Gay Marriage and Legalized Pot: What We Must Learn From Our Opponents’ Successful Strategies

By Tom Gilson Published on December 5, 2018

Gay marriage won. Legalized marijuana is winning. Their proponents’ strategies have been working. What can we learn from them? Jonathan Rauch’s strategy retrospective in Reason, “Legalizing Marijuana and Gay Marriage Seemed Impossible, But Losing Taught Libertarians How to Win” is tone-deaf in some ways, disturbing in others. But it’s instructive, too.

Lesson 1: Patience

It’s a tale of long trial-and-error persistence, for starters. Both policies seemed hopeless in the 1960s, when advocates started driving toward them. “There really was no debate” on either of them, says Rauch. Both ideas were “considered deviant.” Yet they pushed forward with them anyway

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Both movements made multiple mistakes along that long journey. Marijuana advocates tried making their case on a cost-benefit analysis: tax revenues, weakened drug cartels, and easing law enforcement’s jobs. Gay advocates took a similar route, saying it would “offer stability for gay couples, protect their children, ease medical decisions.” But none of that really got through.

Lesson 2: The Moral Component

They learned from their mistakes, though. Instead of policy trade-offs, they began seeing their issues in moral terms. Most Americans thought smoking pot was wrong, and gay marriage even more so. As long as that persisted, they realized, change would remain dead in the water. So they shifted focus, aiming at the public’s moral mind instead.

“Over time, it became evident that marijuana and marriage, like most political issues today, were primarily about morals and values, and only secondarily about policy trade-offs,” says Rauch. Later he adds, “Attitudes toward same-sex marriage closely tracked with attitudes toward same-sex morality. People regarded support for legalization as a form of personal approval.”

“Hatred” got turned on its head. Conservatives got squashed. Spat upon. Reviled.

For marijuana law, the great breakthrough came via medical marijuana. It was at least one way in which most people could see pot as a good thing. Activists’ first move toward moral acceptance for homosexuality was all about image: they got gays in front of cameras in positive media roles. Later on they moved on to the “equality” claim. It was specious, but at least it seemed like a moral issue.

Having gained a foot in the moral door, advocates proceed to “re-educate” America with the message that a liberalized America was a more moral America.

What Rauch leaves out is the damage this did to positive moral beliefs that had dominated the world up until this time. In a word, “hatred” got turned on its head. Conservatives got squashed. Spat upon. Reviled. Especially with respect to “homophobia,” “anti-gay bigotry,” and the like. This, too, was intentional: Early gay strategists had openly called for making “victimizers” look evil.

Legislating Morality

Surprisingly, though, Rauch concedes a crucial point. You can legislate morality. “All hard political issues are in a sense moral issues,” he says, “They touch on personal identity and public morality, things that arguments about policy, money and even harm cannot reach.” Nice to see someone recognizing that much, at least.

But the “morality” they’ve brought into law is terribly shortsighted. Rauch tells us the “experiment” with gay marriage in Massachusetts showed there’d been no reason to think marriage would harm straight couples. As of 2015, though, when the Supreme Court forced gay marriage upon the nation, gay marriage had only been allowed in that state for eleven years. That’s hardly time to see the long-term effects of such a massive social experiment.

Lesson 3: Experiments at the State Level

He makes a solid case, though, for the role the states played. (Conservatives’ own preference for states’ rights helped them, paradoxically.) Neither marriage nor marijuana were properly federal issues. Congress had tried to make them so, but Massachusetts said no to that in 2004, and Colorado followed suit by voting in 2012 to legalize pot.

But as every scientist knows, when you set up an experiment, you need some idea what you’ll count as success or failure once it’s over. You need safeguards in place, too, in case something unexpected goes wrong.

Rauch’s standard for success was not, shall I say, terribly strict: “The sky did not fall.” Yes, he said exactly that; and I doubt any other activist had any better standard in mind. As for safeguards, I’ll let you tell me whether Massachusetts or Colorado had plans in place to roll things back if they turned out bad.

Going Full-On Federal

Still the experiments took place. A toe-hold in one state became footholds in others. Most often it happened through the courts. “Gay marriage advocates could not get bills introduced in state legislatures,” writes Rauch, “much less enacted (an often overlooked reason for their sometimes criticized recourse to the courts).”

He hides that “reason” inside parentheses like a throw-away line. For me it stands out, though, as the single most laughable moment in an otherwise disturbing document. What does he expect us to say? “Oh, thank you! Finally I get it! I’d never realized — the only reason you went to the courts was because you couldn’t get your way any other way. And here I’d been criticizing you all along!”

It was dishonest, it was manipulative, but it worked.

Tone-deaf, as I said earlier. But of course it explains what happened all the way to the top. They did it in the states, they waited until the sky didn’t fall, and then they went full-on federal, forget states’ rights, now-we-can-get-what-we-want-in-the-Supreme Court. New morality meets old-fashioned opportunism.

Applying the Moral Lesson

It was dishonest. It was manipulative. But it worked. And we should learn from it. We don’t have to practice dishonesty to practice patience. We don’t have to be immoral as we keep on stressing real morality.

Rauch even gives us helpful marching orders on today’s hot issue. “Research on the net positive effects of immigration misses the point,” he tells his fellow libertarians. That’s because cost-benefit analyses don’t move people. It takes a moral message instead: “As long as the public believes immigrants are a threat to law and order or undermine the country’s social fabric, ears will be shut.”

We’ve got to be patient. We’ve got to stay on strategy, for the long haul.

And thus their strategy goes forward. Notice how persistently the mainstream media pushes a “moral” message on the “migrant caravans”? (Who came up with that nice, neutral word “caravan,” anyway?) It’s all about parents and children, never about the criminality among the crowds.

We’ve got to stay just as clear and consistent on our own moral messages. That includes combating a lot of misinformation. The “caravan” migrants don’t have a moral claim on asylum here when they’ve been rejecting the same thing offered in Mexico. Immigrant parent-child relationships? They’re being spoofed — frequently — to manipulate policy and public opinion.

Children of gay marriages really miss having a real mother and father. Corruption was supposed to decrease in Colorado when marijuana went mainstream, but it’s increased instead. Abortion is killing an innocent child — in fact an innocent girl, at least half the time.

Applying the Patience Lesson, State by State

We’ve got to stay clear on these matters. At least we have the long-term advantage: Our policies are based on moral reality, not strategic manipulation.

But we’ve got to be patient. We’ve got to stay on strategy, for the long haul. Our opponents’ state-by-state strategic lesson goes hand in hand with their model of long-term patience. In our case it’s taken a long time to see states beginning to limit abortion. Those are victories, even if they came slowly and even if there’s little progress in sight at the federal level. Surely if we stay on task, we can see  growing success in other crucial issues like marriage, immigration and drug policy.

We’re fighting uphill battles, as much as gay-rights and marijuana advocates were fifty years ago. It’s going to take time to see our own breakthroughs.

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