The Importance of Public Meaning for Political Persuasion
by Deva Woodly, New School
There have been many retrospective analyses written about the marriage-equality movement since the Supreme Court’s 2015 ruling that made marriages between people of the same sex legal in all 50 states. Most attribute that triumph to a stunningly swift turnaround in public comfort with and approval of same-sex relationships. However, public opinion data indicates that this narrative is inaccurate. In 2015, 51% of General Social Survey respondents declared that they found sexual relationships between people of the same sex to be “wrong” at least “some of the time.” Nevertheless, at the same time, 56% of respondents affirmed that people of the same sex ought to have the legal right to marry. This dissonance suggests that the most common narrative about the success of the movement misses something crucial about how political persuasion happened in this case, as well as the way that political persuasion happens in general. In this article, I show that the massive shift in support for same-sex marriage was likely not the result of large majorities changing their underlying attitudes regarding gay sexual relationships, but was instead the result of activists inserting new criteria for evaluating same-sex marriage into popular political discourse by consistently using resonant arguments. These arguments reframed the political stakes, changed the public meaning of the marriage debate, and altered the decisional context in which people determine their policy preferences.