Same-Sex Marriage and Public Opinion: Spirals, Frames, and the Seinfeld Effect


Americans appear to accept same-sex marriage more than they really do, perhaps because they believe it to be more widely accepted than it really is.

Print Friendly

In the 1993 Seinfeld episode “The Outing,” a female reporter mistakes Jerry Seinfeld and his friend George Costanza for homosexual partners. When her misunderstanding dawns on them, they vehemently deny that they are gay, yet constantly punctuate their denials with the rote expression “not that there’s anything wrong with that!” As heterosexual men, Jerry and George are both keen to be taken for what they are, but there’s more to it than that: they can’t entirely inhibit revulsion at the idea that others think they are homosexual, and perhaps revulsion at the very idea of being homosexual.

Their repeated exclamation “not that there’s anything wrong with that!”—invariably uttered with far less passion than their denials—is a socially conditioned response. Somewhere they have learned that it is unacceptable to cast aspersions on homosexuality, and that the politically correct response is to say (as Jerry does at one point, albeit rather too excitedly), “People’s personal sexual preferences are nobody’s business but their own!” Jerry and George struggle to suppress what they really think with what they have been taught to think is “enlightened opinion.” Call it the Seinfeld Effect.

Seventeen years later, the advocates of same-sex marriage are making “people’s personal sexual preferences” everybody’s business, and are counting on the Seinfeld Effect to suppress what most Americans really think about same-sex marriage. They are waging their struggle, after all, not just in courts of law but also in the court of public opinion, and the advocates’ success with certain judges will not be secure unless most Americans are with them. So how are they doing?

A CNN/Gallup poll released on August 11 found that 52% of respondents supported and only 46% opposed same-sex marriage—a result widely trumpeted as the first time a majority expressed this view. But in an important finding, a North Carolina firm called Public Policy Polling discovered that its method of automated polling or “robo-calls,” in which respondents interact on their phone with a computer-controlled interview system rather than a human interviewer, yields significantly higher numbers of Americans who oppose same-sex marriage.

The robo-call technique has been pioneered by pollster Scott Rasmussen, who has racked up an impressive record of accuracy in the highly competitive business of predicting election outcomes. Using this same system, Public Policy Polling—whose head actually favors gay marriage—found in a poll released on August 13 that a mere 33% of respondents favored same-sex marriage, while a full 57% opposed it. (This is a result the firm’s head deplored, but defended as accurate nonetheless.)

What’s going on here? If we take both polls as accurate, each in its own way, then we can say that one-tenth (or more) of Americans oppose same-sex marriage but are extremely hesitant to say so to another person, even a stranger conducting a telephone survey. Yet they will express their disapproval in the complete anonymity of a “robo-call” survey—or, from what we have seen so far, the voting booth.

This finding shows that while support for conjugal marriage is widespread, it is also fragile and falling victim to a phenomenon known among public opinion researchers as the “spiral of silence.” The late German political scientist Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann coined this phrase, and used it as the title of a book 30 years ago. W. Phillips Davison summarized her theory as follows:

Most people are able to estimate (although not always correctly) what majority opinion is on most issues, or whether a particular opinion on an issue is gaining or losing ground. Those who see their own views as becoming more widely accepted tend to voice these views in public, and with increasing confidence. Those whose opinions seem to be losing ground are reluctant to speak out. The silence of the “losers,” in turn, increases the confidence of the other side. Finally, only a hard core is willing to defend the minority opinion in public.

One need not believe in what Noelle-Neumann called a “quasi-statistical” sixth sense to see  her point. The conformity of crowd behavior has been observed almost as long as there have been crowds, and, for most people, the smaller and weaker one feels one’s own position to be, the harder it is to maintain it.

Noelle-Neumann’s “spiral of silence” theory doesn’t treat only the increasing dominance of opinion that already commands a majority, but can also account for any opinion that is “gaining ground.” But how does an opinion gain ground, if it begins as the minority view? On this she had less to say. But others who have studied the mass media can help us out here. Communication scholar Jim Kuypers, for instance, has written of the rhetorical phenomenon known as “framing”:

Framing is a process whereby communicators, consciously or unconsciously, act to construct a point of view that encourages the facts of a given situation to be interpreted by others in a particular manner. Frames operate in four key ways: they define problems, diagnose causes, make moral judgments, and suggest remedies. Frames are often found within a narrative account of an issue or event, and are generally the central organizing idea.

There can be little doubt that the dominant institutions in the American news media—the leading newspapers, magazines, and television network news divisions—have been at work for years in framing the question of same-sex marriage in ways that advantage its advocates. In the dominant media “frame,” for instance, it is always the opponents (and never the supporters) of same-sex marriage who are described as employing the controversy as a “wedge issue,” the implicit moral judgment being that those who push such controversies to the forefront are being divisive and working to destroy the harmony of the American community by pitting neighbor against neighbor. The advocates of same-sex marriage are never described in similarly loaded language, although the radicalism of the proposition that men can marry men and women can marry women is self-evident.

The danger for traditional marriage’s defenders, then, is that media framing of an issue can, over time, push many Americans into a “spiral of silence,” in which they will first experience the Seinfeld Effect of publicly suppressing their opinion that there is “something wrong” with same-sex marriage, then prevaricate even with strangers surveying them on the phone, and finally acquiesce, however reluctantly, in a fait accompli foisted on them as a “constitutional right” by activist judges.

On the marriage issue, there will no doubt always be a sizable “hard core” of defenders of conjugal marriage, particularly though not exclusively among the most orthodox religious believers. But there is a “soft middle” in American public opinion on this question, comprised of those who oppose same-sex marriage but fear that their views are losing ground and are hopelessly retrograde in a changing world. What steps can be taken to stiffen their resistance? Is some form of “inoculation” possible?

Inoculation is more than possible. Noelle-Neumann’s spiral of silence is dependent on both the experience of isolation and the fear of isolation. “My view is different from everyone else’s around me” is the opinion-killer for many people, even when the perception is a false one. Defenders of the institution of marriage need to know that they stand, not merely with more like-minded contemporaries than they suspect, but with countless generations of thoughtful people—husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, philosophers and lawgivers, prophets and priests—who believed as they believe.

They also need to know that, however few or many they are in their immediate social surroundings, they have the best arguments at their disposal for the preservation of that tradition: That marriage would not exist were it not for the fact that men and women have children, and it is good that they have them together and rear them together. That on the whole it is best for children to be raised, wherever possible, by their natural mothers and fathers in intact, lifelong familial relationships. That marriage’s nature is not infinitely malleable in response to our will, but is the shaper of our relations as much or more than it is shaped by them. That the reshaping of marriage to “make room” for same-sex couples leaves it vulnerable to every other claimant who wants similar space in the institution, including the polyamorous—and so the reshaping is, in truth, the effectual abolition of marriage. That the defenders of tradition should suffer no embarrassment if their moral views about the law of marriage find confirmation in the tenets of their religious faith, however much they are vilified as irrational bigots by a federal judge.

To these powerful arguments the advocates of radical change in the institution of marriage can oppose nothing but an appeal to sentiment, and the force of the Seinfeld Effect. They expect their fellow Americans to shrug and say, “so they want to get married—not that there’s anything wrong with that.” We must offer instead a firm but loving refusal to shrug at this revolution in our political and cultural life.

Matthew J. Franck is director of the William E. and Carol G. Simon Center on Religion and the Constitution at the Witherspoon Institute. Gwen Brown is professor emerita of communication at Radford University.

Print Friendly



Related Reading


Web Briefings

PD logo

Want more great articles?

Sign up for daily or weekly emails!

subscribe button