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Susan Estrich: Rout of Republicans in Indiana Proves Why Politics Matters

The debate about a “religious freedom” law being considered in Indiana has been making national news. The issue is whether the law would allow discrimination against gays.

There has been a storm of protest both from inside and outside the state — with leading businesses threatening and threatened by a proposed boycott of the state; Silicon Valley, for the first time I can remember, taking effective political action; and Indiana legislators tripping over themselves to make sure everyone understands that the law is in no way intended to immunize or condone discrimination.

A decade ago, no one in their right mind would predict that I’d be writing these lines, much less about Indiana. Even in California, there was sensitivity as to how far the public might be pushed — people were still talking about whether gay-marriage initiatives encouraged Republican turnout and were responsible for Democratic losses. Proposition 8 passed, and gay leaders were divided as to the political merits of a federal court challenge.

How did the shoe get on the other foot so quickly? How is it that an issue that even liberal talking heads worried about is now, for all intents and purposes, the exclusive worry of Republican leaders? And make no mistake: It’s a real worry.

There are plenty of fiscal conservatives out there, including some who are gay themselves, who are looking for a Republican Party that protects their economic interests without judging their personal choices. As a Democrat, I can only say it’s a relief that that kind of Republican Party exists only in Massachusetts and only during the candidate’s tenure there.

How did all this change so quickly? The answer is one word: Politics. That business we all like to trash, the inexact and noisy collections of institutions, the meetings, the maze of rules, the imperfectly conducted and counted elections, the judicial system, sometimes too political and sometimes not political enough, has been zigzagging its way toward equality.

Of course, the political system does not operate in a vacuum. To put it another way, the political system isn’t limited to political institutions. It includes all of the “non-news” shows from which most Americans get their news, which include not only news-like programs, but scripted comedies and dramas that would have been at least courageous if not scandalous just a few years ago.

Does anyone think of Modern Family as either? No. A gay couple adopts a child. Sure. Why not? Wednesday’s No. 1 show is tackling the once untouchable issue of homophobia.

Minds are changed in many ways — and faster today than ever before. While legislators in Indiana and Arkansas scramble to avoid the suggestion that they are anti-gay or would ever condone discrimination, it’s worth remembering just how recently they would have embraced such a bill, and the fact that they have yet to pass affirmative legislation providing state remedies in the event of discrimination.

So no celebration yet — but a sip of champagne seems in order. It wasn’t so long ago that everything happening now seemed likely to be decades away.

This is one of those instances in which the states really have been laboratories of democracy, as U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once called them, and one in which our messy process has actually worked.

Susan Estrich is a best-selling author, the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the USC Law Center and was campaign manager for 1988 Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis. Click here to contact her or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

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