The theory behind freedom of speech was pretty simple: a robust consideration and debate of all ideas will lead to adoption of the better ones. When all points of view can be examined, people will opt for those which are best for that society.
The history of civil rights in the U.S. would seem to support that thesis; despite some pretty grim periods, the nation has consistently — if sometimes painfully — moved to a more inclusive, more humane interpretation of equality.
During the past several decades, however, the advent of an ever-more pervasive electronic media has brought on more and more spin and micro-targeting. As a result, political operatives have been able to target their respective base voters with messaging that rarely breaks through to the general public, depriving that public of the sort of arguments that free speech advocates believe are essential to good policy decisions.
Thanks to Barack Obama's recent endorsement of same-sex marriage, however, we are going to have one of those truly public debates.
Obama has come out (no pun intended) for the equal protection of the laws, for a government that applies the same rules to gay, lesbian, bi & trans folks that it applies to heterosexuals.
Romney has endorsed a federal constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage and has personally contributed to anti-gay and anti-marriage equality organisations.
Perhaps more importantly, this stark difference of position comes at a time when those who do not follow politics closely are beginning to see just how radical the Republican base — to which Romney is in thrall — has become.
In Indiana, the 2-1 defeat of Richard Lugar by a Tea Party yahoo has been a wake—up call. Despite being routinely characterised as a moderate, Lugar was a very conservative Senator (probably a great deal more conseniative than many of his supporters realised).
As EJ. Dionne noted, he wasn't "moderate" — he was civil. He actually engaged in conversation with people he disagreed with. To the rabid know-nothings who currently contnol the GOP, that was evidently sin enough.
And Indiana is not alone, unfortunately. The radicalisation of the once Grand Old Party has been proceeding for a long time now. But that radicalisation has occurred largely out of view of the people who are simply going about their everyday business. What has been obvious to us political junkies is just now becoming obvious to the general public.
With Obama's announcement, the "agendas" of base voters, Republican and Democrat alike, are receiving widespread attention. The choice is stark and it isn't limited to same—sex marriage. If you think about it, positions on same—sex marriage are indicators of political and moral philosophies. People who favor civil liberties and equality for lesbian, gay, bi & trans people tend to believe in separation of church and state, in government neutrality and even-handedness.
People who are adamantly opposed to the extension of equal rights to gays and lesbians, on the other hand, tend to believe in authoritarian government, tend to support the GOP's "war on women," and tend to reject the principle of separation of church and state in favor of a belief in America as a “Christian nation."
Diversity makes them uncomfortable, and — let's be honest — so does the presence of a black man in the White House.
Bottom line? Different positions on same-sex marriage are proxies for dramatically different world views.
What Obama's endorsement of same—sex marriage has done is shine a very bright light on these differences. It was a decision to reject the continued micro-targeting of messages — the “wink—wink" approach favored by political operatives of both parties — in favor of the very public, very robust debate envisioned by the founders.
It's a debate worth having. I just hope the founders weren't overly optimistic.