I’m late, I’m late: Critiquing No on 8

Apologies if this entry reads more like a disjointed legal treatise than a blog post; I’m three days out of finals and I haven’t decolonized my writing yet.

No on Proposition 8 failed strategically as a political campaign, and Rolling Stone is the first mainstream publication to make the obvious argument obvious. Logically it makes much more sense to take the political leadership behind the campaign to task than blaming the California black community for a debunked, flawed exit poll analysis that still gets tacitly promoted as a viable possibility. And contrary to the instincts of straight white allies, it really isn’t homophobic to point to this loss as part political and organizational failure.

See, that admission makes the assumption that all gay people stood prominently at the helm of this political Hindenburg.

And for the most part, all LGBTQ weren’t at the forefront of this effort. Dickinson picks up the voices of the people who felt excluded from the No on 8 blitz and puts them in a glaring marquee.

Compare the muscle during the No on 8 campaign of outspoken gay rights activists and allies to the outpouring of marches and boycotts AFTER Proposition 8 succeeded in California along with other ballot-driven anti-LGBTQ provisions. The contrast in organization and grassroots might is staggering.

Yes on Proposition 8 started out with a strategic advantage linguistically by being an affirmation of taking away a right. People were confused about whether “yes” meant “yes to gay marriage” up until November 4th. “Yes to not taking away gay marriage” makes your mind center the moral battle of whether or not gay people should marry and not the fact they have already been marrying and leading normal lives as couples without hell freezing over. For the faith-based community, doubt is all that’s needed to inject a dose of religious morality and a few scriptures in the most wayward believer’s head. The opportune framing of the issue by anti-gay marriage advocates belies the fact the measure should have never hit the ballot box in the first place.

Consequently, the fight to protect gay people’s rights (specifically the right to marry in California) turned into a moral battle about the abstraction of Gay Marriage from the very start. Through this shift in priority, different messages took the helm of the campaign that served to confuse voters more than influence their decisions. When an advertisement stirs up all the funny feelings around the gay marriage institution in a person’s stomach, but then reassures it’s all about the civil rights of marriage and those funny feelings can stay, it becomes confusing. It reinforces the “us (stereotypical homophobes) vs. Them (the mighty marrying rainbow)” dichotomy to a dangerous degree before it takes the weight of that decision off the shoulders of the person making it. And that is a classic PR mistake, a classic framing mistake in Minority Civil Rights 101: never let the majority’s fear take over definition of what the minority wants or play on questions about the minority’s merit as people.

Strategically, Yes on Prop 8 followed the arc of another successful political campaign effort using the power of misinformation rather than change. As Matt Stoller notes in his analysis of the Rolling Stone article and the No on 8 campaign effort, the California Democratic political machine notoriously bungles political efforts in the state with its over-reliance on television and political bosses and its under-reliance on the bases and networks of established community activism.

California is especially bad, because it’s an expensive state and TV is where the consulting money is made. While you wouldn’t notice it on a national level because California always goes for the Democratic Presidential nominee, ‘top’ California Democratic consultants have a history of this kind of nonsense. Consider their recent legacy of defeats: Gray Davis’s recall in the face of a fiscal crisis orchestrated by conservative interests who helped Enron steal much of California’s budget through price fixing, the embarrassing campaign to oppose Arnold Schwarzenegger for reelection by Phil Angelides who not only ran a horrific campaign but was repeatedly sabotaged by insider California consultants and his primary opponent Steve Westly, and the overfunded losing campaign to pass Proposition 87 to increase the use of alternative fuels with an oil tax in 2006. These weren’t just awful campaigns, they were embarrassingly awful, with money going to fill the coffers of the consultants who preached TV TV TV and failed to do any significant field, internet work, or basic outreach to different constituencies. These campaigns shared the standard characteristics of the No on Prop 8 campaign; entirely TV dependent, passively messaged, no field, hostile treatment towards possible allies, and anonymous sniping from other consultants not cut in on the cash.

California is not an assured Democratic and progressive stronghold. It has a Republican governor right now in Arnold Schwarzenegger (an underutilized No on Prop 8 supporter); it’s the birthplace of Ronald Reagan’s political career. The danger of using Hollywood logic to frame California as a progressive Democratic mecca comes with the cost of measures like Yes on 8 succeeding.

As Stoller points out, the consultants quick to point out how “they” (cryptically meaning LGBT folk) fucked things up also mysteriously have no names in Dickinson’s article — they have titles like “veteran political observers” and “top Democratic campaign strategist.” Meanwhile, a list of concessions come from LGBT activists unafraid to place their names on record and to discuss where things went wrong — an odd juxtaposition of perspectives. Anonymity is not easily won in mainstream journalism; often when an anonymous tip or critique hits an article’s main text, it is an indication the speakers are closely attuned with the effort on the record. Any blogger knows her worst, most virulent critic often hides behind the comfort of a sock. The fact these very acute “political leaders” are afraid to go on public record about the campaign’s failures tells an important story about the true source of the leadership and the homophobia behind the political scenes of No on 8 — homophobia that prominent white gay and lesbian activists at the head of this campaign bought (literally) and continued. These attitudes didn’t originate with Rolling Stone. Should they be taken with a grain of salt? Of course.

National Center For Lesbian Rights head Kate Kendall responds in the story’s comments:

“When Dickinson called to interview me about the No on Prop 8 campaign it became obvious he wasn’t interested in the facts about the campaign, he wanted only information that supported this hit piece.”

But outright dismissal is going too far. Dickinson did not need a bevy of organizers’ quotes to show the failure of No on 8 to build up the political muscle it needed over a sustained period of time, on the ground, and in an effective and unambiguous way. The proof is out there for those people diligent enough to collect it.

This failed political strategy extends beyond the California Democratic Party consultants to the failures of Senators Clinton and McCain to win the ‘08 presidency bid. The game of political campaigning changed fundamentally with Obama’s win. Both campaigns took political locales and groups of people for granted and went to political consultants and bosses to have constituencies delivered to them. Obama’s motive power rested less in hope and more strongly in arousing a spirit of coalition — a spirit Dickinson touches on in his article concerning the Mormon Church’s effort to tie itself with other faith-based communities for the sake of victory. The work did not stop with churches binding together — its volunteers knocked on doors. It called people to make sure people went to the polls to vote on the measure and did not give up after Obama took the presidency early in the Pacific time zone.

Yes on Prop 8 did strong outreach to minority communities. As Richard Kim points out in The Nation a day after the election, Yes on 8 flourished in minority communities because there was a lack of counter-arguments from the No on 8 campaign until the last minute. From an account on the battleground, ladyjax writes about the moves that would have made a difference to minority communities facing the Proposition 8 measure:

One thing I wish the No on 8 campaign had done from the beginning – hammer home the message about discrimination. Emphasize how easy it is for a group of people to have their rights taken away by the popular vote of the people. Skip the oh so gentle assimilationist approach (‘oh, but we’re just like you. Really’) and go straight for scorched earth – “You don’t have to like us but if our rights can be taken away, it can happen to you. This is a constitutional change not a Sunday picnic. Think about it.”

If that was the message that was put out over and over in POC communities, street by street, door by door, face to face *that* would have gotten through even if it was only to a few. That’s what would have made some people stop and say, “Bwah? Seriously? Oh HELL No.”

And evidence (anecdotal and otherwise) indicates there would be a lot of people who would have grasped that message and intensified the fight against Prop 8. The anti-gay marriage church apparatus tapped into its networks to bring in people who would not necessarily associate with them; it reached across the aisle, so to speak, and exploited a political advantage. The main way No on 8 narrowed the gap is through enlisting the help and expertise of LGBT activists and political figures and by letting them refocus the floundering campaign using successful LGBT public relations and community organizing strategies — tactics that resembled more loud/proud/already normal people messages and less fear/shame/steady mainstream integration posturing. As Dickinson poignantly puts it in his article:

Robin Tyler, one of the lead plaintiffs in the marriage case that reached the state Supreme Court, describes the approach of No on Prop 8 as “if we hide, they’ll give us our rights.” The campaign, she suggests, could have picked up a few pointers from the ballot initiative to reform factory farming: “When they were trying to pass Prop 2,” she asks, “did they hide the chickens?”

Is the LGBT community as a whole aware of all of these critiques? Yes, because since the failure of No on 8, it has been the main group openly pointing out the weaknesses of the effort with no sense of fear or hesitation. Weakness: scapegoating straight black Americans for not defeating Prop 8:

[M]any whites feel a significant aversion to homosexuality as well, or we’d have marriage equality in quite a few more states. Homophobia has nothing to do with race; religious beliefs, levels of education and class are much better predictors — and that applies across color lines.

A blanket statement about blacks and homophobia overlooks black LGBTs, secular blacks, those with high levels of education — those who did vote against 8. Did these folks turn in their Negro card when they lost their homophobia? It’s absurd thinking.

But acknowledging this that would render this op-ed’s hysteria useless, facts and logic are inconvenient. It’s amazing how intelligent people can so easily fall prey to their own biases, and display them so publicly.

Weakness: fueling racial animosity within the LGBT community by alienating gay activists of color who support gay marriage:

Los Angeles resident and Rod 2.0 reader A. Ronald says he and his boyfriend, who are both black, were carrying NO ON PROP 8 signs and still subjected to racial abuse.

“Three older men accosted my friend and shouted, ‘Black people did this, I hope you people are happy!’ A young lesbian couple with mohawks and Obama buttons joined the shouting and said there were ‘very disappointed with black people’ and ‘how could we’ after the Obama victory. This was stupid for them to single us out because we were carrying those blue NO ON PROP 8 signs! I pointed that out and the one of the older men said it didn’t matter because ‘most black people hated gays’ and he was ‘wrong’ to think we had compassion. That was the most insulting thing I had ever heard. I guess he never thought we were gay.”

Weakness: faulty and unhinged political organization leading to mixed messages, slow arousal of support, and non-LGBT management of the effort:

Your editor questioned the Prop. 8 campaign before the election, particularly the lack of a get out the vote effort. The campaign focused on television ads and phone-banking and actively discouraged grassroots efforts to do one-on-one canvassing across the state, even mocking the Yes on 8 campaign’s door to door operation. We weren’t the only ones. Rick Jacobs, executive director of The Courage Campaign, a progressive netroots activist group was flummoxed. He explained his frustration to the LA Weekly:

“He asked campaign insiders to explain their plans. ‘I was told they were blanketing [black and Latino] neighborhoods with door [knob] hangers.’ Such passive electioneering, ‘shows a colossal lack of understanding for what is needed to win an election.’”

Some are already calling tonight’s virtual town hall a dog and pony show– not only is the event hosted by one of the No on 8 campaign leaders, it’s being done in a virtual setting that allows No on 8 leaders complete control over the environment and the questions asked.

To ignore these problems in a superficial show of solidarity undersells the significance of this effort. Minority groups learn quickly in the political realm that there is no such thing as an entitlement. Fundamental rights deserve a steady and unabashed fight, and No on 8 didn’t channel that fight. That doesn’t mean that LGBT communities are incapable of fighting or that the loss of this right isn’t wrong. But the guiding maxim of this entire political experience surrounding LGBT rights — all rights of minorities — is power isn’t something that is easily given; it’s something that has to be taken. The political consultants that advised No on 8 to wear wedding rings loosely instead of tattooing it to its fingers — well, it speaks from a rather entitled mountain peak, a place where people aren’t accustomed to losing the most basic of liberties through the most democratic avenues. And for now (and not for long) we have to live with the consequences of underestimating the true significance of putting in the work and sustaining the activist fight.

Many thanks to Blackamazon for her excellent post early on dealing with Prop 8 and to matttbastard for helping me find a lot (and I mean a LOT) of my sources. Y’all are aces. Crossposted at Problem Chylde.

3 Responses to “I’m late, I’m late: Critiquing No on 8”

  1. Kathy says:

    Sylvia, in case you’re wondering, I split the page for you. I love that feature!

  2. SylviaM says:

    LOL, I was just traveling here to do that because I realized I’d forgotten! Thank you so much! 😀

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