What does it take to make a minority opinion a majority one?
A year ago Glenn Beck said that gay marriage was really about "going into churches and attacking churches... Then you also have to go into the schools."
Beck also said that "I contend [marriage] is the building block of the entire universe. If the male and the female don't get together, then the whole universe collapses."
But just a few days ago, Beck, in answering a question from Bill O'Reilly, said that gay marriage is harmless to the nation.
Less than twenty years ago, the right of a gay man to sue for losing his job over discrimination was hotly debated, thanks in part to the movie Philadelphia, starring Tom Hanks. The issue of same-sex marriage was not discussed publicly or polled about as much.
Consider the graph shown in a recent Vanity Fair article to see the history of opinion on this topic:
This shows polls of same-sex marriage since 1988. Note the steady rate of increase of those who expressed support for it (and the corresponding drop of those who oppose) to this very day, where the poll shows a near-even split.
What accounts for this shift in opinion?
Historically, changes in opinions about civil rights have come slowly. For example, in the early days of the United States, most states only gave the right to vote to white men (the Constitution did not specify who could vote at that time). Blacks did not get the constitutional right to vote until the 15th Amendment shortly after the Civil War and women not until the 19th Amendment in 1920.
Other civil rights have also gone slowly in expansion, such as the right to marry inter-racially, the right to go to a public university of one's choice and the right to serve on a jury. All of these waited until the 1960s in some states. The right to vote was extended to citizens at the age of 18 (from the previous age of 21) in 1971. And over the years, more and more states have allowed the right to adopt to gays.
This brings me back to the right of gays to marry. The inclusion of same-sex marriage to the laws appears to be the next logical step
of this expansion of specific rights to people who previously did not have them.
Expanding rights, then, is a common characteristic of an opinion that go from minority to majority. What about opinions that express the opposite?
Examples include gun control, term limits for elected officials and the forbiddance of allowing children of illegal immigrants to attend public school. All of these opinions have achieved a peak in support but have since gone down in polls and in becoming laws.
Interestingly, court decisions that went against each of them. The Supreme Court ruled recently in McDonald v Chicago that the Fourteenth Amendment incorporates the Second Amendment's right to bear arms to state law. In 1995, the same court found that term limits for federal offices are unconstitutional in U.S. Term Limits Inc. v. Thornton. And the 1982 Plyler v. Doe case gave illegal immigrant children the right to attend public school unless the state can show a substantial goal in barring them.
Court decisions have undoubtedly swayed the public opinion. Even talking heads like Beck can figure out that a court decision can tell them which way the wind is blowing.
But the reason why is not necessarily because people look to the courts to guide their thoughts. Rather, the court decisions usually reflect the general rule of law that prefers the expansion of rights and general tolerance over the negating of rights to groups of people.