Thursday, May 9, 2013

Reflections on process: Gun Control and Marriage Equality

I'm sometimes as interested in process as I am in the content--can't help it, I'm an academic.

Over the past two months we have all watched two major, high-profile fights in the Delaware General Assembly:  the first over gun control and the second over marriage equality.

What's interesting for me to reflect upon is that my personal ideological bent opposes the gun control measure, but supports marriage equality.  So--to put it bluntly--I watched one fight from the the losing side, and the other from the winning side.  Aside from some of my fellow Libertarians and Senator Ernie Lopez (who supported gun control and opposed marriage equality, so he's like my evil twin, I guess), this gives me a different perspective on the process.

Leave aside the relative merits of gun control of marriage equality for a  moment (I know that's difficult for some of you, but take a real deep breath), and consider what the fights had in common.

First, the proponents of the legislation were, quite simply, better organized than their opposition.  Part of it was disbelief.

Gun rights advocates always talk about people coming to get their guns, but they never actually believe a piece of legislation is going to be enacted until it is almost too late.  [For much of our recent history the only purpose that gun control legislation has ever really served is increased fundraising for the NRA.]  So they never actually learned how to organize at the state level because it was a battle they didn't really--in their heart of hearts--expect to have to fight.  Hold that thought a moment.

Anti-gay traditionalists have always [whether they realized it or not] relied on society's latent baseline homophobia as their final line of defense.  And for decades this worked:  the Democrats would promise LGBQT folks the moon in every election year and then never follow through, because what were the gays gonna do--vote Republican?  When you've got even the first African-American President winning his first election by announcing his opposition to same-sex marriage in a nationally televised debate, and then allowing his words to be used to defeat a ballot measure in California, guess what?  They wee right.

But two things changed--slowly, almost imperceptibly--that rendered both of these assumptions invalid.

The first is that gun control and marriage equality advocates took a long-term, almost generational approach to their issues.  I owe you an entire post on what happened with guns, but the reality is that changing American opinions on guns and gun rights owes far less to Columbine and Sandy Hook than it does to the anti-cigarette movement.  Portraying guns as the problem was never a workable strategy, just like portraying cigarettes as the problem was never a workable strategy.

Instead, gun control advocates slowly (perhaps even unconsciously) convinced the American people that gun/cigarette manufacturers and gun owners/cigarette smokers were the problem.  The manufacturers were especially heartless profiteers, fat cats who preyed upon the fears of the mentally defective portion of the population that still smoked and shot.  Manufacturers became purveyors of death, and smokers/gun owners became people who could not be trusted with too much freedom because they made bad decisions that affected us all (even if we had to bend the science on secondhand smoke or distort the stats on gun violence to do so).

Notice that pattern:  going after the big organizations as heartless, etc., while making their customer base politically toxic, causes the big manufacturers to try to squeeze more sales out of a declining customer base, causing them to ramp up more ridiculous rhetoric, which more effectively isolates the customer base ....

[In the end, by the way, as much as I don't like it, I will tell you what is probably going to happen.  Gun manufacturers, like cigarette companies, are going to cut a deal with the government.  They will sign onto massive gun control changes within the next decade (which will gut their domestic customer base) in exchange for the US government clearing the way for them to have much easier access to the gun market overseas.  Call me back in about a decade and let me know that I am right.  Unfortunately, while I will keep fighting it, gun control as an issue has passed the "tipping point," and the smart pro-gun people are going to get out ahead to negotiate the "new normal" on the best terms they can get.  By the way, for all my hardcore friends, a plea--with a really bad pun--don't shoot the messenger.]

Marriage equality is coming the same way.  The big organization here is not a manufacturer, but the Christian Church, specifically the evangelical churches.  They have allowed themselves to be boxed into an intolerant stance that is, quite frankly, at odds with the longterm history of Christianity, and certainly quite, ah, politically maladroit in an era of child sex abuse in the Catholic Church and greedy tele-evangelists and self-righteous domination Christianists among the Protestants.  So, Step One:  the churches become organizations of intolerance and hypocrisy, so their opposition to marriage equality looks petty rather than principled.

Step two:  gay people (those sneaky, insidious bastards) started infiltrating normal life, holding jobs, joining churches, committing to communities, and convincing (not by rhetoric but by their day to day lives) heterosexuals that, guess what, they aren't monsters.  They're just (almost anti-climactically) people trying to live their lives and get by--maybe do a little good, occasionally.  They went, as a group, from becoming threatening to becoming non-toxic.  This is the direct (if opposite) parallel to smokers and gun owners becoming toxic.

So the first thing to realize is that what you saw in Dover over the past two months on either count was not the beginning of something, but the culmination.  People have been working quietly but unceasingly for gun control and gay rights for decades.  Regardless of who was in power, or who controlled the media or the churches, or what the current media narrative was, these people worked an effective two-pronged strategy:  discredit the organizations that back your opponent (or allow them to discredit themselves) and either normalize or toxify a specific population of people.

Like it or not, it works.

And part of the reason it works is because both gun control and same-sex marriage advocates share one major political advantage, the same shared by anti-cigarette forces or even the woman suffrage movement:  they were pursing the offensive.  They were the forces of change, challenging the status quo.  Gun rights and anti-gay-marriage advocates allowed themselves to be tricked into taking the position as defending tradition, defending existing rights, fighting against change.

We live in a world marked (guess what?) by the rapidity of social, technological, and political change.


It is inherently easier to motivate people over the long haul to support change than it is to motivate them to support the status quo.

OK this is getting too long, even for me, but here in rapid succession are three other takeaways:

1.  Both gun control and same-sex-marriage advocates were coldly realistic:  they knew that when they started that they were minorities, and they knew that they would have to achieve passage of their legislation in that delicate period in which they were still the minority of the population, but had just barely scraped up the majority of the legislators.  So they used data--real data--instead of their gut feelings, and carefully staked out and manipulated and polled and concentrated on where they needed to be.  If they had to work on five other, unrelated issues to get the favorable eye of a legislator over a five-year period, they did so, firmly keeping their eyes on the prize.  Gun rights and anti-same-sex marriage folks have for too long believed in the non-existent "silent majority."

2.  Gun control and same-sex marriage advocates engaged as well as mobilized.  While they kept firm control of their expanding base, both sets of reformers used media and personal contacts to evangelize those without a position, or those only weakly attached to the other side.  Gun rights and anti-gay activists have never successfully done anything beyond mobilizing their own base.  And when your base is shrinking rather than expanding, that's a fool's game.

3.  Gun control and same-sex marriage advocates relentlessly portrayed themselves as for something and not against something.  For safer schools and fewer suicides.  For equal rights for everybody.  I say three times




Ironically, there were strategies available, from a process perspective, that would have increased the chance of different outcomes in both of these battles.

Ant-same-sex marriage people should have taken the libertarian stand, and become "for" getting the government out of marriage all together.  Let marriage be ENTIRELY the province of the churches, and let the government only be empowered to do civil unions as contracts.  Cite the 1st Amendment and Separation.  Be FOR marriage as a sacrament and not a license.  Be FOR the autonomy of churches and their ability to win the faithful through persuasion and not coercion.

Gun rights advocates still have a chance to change their approach, in Delaware as throughout the nation.  I will write about this more at length in the near future, but here's a clue:  take the city of Wilmington out of the equation for a moment and look at the rest of Delaware.  Guess what?  Delaware outside Wilmington does not have a gun problem, a gun violence problem.  In Delaware the problem is not a gun problem, it is a Wilmington problem.  It is not a problem because Wilmington is overwhelmingly African-American, it is a problem because too much of Wilmington is poor, and too many of the people who favor gun control to solve the problems in Wilmington are unwilling to realistically tackle the drugs (de-criminalize, then legalize, if you want to cut the drug problem), the schools (develop a meaningful plan to make Wilmington the US model for academic success in high poverty schools), the jobs problem (really, Governor Markell?  Even if Fisker had been successful, what percentage of those jobs would have gone to inner city residents?).

In other words, folks, reframe the argument from a gun problem to a Wilmington problem (which also de-nationalizes it) and then actually get to work solving that problem.  You want to keep your gun rights?  Accept the fact that doing so is going to require you to pony up some bucks in a rational plan to help fix our State's only city.  Dislike that idea?  Show me something better.

I realize that for the small minority of my friends who have made it this far, some are shaking their heads and predictably saying, "This guy isn't a Libertarian."  Actually, I am--far more so than many of you would believe.  But I am also a realist.  Booker T. Washington famously said, "Put down your bucket where you are."

To do that, you have to know where you are, and you have to be coldly realistic about the facts of your current situation.


kavips said...

lol ... Lopez is your evil twin...

kavips said...

That was funny. I jotted it down then read the rest..

I agree with you on all, I think. Perhaps one point I saw on both sides, is you have to control your crazies.

Wayne LaPierre did a lot a damage to gun rights advocates in Delaware. For like it or not, logic is only half the human equation. A bit problem with us as a species, is if we don't like you, nothing of what you say, will sway us.
Nobody like Wayne LaPierre. Same holds true to those who were against equality in any form or fashion. No one likes evangelicals. Westboro Baptist Church hangs around their necks by association. Putting evangelicals on the stand in Tuesday's Senate session, only made the vote count more determined.

Lastly I would say, use of hate, is undermining. It works when one has the power to intimidate, such as in a place where one can exert a physical presence. No one will counteract your accusations out of fear. But hate does not play well in a vacuum. The respondent simply asks himself.. gee, why would I want to be like him? I like my life now.

I know I copied over some points you also made, but just wanted to process them while they were on top of mind.. :)

Your analysis was very well done.

Delaware Watch said...

You make many good points, Steve. But I have no sense for your perspective that the gun control advocates made their campaign about gun manufacturers. In fact, from my perspective they failed to do precisely that on a national level. Discussions of the gun manufacturers and their interests occurred largely on the margins of the MSM. What has affected people is dead people, especially children. Also, the NRA has been its own worse enemy. I wish the gun manufacturers angle was discussed. I think it would be effective.

I also think that homosexuals being open about their homosexuality has done wonders in changing perspectives about marriage equality. When heterosexual had to deal with the explicit reality of homosexuals in their families, workplaces, etc, they learned that homosexuals and their sexuality were largely as different as differences in eye color and only tangentially different existentially. I saw this transformation in perspective happen in a mere 2 decades with very traditional members of my family. It all has been truly wonderful to witness.

delacrat said...

Marriage Equality and Background Checks("gun control") passed because corporate Amerika does not object to either.

Mike W. said...

On a national level we have seen more states pass pro-gun laws in the wake of Sandy Hook than we have seen states pass stricter gun control.

The states that further infringed upon the rights of their people? Pretty much all blue states, and in every instance Bloomberg had to pour millions into ad campaigns, lying, and lobbying efforts.

Look at Delaware. The anti-rights folks had to fly in Sandy hook parents, colin goddard, and Mark Kelly in order to get universal background checks passed (which of course, would not stop a Sandy Hook from occuring here)

IMO all we've seen is the Two America's have become even more starkly divided.