Minnesota voters face two regressive constitutional amendments this fall. One would prevent future legalization of same-sex marriage and one would suppress voter turnout with cumbersome ID requirements. They are part of a broad, corporate/Right counteroffensive aimed at sweeping away the achievements of New Deal reforms and popular mass movements of the past century. How these attacks play out–and how communities under attack respond–will shape the political landscape for years to come. The two amendments are also linked strategically in ways not yet broadly recognized.
I was spurred into activism at age 13 during an earlier era of repression when some of those movements were at high tide. Two years after I had arrived in Chicago from rural Puerto Rico, Fred Hampton, the popular leader of the local Black Panther chapter was killed as he slept during a pre-dawn police raid. Although we could not have known it then, that raid was just one instance of a repressive strategy that would suppress the most militant movements of the day and pouring resources into an emergent universe of non-profit corporations that would be allowed to address the same social ills so long as they didn’t threaten the dominant structures of power. In the decades since, I have been a participant, observer and ally in a succession of social justice, labor and environmental movements. It is from this vantage point–with a broad grounding in social movements and an abiding interest in the patterns of power that underlie them–that I offer some observations regarding the current political moment. It is a moment ripe with political dangers and hopeful possibilities.
There are two kinds of struggles in which social movements engage: those over rights and benefits and those over power. While the Right uses them with some sophistication, left and liberal organizations tend not to notice the distinction. It is an important one to note, though, if we want to keep the probable victory over the marriage amendment from being nullified in a larger conservative power grab.
The marriage issue is a classic R&B (rights and benefits) campaign. The practical stakes have to do with property, health care decisions and parental rights for same sex couples in traditional relationships. In larger terms it’s about the Right’s determination to impose and expand homophobic values. For the Right such fights are about training the troops, advancing its ideology and bringing politicians and new constituencies into line. Whether they win or lose is of secondary concern.
The “Voter ID” amendment–as a power play–is a different creature entirely. It’s the lynchpin of the Right Wing’s current strategy to win control of the legislative, executive and judicial branches of government and impose their regressive agenda on society. The idea is to place enough obstacles in the way of voting–designed to disadvantage poor folks, people of color, students, the homeless and the disabled–to tip elections their way. Only a small percentage of these people would need to be disenfranchised in order for the plan to be effective. Depressed voter turnout–along with unlimited corporate cash–would secure Tea Party/Koch Brothers/Republican dominance in state legislatures thus giving them control over Congressional redistricting plans, ensuring their electoral advantage for the foreseeable future. Control over the White House and governor’s offices would give them the power to appoint many judges and prosecutors. That would lessen the likelihood of courts blocking their decisions. With their authority to pass and revoke laws unilaterally guaranteed, they will at last be free to “legally” impose their blueprint for society: targeting communities, public services and social, labor and environmental protections and privatizing government functions. The LGBT community has a place of honor on the Right’s hit list. The blueprint for eliminating fifty years of LGBT advances in all areas of life and law is to be found in their voter suppression strategy, not the Marriage Amendment.
Since the days of Jim Crow, Right Wing strategies for maintaining racial disparity have come wrapped in “reasonable” packages. The method is to identify a condition that primarily affects dark folk (or that can be selectively enforced against them) and make that the basis for exclusion. Literacy tests at the polls worked in that way as do drug laws, traffic stops and “quality of life” ordinances. President Nixon explained it succinctly when designing the so-called “War on Drugs.” “The whole problem is really the blacks,” He explained to his Chief of Staff, “The key is to devise a system that recognizes this while appearing not to.” “Recognizing it while appearing not to” is the key to a power play in a country where your real intent would be rejected were it known.
Notice the difference in how the two amendments are being promoted. For the Marriage Amendment the mob is at the front door screaming to the heavens “this is about the Gays! Do you hear us? It’s about the Gays!” No hint of Nixonian coyness there! With Voter ID, on the other hand, the hope is to attract as little attention as possible. It’s presented as a minor procedural adjustment that no one should make a fuss about. Their slogan might as well be “Keep the line moving, folks, nothing to see here.” While everyone has rushed to defend the front door, the vote suppression commandoes are sneaking in the back, disabling the burglar alarm and preparing to seize the property. R&B fights are about having a jolly good battle. Power plays are for getting the goods.
The political Right that we are talking about is a potent combination of corporate financing and social movement conservatism that has produced a network of think tanks, action groups and training centers. These (the most famous being the legislation mill, ALEC) have cranked out a flood of reactionary legislation and referenda that have been introduced around the country–anti-immigrant laws in Arizona, anti-labor measures in Wisconsin, “Stand Your Ground” vigilante legislation in Florida and voter suppression efforts everywhere. They use these initiatives to then mobilize other constituencies into their coalition. The Catholic Church volunteers pounding the pavement for the Marriage Amendment in Minnesota, for example, don’t see themselves as pawns in a political power grab that would undue many of the social values they hold to.
The campaign against the Marriage Amendment has sailed into a strategic blind spot. Anxious to retain sympathetic Republicans and high-profile corporate endorsers it has effectively kept its distance from the parallel campaign against voter suppression. This singular focus on “our” issue is a political windfall for the Right. The Marriage campaign is reported to have raised around five and a half million dollars since its inception. The voting rights organizations, in contrast, have to scrape together change to produce a video or purchase printing. This separation keeps the Marriage campaign’s substantial war chest restricted to the one issue–where, obligingly, it will not interfere with the Right Wing power grab; a power grab that has LGBT rights in its crosshairs.
The campaign to stop the Marriage Amendment is an impressive effort. Its organization, diverse volunteer base and creative engagement with community life are worthy of admiration. Its effective use of personal stories is right on target. All this puts it in a good position to block the power grab without weakening its own immediate mission. It can be accomplished by targeting the Right’s prime vulnerability: its need to hide its true intent.
The functional distance between the Marriage and Voter ID campaigns has caused significant unease within the ranks of both. Some activists are frustrated by the minimization of Voter ID in the larger Marriage campaign while others are annoyed that it’s being brought up at all. There have been some good faith efforts to address this within the constraints of a high-speed, multi-pronged mobilizing effort. They are hampered by the cult of expertise endemic in the world of liberal strategy consultants that advise political campaigns. Equipped with focus group templates and surveys, these consultants typically counsel campaigns that stepping beyond their narrow focus will weaken their prospects. More specifically it will alienate the corporate funders and conservative swing voters who they assume to be the sources of social power. This dovetails with the institutional interests of the Democratic Party in whose shade these consultants have taken root. It has been dependably devoted to protecting its middle-class, business-friendly “brand.” To its strategists it is common sense that you avoid issues of race, poverty, unionism and controversies in general that might alienate those two prized constituencies. That explains Al Gore’s refusal to challenge voter disenfranchisement in Florida in 2000 and Obama’s desertion of the Wisconsin recall fight in 2012.
This played out starkly in the 1994 battle over California’s Proposition 187. Called by the Right the “Save Our State” initiative, it denied public services to undocumented immigrants. A coalition of labor and liberal groups contracted one of these professional consulting firms to guide their campaign. Its strategy was to court suburban swing voters and economic conservatives by agreeing that a flood of illegals was invading California, was contributing to the crime rate and was taking decent people’s jobs.
They just argued that the Proposition would be fiscally irresponsible and hard to administer. A vibrant and motivated coalition of grassroots immigrant rights groups was effectively sidelined and had to run its own campaign, raising funds separately.
This go-it-alone logic has roots in the golden era of community organizing, in the 1960s, when it was widely assumed that enough small wins would add up to a big change in direction. What actually happened was that all those advances provoked the counter-offensive we’re living today. That strategy was shortsighted in its day but becomes suicidal in ours when we face a well-financed, full-spectrum attack on the very idea of social rights and the common good. Such an attack can only be stopped collectively and decisively.
The good news is that we are remarkably well positioned to do just that. The use of a power analysis makes such a campaign an organizer’s dream. Organizing, after all, involves identifying people’s personal stake in an issue. The Right has made this too easy. If what you care most about is the Keystone XL Pipeline or early childhood education or sustainable food production or collective bargaining or civil liberties or accessible health care or social equality then you have a clear and immediate stake in this issue: you–and those you care about–are in the crosshairs. Opportunities like this don’t come around every day!
The infrastructure needed to win on both measures is in place. The key is the story we put out that can then be echoed in tens of thousands of conversations around the state. The story is that these amendments are a one-two punch. One to stir up the nest, the other to deliver the blow. They need to be defeated– and defeated as the single attack they are. The power dynamic needs to be explained to volunteers and allies. The organic link between these issues should become the drumbeat for all leadership and volunteer trainings, talking point handouts, phone banking scripts, fundraising appeals, e-mail updates, newspaper commentaries, web site narratives and door to door conversations. We can make “Voter ID” too toxic to touch in short order.
If it were up to me I’d love to see significant resources transferred to the organizations leading the Voter ID fight. These have significant–if under-funded–on the ground operations. They are launching new, creative initiatives and drawing other groups into the fray as the election approaches. Their leadership on this issue ought to be supported and honored.
Abandoning the single-issue, go-it-alone model produces other benefits. By exposing the Right Wing’s power agenda we are demonstrating that an attack on LGBT people is, in fact, one step in an attack on everyone. Fending off such an attack becomes a matter of self interest for significant constituencies. Right Wing power strategies have always relied on singling out target communities one at a time to isolate and destroy or weaken. They realize, in other words, that together we’d be too strong to take. Swing voters and financiers can help you win short-term skirmishes but for the long haul we’re going to need organic alliances among grassroots communities committed to having each other’s back. Minnesota can show how it’s done.