Two years ago, nearly to the day, a curtain of gloom hung over progressives in Minnesota. A constitutional amendment was passed and sent on to the voters to enshrine in the state constitution that marriage was “between one man and one woman”. It was largely a cynical play to demonize homosexuals and get people out to the polls to vote Republican. The left was shocked and demoralized.
Today, Governor Dayton signed the bill which creates Marriage Equity in Minnesota, or legalizes gay marriage if you insist. It’s a remarkable achievement for this state, the 12th in the US to do so, but the two year path from despair to elation is a fantastic story too intricate to tell here. But one thing can certainly be said of this story:
It was one of the biggest political goofs in history – and if we learn from it this could be a turning point.
If you want to know the players in this story more intimately, I refer you to this excellent story by Beth Hawkins at MinnPost. I want to discuss the political lessons.
Two years ago Republicans controlled both the state House and Senate, but had lost the Governor’s race to Mark Dayton. They could not get all of their legislation through without compromise. Nevermind. A device they had used before was to throw out constitutional amendments, which go right onto the next statewide ballot as a referendum.
Past amendments included a bonus for Persian Gulf War veterans and a constitutional right to hunt and fish. But this one was different – this time they were marginalizing homosexuals. It was a sure-fire way to get people out to the polls to vote Republican, right?
Not only did the “Marriage Amendment” fail, it probably was what cost them both houses of the legislature and led directly to Marriage Equity as we have it now. The crashing and burning of this strategy was epic, and has a lot of lessons to teach us:
Politics of Division has its limits – The Republicans as we know them built a lot of their success along the lines of God, Guns, and Gays. Explosive issues that drive hard emotions have kept people from looking too hard at other issues, such as budgets. But those being demonized can organize and fight back.
Organizing works – Two years ago, no one was geared up for this fight. It was like Pearl Harbor – the left had a fight it did not want but could not lose. The organization built from scratch first reached out to supporters, then the uncommitted, then those opposed. They made a lot of friends in a short time.
Reason wins – The argument was not “We demand our rights!” but a “conversation” on what rights and love mean. Voters were asked to participate, not swallow a line. Can you think of a good reason we should deny rights? 53% of the voters thought not. Of course, not all reasonable people are Democrats and not all Democrats are reasonable – but if you want to win, really win, you have to make a reasoned argument.
Emotion wins, too – When the issue became all about love, not hate, the battle was already over. That corner was turned about 2 months before the election and it was simply natural from there. A lot of tears were shed during the debate in the legislature, and they were all genuine. This came from the guts.
Issues beat parties – In the wealthy suburb of Edina I saw many signs against the marriage amendment next to those for Republican candidates. Ordinary people do not really buy into the left/right divide the way politicians do. People can be engaged issue by issue and make up their own minds.
The good fight is the long fight – The rule of reason is not going to come in some flash overnight, but takes time. The two years from despair to elation took dedication to remain engaged. Yes, it was a fight for basic rights, which helps keep people focused, but this lesson is important.
Eyes on the Prize – Supporters have to stay focused to for that dedication and message to sink in. There is nothing like a good strategy, but staying on it is difficult. One of the keys of organizing is a solid “Why we fight” roundup, which in this case came in the form of the election last November. Once that showed that victory was possible, supporters of Marriage Equity were unstoppable.
A big part of the Republican strategy has been to suppress voter turnout, which is why cynical plays like the Marriage Amendment are so central. The left wins on positive messages like Hope – and in this case, Love.
I leave the last word to Governor Dayton at the signing – “By your political courage, you join that pantheon of exceptional leaders who did something extraordinary,” Dayton said. “You changed the course of history for our state and our nation.”
It’s so sad that there never was a truly intellectual discussion over the issue of gay marriage. Gay Marriages ARE NOT the same as a heterosexual marriage in which both the man and woman are fertile.
Gay Marriages are more like a couple that cannot conceive (not that there’s anything wrong with that). By stating that gay marriages are the same as all heterosexual marriages, the issue becomes clouded in stupidity.
I do not think that religion should play a part in the discussion, but I also don’t like the aggressiveness with which progressives try and jam it down everybody’s throat that a heterosexual couple that is fertile is identical to a gay marriage, it drives me nuts that this point just gets glossed over by the progressives 100% of the time.
Marriage is not really about children, it’s about rights. It’s a long-term partnership that has a whole lot of shared property. It also has next of kin in the hospital, medical benefits, wills & a lot more tied up in it. Maybe its not exactly the same as a marriage with children but the law has so many rights for married couples as a partnership. Thats that this was about.
I really don’t see the difference, and I’m with Sheryl on this. It’s about the rights that a couple has through their contractual partnership.
This is all true but the momentum towards gay marriage is worldwide. That could not be stopped. I have no opinion on this one way or the other but it is good that this is taken away as a way of demonizing ‘the other’ in elections. Michelle Bachman claims she started the movement to ban gay marriage – whoopsie!
Bachmann claimed she started this fight, but I don’t think that’s really true. Fun to think about, though. 🙂
Yes, there is tremendous momentum and that is part of the issue. That has a lot to do with how the cynical plan was a rather stupid one. But the issue still could have lost in relatively conservative Minnesota all the same without a good fight.
This is a national trend. Delaware just did it a few days ago. Delaware state #11, Minnesota state #12. Why is it that this particular form of bigotry seems to be ending now? I don’t know but am glad to be around for it. And thank you for the positive post. So often the forces of darkness seem to prevail in public life.
It’s a positive day! And I want to keep up the momentum. Gary Schiff has the same feeling, I saw. What next?
Well written piece Erik. Children is just one part of marriage, it’s about a contract.
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A very good rundown! It was a big fall and I for one am glad for it.
Speaking about a definition of marriage, I recently published a novel on Amazon. It’s called “Menage3”. People who have read the book really cared about the characters and shared their humor, their losses, and their challenges. Why should any government define who can love whom? Once you get beyond pre-conditioned morality, you are left with a lot of questions. Thank you, Erik, for this blog. It’s informative and has relevant links.
As per usual, I really enjoyed your post.
I’m a queer Washingtonian, and I’ve been thrilled to see my own state, my parents’ state, and a barrage of other states legislate Marraige Equality. So far as I can tell, it seems like we’ve basically won at this point: homophobes are on the wrong side of history (at least re: marriage). I’ll be surprised if Marraige Equality isn’t nationally legalized within a decade.
That said, it seems to me that there is a serious problem with the framing of Marraige Equality. It’s great that being gay no longer excludes people from the legal rights and protections of this institution. But I don’t see the justification for privileging monogamous, long-term, romantic relationships over other social relationships. Example: my aunt and my grandmother live together. Their relationship fits all the non-romantic criteria of marraige; they’re living partners in the same way a married couple are. Yet they don’t get the rights or protections of a married couple; or rather, married couples get rights denied to them. I guess we could say that marraige should be a legal institution in order to promote domestic/economic/social support and partnership, because such partnerships are conducive to a healthy society. But if that’s our justification for affording certain groups special marraige-rights, then romance and monogamy have no place in the definition of marraige.
It seems like a simpler solution to the problem of equitable criteria for who can get married is to simply end marriage as a legal institution, and let communities create their own rituals of romantic commitment.
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