This is the year of the Seinfeld midterms, we are told – an election about nothing in particular, lacking dominant themes. Yet the election also highlights how we are becoming a Seinfeld society. When it comes to two cultural issues that were once taboo, gay relationships and marijuana use, Americans are increasingly saying: “Not that there’s anything wrong with that.”
In November, voters in Alaska and Oregon will decide whether to legalize and regulate the sale of marijuana, as voters in Colorado and Washington have already done, while voters in the nation’s capital will decide whether to legalize the drug’s possession. Early polling suggests legalization is favored in Oregon and Washington, D.C., both Democratic strongholds. Alaska is harder to predict. An August poll put the opposition ahead, 49-to-44, after two early polls had showed the pro-pot camp leading. Yet even if Alaskans vote “no” on full legalization, medical marijuana and private use of marijuana in the home will remain legal.
Meanwhile, another issue once regarded as counter-cultural is a non-factor in the mid-terms. For only the second time since 2000, not a single state will hold a referendum on banning same-sex marriage. Although thirty-one states have adopted bans, same-sex marriage opponents have suffered a string of losses in federal courts and appear to have given up the referenda fight for now. Even if the Supreme Court eventually rules that same-sex marriage is not constitutionally protected, more states are likely to legalize it in response to growing public support.
Public attitudes on same-sex marriage and marijuana have traveled a remarkably similar path. Only one in four Americans supported legalization of either in the mid-1990s. By 2011, support had spread to one in two. Now, public approval is approaching 60 percent, with a majority of Americans ages 30-to-49 in favor.
Today, same-sex marriage is legal in 19 states; three states have civil unions and domestic partnership laws recognizing gay couples. Most of those states also have liberalized their marijuana laws in recent years.
If marijuana legalization continues to follow the trajectory of same-sex marriage, it will expand to more states in the years ahead – most likely to those that have already adopted medical marijuana. If that happens, and if the Supreme Court does not strike down same-sex marriage bans, the map of states that have legalized marijuana and same-sex marriage could come to look very similar.
The two issues are, obviously, unrelated. (Marijuana legalization raises serious concerns.) Together, however, they underscore the country’s shift toward a more culturally libertarian society.
The parallels may even extend to the 2016 presidential race. One or both major party nominees could adopt the same position on marijuana that President Barack Obama took on same-sex marriage in 2008: Opposing legalization personally, but supporting the right of states to decide the matter for themselves. Meanwhile, efforts to put marijuana legalization on the 2016 ballot are already underway in at least two states, Montana and Wyoming.
If Washington, D.C. voters approve the city’s marijuana referendum this November, the President’s old choom gang may be tempted to show up at the White House to celebrate. Not that there’d be anything wrong with that.
Francis Barry writes editorials on politics and domestic policy for Bloomberg View.