With a switch of just two percent of the votes, the leaders of the “No on 8” campaign would today be heroes. We’d be lauding their powerful advertising campaign. We’d be celebrating their coalition building. We’d wonder at their unprecedented fundraising prowess. And we’d still have gay marriage in California.
But life is a vale of tears, so the conventional wisdom is that the leaders of No on 8 are clueless cowards who squandered a large lead in a blue state in a bright blue year.
Never mind that they were trying to overcome deeply embedded views about something Americans think is the foundation of responsible family life.
Never mind that winning on Prop 8 would have been a first for gay marriage at the polls anywhere in America (except for a brief win in Arizona in 2006, reversed in 2008), including in blue states like Oregon and Wisconsin.
Never mind that the early public polls suggesting a big defeat for Prop 8 were never reliable, and were criticized as such at the time. There was no lead to be squandered.
Everybody now seems to know what went wrong on Prop 8. But the truth is, nobody really knows how that extra two percent might have been persuaded to vote “no.”
The main “problem” identified by many critics is that the campaign left gay people invisible. Anti-Prop 8 literature made no mention of gays, instead complaining that it was “unfair” and “wrong” to discriminate against an unnamed group of people. The television ads didn’t portray gay families.
This deliberate omission deeply offends a lot of people. The gay-rights command of the past 40 years has been to come out. The logic was recently summed up by veteran lesbian activist Robin Tyler at a post-Prop 8 “Equality Summit” in Los Angeles. “When you get to know us,” she said, “you don’t want to discriminate against us.” No on 8 was a “know-nothing” campaign.
Campaign leaders have defended the know-nothing approach as the only way to win. Political consultants, whom we’re told know better about such things than ordinary mortals, advised them that frank images of homosexuals would turn off persuadable voters. An “openly gay” campaign would not have won. It would have lost by an even larger margin, they claim.
The political professionals may be right. The error of the know-nothing critique is that it treats a strategy for winning the culture war (come out) as a tactic for winning a ballot battle. Coming out is an interpersonal act that works because the person already knows and likes you. It’s not something you tell 40 million strangers expecting their immediate understanding and support. Contrary to Tyler’s admonition, can you really “know us” via 30-second ads aired over a period of a few months?
But there are a couple of potential problems with the adult, responsible, realistic, political-consultant perspective. First, to know whether it’s right we’d need to see the actual data—the polling, the focus-group analysis—that underlie this judgment. My untutored sense is that focus groups and polls are often applied too statically and mechanically to real-life politics, which are dynamic and contextualized. Focus groups might have loved New Coke, but the public didn’t.
Second, there’s a paradox here. Almost everyone agrees that victory in the gay-marriage struggle ultimately requires the deep cultural shift brought on by coming out, by acquainting Americans with the real problems faced by real gay families, and by showing them how gay people are no threat to their own churches, families, and values.
We aren’t going to fool people into supporting gay marriage. We can’t just coldly claim legal rights. We may persuade gay activists that it’s “wrong” and “unfair” to eliminate rights created five minutes ago by four judges. But most people don’t believe there’s a right to something that’s not right. And they need to know a lot more about gay families over a long period to reach the conclusion that gay marriage is right.
How can that be done without talking about actual gay people? And when will it be done on a large scale except when we have the resources and energy to do it, as we do in a ballot fight? Winning in the end may depend on losing a few preliminary rounds in a way that progressively erodes the opposition. Instead, in every single ballot fight in 30 states, we have squandered the opportunity to educate voters for the future. Losing smartly now means winning later; losing ignorantly just means endless losing.
None of this is to say that the know-nothing choice made by No on 8 leaders was wrong in its context. My sense is that leaders of No on 8 reasonably thought they were within striking distance of winning and let their analysis overcome their instincts. They placed the safest bet available and narrowly lost.
Some people would say on principle that we should always reject “closet” tactics, regardless of the political consequences. That’s too hard and pure for my taste. If we could have secured marriage in California in 2008 by parading Dykes on Bikes before the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, I would have done that. If we could have won by replaying Pat Robertson’s meteorological ruminations, I would have done that, too.
But the hard truth is that in the long run, and in other places, we’ll need less “No” and more “Know.”
Writing from the conservative side, Dale Carpenter began his column for OutSmart in 1994, when he lived in Houston. Now residing in Minneapolis, Carpenter is a University of Minnesota Law School professor.