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.”