Every good debater knows the importance of controlling the argumentative ground. The basic theory is that if you’re able to control the framework and parameters that the debate happens in, you’re in pretty good shape. Part of that is not just having the right argument but controlling the semantic ground available. Take for instance the ridiculous debate over gay marriage. Social conservatives spin this debate in profoundly anti-intellectual and discriminatory ways, linking the advent of gay marriage to everything from pedophilia to the end of civilization as we know it.
I choose to reframe this debate. Because the debate over gay marriage is really not a debate over gay marriage. It’s an argument about basic human freedoms: the right to enter into private, legally binding contracts. And this is a powerful argument against conservatives, because it exposes the fundamental flaw in their mindless opposition to gay marriage. Conservatives, after all, draw a large chunk of their ideology from legitimate libertarian ideas about property rights and the freedom to enter into fundamental contractual relationships, like the freedom to trade with other people. Framed this way, opposition to gay marriage is really an authoritarian viewpoint because it says government can exclude people from entering into specific contracts. And you get to access powerful arguments about the role and nature of government itself as additional offense; for instance, instead of debating over whether homosexuality is “natural” or not you get to talk about why we have government at all and what liberty means. Essentially, you get to out-right the right-wingers by taking powerful affirmative stances on property rights and the role of government as the enforcer of basic rights.
It’s a well known fact that the GOP is losing market share and my thesis is essentially that a large part of it is the irrelevant focus on social issues. Young people in particular are very sensitive to these issues: we understand that there are far more important things that government should be doing (ending genocide in Darfur, restructuring the nation’s economic architecture, etc) and don’t understand why Republicans seem to care more about protecting the sanctity of marriage in a world where close to half of marriages end in divorce anyway.
So. Control the semantics, you control the debate. Easy win.
EDIT: Just came across this sound byte on Kelo vs. New London from the indomitable head of the Republican Party, thrice divorced Rush Limbaugh:
“There’s an added element to it, and that is the importance — maybe even of more importance than the right to free speech — of the right to own property in a free country,” Rush said. “Without the right to own property, even with the right of free speech, you don’t have a free country — not when the government can come in and take whatever they want whenever they want it, not pay you anything for it or very little for it, and give it to somebody else or use it themselves.”