Learning from North Carolina

Like most of my friends and colleagues, I am disappointed at the choice that North Carolina citizens made about amending their constitution.   I am not, however, surprised.  Although I’m fortunate to live in a state where marriages are legal, I still observe reticence and ambivalence even from people who intellectually support some sort of legal protection for gay couples.  I suspect that even in NY, if it had been put to a popular vote, gay marriage would have lost.

Yet, I’m not sure if the vote is a complete disaster.  Forty percent is far more than it would have been twenty years ago.  The publicity may have exposed the bigotry and fear at the root of the amendment.  I suspect the victorious side will find its satisfactions temporary.  The culture is simply changing so that it accepts the ordinariness of same-sex desire.   Laws will not stop it.  And people will be creative enough to live around it.  The law will be challenged. 

Gay marriage is one issue that is “low-cost” for those who oppose it.  “High cost” issues are those where people have some skin in the game – raising taxes for fire departments and schools.  The benefit of low cost issues is that the orienting party can find a easy target (in this case, gay people), without having to promise anything of great value to its constituents.  What, after all, do conservative churches get for opposing gay marriage?  Not much, except they feel better.  Their communities will not become richer (and they may become poorer); they will not become safer. It is one of the great misdirections, that politicians can offer the seductively sweet nectar of moral righteousness, while ensuring they don’t need to spend a penny on making their communities more livable. 

It also behooves the progressive left to remember:  rational arguments rarely trump relationships.  The amendment passed because, in part, the church understands organizing.  They had at their disposal relationships built over years in their congregations.   The solution is not, in my view, trying to claim churches should not be involved in politics, but rather – to get organized.

“Movement” politics is different than organizing.  Movements arise and fall.  They can change culture; but they do not change who has power.  Organizing to challenge power, however, requires enormous patience.   And for this reason, progressives who seek immediate change are constantly disappointed.  Building institutions, building relationships and training leaders takes years.  It takes familiarity with people.  This familiarity is crucial because most people do not trust arguments.  They trust other people. 

Corporations and churches know this.  Corporations hire people who know Washington and have built years of relationships.  Lobbyists don’t simply commute from their homestate to WDC, they live there and get to know who makes the machine move.  Churches, as organizations, train people do get work done in groups – from having pot-lucks, to mission trips, to political organization.  The internet is a poor substitute for face to face relationships.  It can enhance, but not replace them.  A left that rejects the practice of lobbying; that does not build counter institutions or enable the ones that already exist; will continue to find itself sidelined and unprepared. 

So on the day after the election, do not despair.  The loss is, instead, an invitation to examine and study the opposition to happen next.  It is an opportunity to reorganize.