Strategies for movement survival

A Supreme Court decision isn’t like a World Cup final, where the winners celebrate, congratulate the losers, and then everyone goes home. Celebrating a win (or lamenting a loss) and then going home almost never happens. Organizations survive. They adjust strategies, tactics, and goals, finding new ways to keep doing some version of what they’ve been doing. This makes sense. First, for most activists the marriage campaign was part of a much larger agenda. Second, in pursuit of that agenda, they’ve built organizations and lives based around an ongoing and open political conflict. There are battles to be fought, Twitter feeds to fill, bills to pay—and, of course, fundraising campaigns to coordinate.

Social movement organizers promote urgency and optimism in order to mobilize support. This means emphasizing both the threat represented by opponents and the prospect that coordinated action can lead to political victory. Saints and psychopaths might continue to engage a settled cause, but most people want to believe that their efforts might matter.

For organizers, the decisions are difficult; the marriage issue organized their activities and their lives for years. Figuring out what to do next means thinking about such principles as justice and morality, political considerations about what might work, and material issues like what sorts of claims and rhetoric are going to keep money coming into the organization, paying rent, salaries, and electric bills. For all kinds of reasons, it’s critical to come up with a way to keep the battle going, even if that means shifting fronts.

It’s easier for the winners, who will claim the victory and try to find a new front to advance their cause. The websites of most of the marriage equality groups are filled with related issues, including support for transgender people, HIV/AIDS, high school students, and critically, campaigns for anti-discrimination bills across the states. Their job is to make the struggle as important and as clear as the marriage campaign became.

For the losers, it’s tougher. The Obergefell decision was a resounding defeat for opponents of same sex marriage, and the groups at the core of the anti-equality (traditional marriage?) movement are casting about for new ways to continue their battle.  And losing is relatively new for them.

Until relatively recently, advocates of traditional marriage won most of the time, until the last few years, when opinions changed and the political winds shifted dramatically.

Marriage equality opponents endured defections. A few Republican notables admitted that coming to know gay people, often their sons and daughters, helped change their minds over time. As opinions shifted, some activists began to reconsider. Consider the case of David Blankenhorn, the expert witness against gay marriage in 2010 in the federal trial on California’s Proposition 8. The failure to find other experts, and the judge’s decision to dismiss Blankenhorn’s testimony as “untrustworthy,” was a signal that things weren’t going his way.

By 2012, provoking opposition from longtime allies, Blankenhorn announced that he had changed his mind. Making a virtue of necessity, he redefined his priorities. Traditional marriage was still the best, he said, but preserving its exclusivity was a lost cause that had taken on a nasty anti-gay animus. Abandoning a failed strategy, he announced that he wanted to try something new, “to help build new coalitions bringing together gays who want to strengthen marriage with straight people who want to do the same.”

Falling back and redefining the policy frontier like this is one obvious strategy for survival. Several of the Republican aspirants for the presidency have already adopted this tack (Bush, Carson, Graham, Rubio). While describing their disappointment with the decision, they’ve acknowledged the court’s decision as law, and called for a focus on protecting the liberties of religious people, presumably the liberty to discriminate against gay people.

But most of their allies aren’t ready to give up. Candidates courting the Christian right more aggressively have promised to overturn the decision, somehow, maybe even through a Constitutional amendment. (By the way, you want your opponents to focus on amending the US Constitution.) The core anti-marriage groups have challenged the legitimacy of the decision. Concerned Women for America compared the decision to Scott v. Sandford (compelling the return of escaped slaves) and Roe v. Wade, emphasizing that the battle continues. The National Organization for Marriage declared its intent to make sure marriage was a central front in the upcoming electoral campaign.  Meanwhile, religious conservatives have declared that they will redouble their efforts to bring Christian values back to the political realm, recruiting pastors to run for office (e.g., the American Renewal Project).

This vigor, venom, and certainty may play well for a while with the stalwarts, whose number will diminish over time with demographic changes, the increased visibility of gay couples, and the World Cup victory of the US women’s soccer team. The remaining supporters will demand more comprehensive statements of principle that will make converting others even more difficult. The groups will need to choose between finding new support and servicing an increasingly homogenous and demanding base. It’s a tough prospect that leads to ugly politics.

David S. Meyer is professor of sociology at the University of California, Irvine. His most recent book is The Politics of Protest: Social Movements in America, and he writes the Politics Outdoors blog. Follow him on Twitter at @davidsmeyer1.

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