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April 12, 2004

Coming Round to Civil Unions

Citing some new polling data from the Los Angeles Times, Andrew Sullivan writes:

The latest breakdown shows about 25 percent favor of marriage rights, close to 40 percent support civil unions, and 33 percent favor giving gay couples nothing at all. What strikes me about that finding is that the polls haven't changed much on marriage - with one significant difference. The middle group of Americans - tolerant, but queasy, say - have now come round to civil unions. Civil unions are, in fact, the natural compromise right now. Bottom line: around two-thirds of Americans believe that gays should have either marriage rights or something close to that (called something else). I'm encouraged.

What strikes me about the finding is that it's the first time I can recall the question being posed as a three-way option. The Washington Post, for example, has been measuring civil union support separately from the yes-or-no on marriage. The latest results presented that way, from early March, find 51% support for civil unions, but support for same-sex marriage split 38% for, 59% against.

Sullivan (aided by the AP summary that he cites) adds a few percentage points in his direction when summing up the L.A. Times poll. And it's mildly interesting to note that he gives a "close to" percentage for "civil unions," the only category for which his AP source actually provides the exact number, whereas he translates "about a quarter" for marriage and "about a third" for neither into actual percentages. Looking at question 34 on the PDF of the raw data, the breakdown is actually 38% civil unions, 24% marriage, 34% neither. As the saying goes: you can take the blogger out of the Old Media, but you can't take the Old Media techniques away from the blogger.

With actual numbers in hand, and assuming some legitimacy to comparison, it seems that the civil union percentage doesn't primarily come at the expense of support for same-sex marriage. If anything, it draws down the opposition number more. That serves to further emphasize that Sullivan is wrong to characterize people's view of civil unions as "something close to [marriage] (called something else)." As I noted when he pulled the same trick with the Post poll, I would have been captured in the "civil unions" category, and I envision them as something quite distinct from marriage.

Sullivan thinks that the "job now is to persuade the middle ground that civil unions would be a far bigger blow to marriage than allowing gays into the institution." However, it's at least as likely that succeeding in such persuasion would result in people's returning to complete opposition. Whatever the case, it's odd to find Sullivan "encouraged" at the civil unions news, considering that they've been considered the "compromise" for years and that, in June 2002, he declared it "time to stop the mealy-mouthed talk about civil unions as some sort of option for homosexual citizens."

Posted by Justin Katz at April 12, 2004 7:11 PM

"Civil unions are, in fact, the natural compromise right now." Right now? Why doesn't he just say what he means: "Civil unions might just be a step we'll have to accept before we can get to what we really want." IOW, not a compromise, but a ruse.

Posted by: ELC at April 13, 2004 3:36 PM


What emphasizes your assessment is that it's been the compromise position for years, and Sullivan has previously rejected it as insufficient and unnecessary.

Posted by: Justin Katz at April 13, 2004 3:45 PM