It’s down to it. The fight over the two anti-rights amendments to the Minnesota constitution will be discussed for years to come – and not just in the state. What we will have to talk about will depend in large part on what large numbers of people choose to do about it in the next few weeks. Minnesota has a chance to defeat both these attacks by popular vote. However it turns out, the struggle will not be over. If we defeat these initiatives, the Right will produce other strategies to advance its agenda. If they prevail, we will find other ways to resist and challenge. These comments are meant to deepen a discussion begun in an earlier piece (The Marriage Amendment as decoy and how to fight the real danger). A follow-up piece will outline the many options available for those eager to win the fight against both proposed amendments.
In that earlier piece, I described the amendments as a one-two punch: the highly visible marriage amendment being a typically polarizing culture-war battle and the voter restriction amendment being at the heart of a Right Wing power grab. Shrinking the electorate – through voter restriction, voter purges, limiting hours and spreading false information – is the prelude to rolling back a century of gains by unions, women, environmental protectors, GLBT people and others and for neutralizing the “demographic threat” of an approaching people of color majority. Voter restriction contains greater danger to GLBT rights and wellbeing than the marriage amendment itself.
To many activists, heirs to the legacy of past social movements, this would call for a united coalition working for a double No vote, a rejection of both racism and homophobia. Instead, the largest grouping against the marriage amendment, Minnesotans Untied for All Families (MUAF) entered into a very public alliance with individual supporters of voter restriction and insisted on going-it-alone on marriage as a single issue. Many participants in the marriage campaign have chosen to subvert that arrangement (and the instructions of their leaders) by placing voting rights literature on their tables and urging a double No vote when phone banking and door knocking. Some are getting training from both camps in order to be more effective. That united campaign is not in the cards at the organizational level. It has nonetheless been organically developing at the grassroots and how it plays out could determine the outcome.
MUAF leaders explain that since they have Republican steering committee members and donors who support voting restriction they can’t afford to stand against it. This kind of arrangement – what I call the Ugly Handshake – is the hallmark of the “pragmatic” politics expounded by the Clinton New Democrats who rose to prominence in the early 90s. Alarmed by conservative advances, they advocated courting conservative, white, swing voters by accommodating (instead of challenging) their prejudices. Steeped in market surveys, focus groups and “branding” theory, a new industry of professional strategic consultants called for abandoning the “justice” paradigm of relational movement building in favor of a “Just Us” model of short-term campaign management. This approach is epitomized by the centrist think tank “Third Way,” which has reportedly influenced MUAF. Its proposal on immigration policy, for example, is to increase repression on undocumented workers because it polls well with conservative taxpayers. Its global warming solution is to build more nuclear power plants. Where the Right seeks to move people’s perceptions toward a conservative point of view, the centrists merely adjust their messages rightward to keep up. This produces a peculiar dynamic in which the pragmatists can accumulate portfolios of campaign successes while the political environment as a whole slides rightward.
People make political choices based on relationships more than on policy positions. The people in your life that you know you can count on when the going gets tough tend to be the same ones who know they can count on you. Among social groupings this mutual loyalty is called “solidarity.” Social justice organizing is profoundly relational and solidarity-based. Campaigns are conducted not just to win on the issue at hand but also to develop the lasting relationships that will be needed to challenge the grip of the 1%. The deep aquifers of moral hunger that are the wellspring of social change don’t register in surveys of political marketing trends.
The battle over California’s Proposition 8 is a sad case in point. The centrist gay/lesbian groups that led the fight against that homophobic initiative had little success building support in communities of color. Some have tried to explain away their defeat with fanciful tales about dark people being more homophobic than light-skinned people. (In the most thorough population survey to date on the topic, Gallup reports that the populations that self-identify in the largest percentages as LGBT are black and latino, low-income and young: the people most directly in the crosshairs of the voting restriction blitz.)
A less convenient explanation is that no-one could remember a time when those groups had shown any interest in other people’s struggles. Solidarity trees grow from solidarity seeds.
If it were possible to break the centrist spell, MUAF could make a huge contribution to defeating voter restriction – and its threat to GLBT rights – with minimal effort. The campaign sends out thousands of emailed updates, newsletters, event announcements, fundraising appeals and mailers that give the impression that there’s only one amendment (one worth mentioning, anyway). This is a generous gift to the Right, who need their initiative to be as inconspicuous as possible. MUAF could help tip the balance (which is already tottering) by adding a single sentence to the bottom of every campaign message to the effect that “by the way, there’s another anti-rights amendment on the ballot that also deserves your NO vote.” The tide is turning against voter restriction – support in the state has eroded from 80% in May to just above 50%. This is winnable. In a system that counts abstention as a No vote, all you need is to plant doubt about the amendment in a sufficient number of minds. This is a public battle which will be won by taking public stands to shift public opinion.
The effort to restrict voter access is a multifaceted offensive that includes purging voting rolls in Florida, blocking early voting in selected districts in Michigan, publicizing incorrect election dates (only in Spanish language literature) in Arizona, posting false ID requirements in Pennsylvania, dumpster dumping of voter registration forms in Virginia, misleading billboards in Ohio, challenging voter credentials at the polls and utilizing the address instability of deployed soldiers to disqualify their votes, not to mention voter ID measures in more than twenty states. Silence in the face of such an emboldened and aggressive Jim Crow resurgence is not neutrality. Trading silence for funding never ends well – no matter how smart the idea seemed at the time.
There’s nothing wrong with having a wide range of political views in a coalition. The Voting Rights campaign does not follow lowest common denominator politics but rather encourages its member organizations to create messages appropriate to a diversity of communities. It includes religious groups that can’t talk about the marriage issue. They don’t have to do so, but they don’t get to dictate the politics of the whole coalition. If Republican donors would walk away from MUAF over voting rights, it’s an interesting indication that they consider it the more important issue. At all levels of the marriage campaign there are volunteers, staff and leaders who understand the impact of the voting issue and the connections and are passionate about defeating them both. Some have tried to budge the campaign from its faux neutrality, some push the limits as far as they can in their marriage work and others devote additional hours phone banking for voting rights groups. The stubborn silence of their organization, however, makes it harder to be heard. The Ugly Handshake has a way of morphing into the Ugly Straightjacket.
The pragmatism of the strategy professionals can get results – organic gardening and gardening with toxic chemicals both produce tomatoes after all. Only one of them, however, contributes to healthy soil for the future. The condition of the soil for the future matters a great deal. These struggles will not end on November 6, no matter the outcome of the voting.
It’s too late for a joint campaign unified around a justice platform. But what leaders can’t deliver, the grassroots often can. The good news about the Ugly Handshake is that it’s not binding on anyone who didn’t agree to it. There are many ways that people, no matter what campaign work you have or haven’t been doing, can contribute to defeating these double attacks on our rights, dignity and future. There is nightly phone banking for voting rights, “double-No” public events, online, social media and video messaging, and organizations that are campaigning against both amendments. My next posting will highlight these opportunities. Solidarity is about having each other’s backs, working together and creating strong relationships for the long-term struggles to come.