The first elected official who ever made the case to me for legalizing gay marriage — and maybe the last, come to think of it — was Jesse Ventura, the former governor of Minnesota, with whom I spent a fair amount of time in the late 1990s.
A political independent, Ventura swept into office on the simple premise that if the state government, flush with revenue, didn't actually need all the tax money it collected, maybe it should give some back. His libertarian philosophy extended to social issues, on which Ventura, who counted gay men among his closest aides and friends, said government had no business intruding. As the governor told me then, he didn't care what the gay couple next door were doing in the privacy of their home, including hanging up a marriage certificate, just as he didn't think anyone should pester him about keeping a gun in his nightstand. (Ventura's idea of gun control, he once wrote, was being able to shoot two rounds into the same hole from 80 feet.) Your private life was yours to live, he thundered, as long as you weren't harming or exploiting anyone else in the process.
Establishment politicians interpreted Ventura's fleeting success as a blow to the overly choreographed culture of two-party politics. There was certainly validity to this; it's notable that the most popular political movies of the '90s were films like Bulworth and The American President, in which the nation's turgid politics are somehow redeemed in a sudden burst of authenticity. But Ventura's breakthrough foreshadowed a deeper shift too.
Americans, and especially younger Americans, were beginning to enjoy a diversity of personal choices unrivaled by any previous generation — choices not just of where to shop or how to invest their money but also of whom to date or which neighborhood to live in, of how to worship and how to educate their kids. They didn't especially want a government that would limit those choices, for them or anyone else.
A decade later, it is this emergent political ethos that is rapidly asserting itself in the debate over gay marriage, as judges and legislators across the land — most recently legislatures in New Hampshire and Maine — reconsider the issue. According to the group Freedom to Marry, about 13 percent of Americans now live in a state that allows gay marriage or recognizes marriage licenses issued in other states, and that percentage is certain to rise. The gist of the disagreement now isn't partisan or theological as much as it is generational.
Unlike their parents, younger Americans and those now transitioning into middle age have had openly gay friends and colleagues all their lives, and they understand homosexuality to be a form of biological happenstance rather than of emotional disturbance. They're less inclined to restrict the personal decisions of gay Americans, even if they don't necessarily want the whole thing explained to their children as part of some politically correct grade-school curriculum.
In a sense, the gay rights movement of an earlier era was so successful in changing social attitudes that the movement itself can now seem obsolete.
In a recent Pew poll, for instance, about 6 in 10 Americans — and slightly more among independents — said they favored allowing homosexuals to serve openly in the military. This highlights a significant problem for the Republican Party, which now finds itself almost entirely reliant on the country's most conservative districts at precisely the moment when the persuadable voters who turn national elections are moving, however cautiously, toward a more tolerant place. Just as the last great wave of party reform, in the late 1960s, took control from party bosses and gave it to a new generation of activists, perhaps the next phase should entail broadening that power to include less ideologically rigid voters — by allowing independents to vote in all primaries.
Such a system would act as a kind of built-in defibrillator, issuing an automatic shock to party leaders out of rhythm with pervasive trends in the country. It would have enabled a moderate like Arlen Specter to have fought it out within his own party and would encourage presidential aspirants — like, say, Jon Huntsman Jr., Utah's governor and a proponent of civil unions — whose ideal of conservatism on issues like gay marriage is more laissez-faire than it is preachy and nostalgic.
In the end, perhaps what's most remarkable about the fast-spreading acceptance of gay marriage is that there are so few mainstream politicians on either side who will be able to claim any vindication from it. There is no equivalent to a Harry Truman, who forcibly integrated the armed forces at a time when swimming pools and diners across the South remained defiantly separatist, or Hubert Humphrey, who fractured the 1948 Democratic National Convention with his stand on civil rights, more than 15 years before Lyndon Johnson would sign the Voting Rights Act.
On gay rights, localities and courts have dragged national politicians toward what would seem to be an inevitable social reckoning.
When historians look back on the culture clashes of the 1990s, perhaps the closest thing they will find to a political trendsetter is an oddball like Jesse Ventura, who embodied the enlightened libertarianism that would ultimately enable many Americans to accept a once unthinkable idea. History will record that neither then nor later was there a national party he could call his own.
Matt Bai, who covers politics for the New York Times magazine, is the author of The Argument: Inside the Battle to Remake Democratic Politics.