That's why they trot out words like 'bigotry' and generally distort the issue.
In recent weeks, the issue of who gets to define marriage -- Minnesota citizens or a handful of judges or legislators -- has been on the front burner.
The debate has generated lots of heat but not much light. Now that the Legislature has endeavored to let the people vote on a constitutional amendment defining marriage, I suggest a few ground rules to ensure a fair and open exchange of views.
First, we must reject the name-calling that has marred the debate to this point. Same-sex-marriage supporters' constant mantra has been that Minnesotans who support one man-one woman marriage are motivated by bigotry. Gay-marriage proponents make this claim even about people who merely support letting Minnesotans vote on the issue.
The Star Tribune's recent editorial on the marriage amendment was typical. "Don't put bigotry on the ballot," its headline ran.
But people who support one man-one woman marriage are not bigots. They argue, very reasonably, that marriage is rooted in nature -- in male/female sexual complementarity -- and that children need both a mother and a father. They say that's why it has been the bedrock institution of procreation and social order in virtually all times and places.
Same-sex-marriage supporters' attempt to tar this view as "bigotry" seems designed to shield them from tough questions as they campaign to redefine the world's fundamental social institution. Labeling your opponent a "bigot" is the ultimate rhetorical mudball--a classic slur intended to silence and intimidate rather than to facilitate an exchange of ideas.
My second recommendation: We know the precise constitutional amendment language the people will be voting on, so don't distort it.
Marriage has won in every state where the people have had an opportunity to vote on it. To date, citizens in 31 states have voted to enshrine one man-one woman marriage in their constitutions, including, most recently, the deep-blue states of California and Maine.
Yet very often, preelection polls in these states have predicted that marriage would lose. In California, an Oct. 30, 2008, poll showed the pro-gay marriage vote leading by 5 points. In Maine in 2009, the story was similar. Yet on Election Day, Californians voted 52 to 48 percent to preserve traditional marriage; in Maine the vote was 53 to 47 percent.
Why do polls consistently fail to predict voters' behavior? There are several reasons. First, many polls use misleading language. They ask people if they want to "ban" same-sex marriage instead of using the amendment language that voters will actually encounter in the polling booth. (In our state, that language is: "Only a union of one man and one woman shall be valid or recognized as a marriage in Minnesota.")
"For years, the 'ban same-sex marriage' language in polls has produced about a 6 to 10 percentage point undercount on support for traditional marriage," says Maggie Gallagher of the National Organization for Marriage. "If you want to get the least favorable result on marriage, this is the language you choose for your poll."
One reason for the undercount is that some people interpret the "ban" language as implying that same-sex marriage or homosexual relationships will somehow be criminalized or made illegal, according to Gallagher. The "ban" language also casts traditional marriage supporters in a negative light. It compels them to say they are against something, rather than allowing them to articulate what they are for.
Most important, people often hesitate to tell a pollster their true beliefs about marriage when traditional marriage supporters are routinely demonized as bigots and haters.
The Star Tribune poll released on May 13 is a case in point. The poll asked people if they "would favor or oppose ... amending the Minnesota Constitution to ban same-sex marriage." Fifty-five percent answered "oppose."
Yet, the final day that pollsters were asking this question -- May 5 -- a Star Tribune editorial was denouncing Minnesotans who support traditional marriage as bigots. Who's surprised at the poll's result?
One last point: In the coming debate, we must have zero tolerance for intimidation tactics. Bullying has become standard operating procedure for many same-sex marriage activists. Their attack last year on Target Corp. is now held up as a national model by those attempting to silence same-sex marriage opponents.
In California, support for Prop 8 has cost some people their jobs. The latest casualty is Olympic gold medal winner Peter Vidmar, who resigned as chief of mission for the 2012 U.S. Olympic team on May 6, after his support for Prop 8 became public. McCarthyism of this kind threatens to undermine Americans' cherished freedom to engage politically without fear of personal reprisals.
Here in Minnesota, we can expect a vigorous debate over marriage in coming months. But personal slurs, distorted push-polling, and intimidation tactics have no place in the civil discourse of a democracy.
Katherine Kersten is a senior fellow at the Center of the American Experiment. The views expressed here are her own. She is at firstname.lastname@example.org.