constitution to render interpretation unnecessary.

What if Equality California had instead said this:

California’s government should not have the right to interfere with the decision of two loving adults to get married. It’s a personal and fundamental freedom protected by the California Constitution.

You see the distinction? Equality California was still stuck in the positive rights paradigm. Gay marriage was something given to California by the state Supreme Court in its benevolent wisdom, not an intrinsic (negative) right for which the government had a duty of noninterference.

I think Silver’s got something here. What do you think?