Democrat Jon Ossoff’s loss in the Georgia special congressional election has demoralized progressives who hoped it would signal an anti-Trump wave that could turn the House from red to blue in 2018.
The left is fractured, with disagreements between the Bernie and Hillary wings of the Democratic Party threatening to undercut its ability to turn out the base, appeal to independents and win over disillusioned GOP voters. The question remains whether the so-called resistance can transform itself from a throng of angry voices into a majority capable of creating lasting progressive change.
As activists take up this challenge, they should study the playbook of one of the most successful social justice movements in history: the fight for LGBTQ equality. In short order, our movement beat back the AIDS epidemic, ended sodomy bans, won access to military service and marriage and ultimately more than doubled public approval of gay identity.
There were several keys to the movement’s victories. But one lesson in particular applies to today’s deeply divided politics: Success came when LGBTQ advocates learned to speak the language of those they most needed to enlist rather than those who already agreed with them.
Striving to see our cause through the eyes of folks we didn’t know well, who were indifferent and sometimes actively opposed to our goals, meant adopting a principle from the world of social work: Changing people’s hearts and minds requires meeting them where they are. To some, framing our goals in terms aimed at more conservative audiences was tantamount to selling out. Yet we learned that such pragmatism could achieve more — and more durable — social change than ideological purity.
The battle for marriage equality is a case in point. For years, LGBTQ activists, who were largely (but not exclusively) creatures of the left, avoided making marriage a priority. Many considered it conformist, even retrograde, at odds with the most radical, passionately held ideals of gay liberation.
When activists did include marriage on their agenda, they tended to speak of it in legalistic terms that stressed entitlement to equal rights; they emphasized the deprivations — lack of insurance and tax benefits, for instance — associated with being denied a license to wed. Those tactics weren’t ineffective; they helped create domestic partnership protections in many towns and states, and by 2004 notched one all-out victory: Same-sex couples gained the right to wed in Massachusetts in a state Supreme Court decision.
Yet social conservatives were stirring a backlash and also racking up wins, proactively passing same-sex marriage bans in dozens of states. As troubling, public approval of marriage equality, which had been rising throughout the 1990s, plateaued at around 34% in 2000. LGBTQ advocates had the support of staunch liberals, but they were failing to win over the next batch of supporters needed to build a majority coalition: the moderates of the “moveable middle.”
So marriage advocates scrutinized their message. Backed by donors dedicated to winning the battle, gay rights organizations hired pollsters to conduct focus groups of moderate liberals and conservatives who supported gay rights but not gay marriage. The results hit strategists like lightning. When straight people were asked why they cared about marriage, they mentioned love, commitment and family; yet they thought gay people wanted to marry for different reasons: the rights and benefits. The “moveable middle” wasn’t moving because its members didn’t recognize same-sex couples’ wish to wed as similar to their own.
In response, several gay groups created new campaigns that framed the issue in starkly personal terms. “What if you couldn’t marry the person you love?” asked one ad field-tested in Santa Barbara to counter California’s infamous Proposition 8. Although most Southern Californians voted in favor of the anti-gay-marriage ballot measure, in Santa Barbara County it lost by 10 points.
“We quit talking about legal benefits, talking from the head,” said Tim Sweeney, a longtime gay activist. Instead, the marriage equality battle would turn on “core values.” The trick was to appeal to human empathy rather than to merely emphasize demands or appear to be subversive.
By 2011, a slim majority of Americans were telling pollsters they supported same-sex marriage. It was no coincidence when, the next year, President Obama announced his support as well. When he did, he adopted the movement’s language of common values, saying that “incredibly committed … monogamous same-sex relationships” among White House staffers had changed his mind. Likewise, three years later, when Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy penned his majority opinion in Obergefell vs. Hodges, he referenced the emotional resonance of marriage, citing its “nobility” and “worthiness,” in guaranteeing it to same-sex couples. Marriage equality, now supported by 60% of Americans, was the law of the land.
Some on today’s left act as though the only way to achieve their goals is by catering to the most liberal leanings of the group. “A very progressive manifesto” is how Bernie Sanders recently characterized what Democrats need to win back power. Yet it’s far from clear that a “to the barricades” image is the best way to advance progressive aims. Indeed, it was a positive message based not on outrage but common human values that took gay marriage from fringe to respectable to just plain normal.
Pragmatic engagement with those who weren’t the natural supporters of LGBTQ rights made lives tangibly better for gay people — and inched us all closer to realizing a truly progressive vision.
Nathaniel Frank is author of “Awakening: How Gays and Lesbians Brought Marriage Equality to America” and director of the What We Know project at Columbia Law School.
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