Is everyone ready to breathe out a collective sigh of relief after the election? Yeah? Good.
As nice as it is to have everything done and over with (sort of, considering our state election isn't certified for another two weeks), the stress we all went through is important. Democracy should be stressful; the stress proves the process matters. Otherwise, we'd be a nation of Yes Men and nodding, empty heads.
Don't kick back just yet, though. The state had two measures on the ballot with at least potential significance to the Federal agenda: Referendum 74 and Initiative 502.
Referendum 74, affirming marriage rights to same sex couples, will probably be the lesser national issue despite its ideologically divided debate. Washington was one of three states to legalize gay marriage; meanwhile, voters in Minnesota defeated a ban on same-sex marriages. On Monday, the Washington Post reported that African-Americans and Latinos—two demographics that have historically opposed marriage equality legislation—showed majority support for gay unions in exit polls.
This is just the way public opinion has shifted. A whole generation of young voters were barely 'tweens when the "metrosexual" fad swept America and every light-hearted movie had a "sassy gay friend" in the cast. And as offensively Mammy-esque as those character depictions are, they helped contribute to a culture of acceptance. More voters can probably say they had at least one openly gay friend or acquaintance in high school, humanizing the issue in their formative years and influencing their choices come election time.
The odd thing about the past decade's gay marriage debate is that it's been—and continues to be—a war of words. Or rather the one word, "marriage."
National and Washington state debate swung in favor of "everything-but-marriage" civil unions years ago, and the debate shifted to the religious distinction of marriage.
"What people do in the privacy of their own home is their business, but a marriage is defined by the Bible as a covenant between a man and a woman. We don't want to stop these people from being together, but they simply can't have what we have. It's not so bad: They'll be separate but—wait for it—equal!"
Ignoring for a moment that marriage existed in ancient cultures Before the Common Era, and ignoring that the marriage rite exists in Islam, Buddhism, Sikhism, etc… if the definition of "marriage" is religiously monopolized, why is it a matter of political debate at all? If the issue is truly religious, the easy solution would be for government to get out of the marriage business and instead recognize romantic unions of all stripes as "civil unions," allowing couples to define their marriage through private ceremony.
Perhaps at its core, the argument against same sex marriage isn't about marriage at all: it's about strengthening fundamental Christian dominance in civic discourse.
A person who believes one religion should have a more direct influence on the laws of the land, and says so directly, is going to meet equally direct opposition. Our Constitution is fairly clear cut when it comes to keeping government out of religion (For the protection of the people's private religious beliefs. Some argue religion can still influence government, but the problem is that you quickly enter a chicken-and-egg question of influence).
But if that same person can convince his opponents to concede that marriage—a legal partnership that governments already have a hand in—is a religious issue, he's set a precedent and shifted the frame of debate.
Far more interesting is how Initiative 502 will play into the Federal government's stance on marijuana. Not to discount the significance of same sex marriage and equal rights to countless couples, but that's a war of words crawling to a foreseeable conclusion; drug enforcement has a multi-billion dollar infrastructure on the line.
Despite an early first-term promise by President Obama to respect state stances on medical marijuana, the past four years saw continued high-profile Drug Enforcement Administration raids on Washington cannabis dispensaries, as well as in the other medical pot states. And the state remained hands off because, well, its affirmative defense law is hands off.
But 502 is a different animal entirely. Washington, as of Dec. 6, will have decriminalized marijuana for adult recreational use. And, if the plan holds together, our state liquor control board will roll out a state agriculture and retail system for providing a legal supply. That puts us—as well as Colorado—in direct opposition to the Federal government. It's an opposition that, no question about it in my mind, is going to come to legal blows in the near future. Will Washington be a spark that ignites a new national agenda, or a failed experiment.
I can't help but relate the issue to one of my favorite comedy bits. Sketch group The Whitest Kids U Know marked the final season of their television series by dedicating the second half of each episode to an ongoing saga titled "The Civil War on Drugs."
The story followed two antebellum Southern stoners who mistakenly believe the Civil War is being fought over the legal status of marijuana. They decide to wage a campaign to end the violence and save their favorite vice. Traveling across the country on foot, they encounter Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant, lead an incompetent platoon and unwittingly collect fame and fortune as renegade "soldiers." At war's end, President Abraham Lincoln himself bestows honors on the pair when they accidentally reveal they've conducted their campaign on a misunderstanding.
Bewildered, the fictionalized Lincoln responds, "Of course marijuana is legal! It's a plant that grows out of the ground. I don't care what you do with it. What's wrong with you?"
It may be funny in that context, but this is going to be a real and serious legal debate in our near futures, so don't get too comfortable in your post-election bliss. There's still plenty of room for civic stress.