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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  • apollo

    We are living the collapse of the Judeo-Christian ethos. And I am sad to say this is just the beginning.

    • Anthony Cieszkiewicz

      Hence we pray “Come, Lord Jesus”.

      • apollo

        Let it be so.

    • G H

      It’s not the beginning if we stand up and fight. The negative mentality that the battle has already been lost does nobody any good. Suffering is natural to this world, but that doesn’t mean we just give up and curl up crying. We have the greatest Davidic Warrior in the universe on our side, leading the way, showing us what’s required to be decent. Our Lord has already shown us that victory isn’t only possible, it’s already been secured. If we’re lazy, we just sit on the sidelines and whine. Warriors act! Warriors fight! Trump fights. Saints fight. Therefore, we are called to fight, but not with the measly weapons of the world. Read the beatitudes again. These were fighting words. They sealed Our Lord’s fate in this world because evil hates mirrors. Evil doesn’t want to acknowledge it’s guilt.
      FIGHT! NEVER GIVE IN TO LIBERAL POISON. FIGHT WITH YOUR MIND, BODY AND SOUL.

      • apollo

        Paul’s Apostolic Authority

        …3For though we live in the flesh, we do not wage war according to the flesh. 4The weapons of our warfare are not the weapons of the world. Instead, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. 5We
        tear down arguments, and every presumption set up against the knowledge
        of God; and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to
        Christ.…

        2 Corinthians 10: 3-5

        I assure you I am deeply engaged in the battle . I have been for decades.

  • Anthony Cieszkiewicz

    Then there was a time and place when the NAACP objected to the homosexualist proponents that hijacked and perverted their equal rights messaging to advance the cause of homosexuals. The leadership of the NAACP (among others) had neither the courage or fortitude to remind the world “That is is also written…..” that the temptations to which they were promoting were based upon a damnable lie with just enough Truth to make their poison go down.

  • Tim H

    Great points. I know Zmirak has raised these also – that the Libertarians often get used by the Libs like a cheap whatever and then get thrown away when it comes to economic issues or even cultural ones.
    Those of us libertarian leaning conservatives have to come up with a strategy to avoid this.

    Get the power out of DC. One great way to do this is by recogmizing the Principles of ’98. States have the duty to enforce the Constitution. They should start nullifying Federal laws at the local level. Read Tom Wood’s book on it. But we need to start doing this from the conservative side. Stop whining about the Feds and take back the local power. How about if we just have some large towns or even a state literally refuse to enforce unconstitutional laws. Sure it’ll go to the supreme court but if we do it enough, we will eventually win. This could be costly to the states, but I’m thinking it’s a small price to pay to get our country back.
    Make it a moral issue as Tom suggests too.

  • NellieIrene

    I think another thing that chipped away at resistance to same sex marriage was organizations like the APA falling to political pressure and changing their assessment of homosexuality primarily based on that political pressure.

    • True. They used enormous pressure tactics on the APA. Not a lesson I’d recommend we model our strategies after, but instructive in other ways.

      • By “pressure,” they rioted and killed a few people in the process

  • Woobiefuntime

    We should legalize it all because it just doesn’t make since that we don’t treat alcohol the same way.

    • The question wasn’t what to do with pot policy but how conservatives should strategize for social change.

      • Woobiefuntime

        One way is to understanding how they came up with their conclusions. That involves infiltrating their groups and befriending members.

    • NewcastleB

      We don’t treat alcohol the same way because it isn’t the same. One of the critical questions when evaluating if someone has a drinking problem is “When you drink do you always drink to get drunk”. A “yes” is almost a sure sign of a drinking problem. But no one who smokes pot does so with any other reason than to get high. So why is the “yes” to the question “When you smoke do you always smoke to get high” not equally troubling. Truth told, it is.

  • tz1

    To go back when prayer was banned in schools, the correct reaction should to have abandoned GOVERNMENT schools that were mistakenly thought of as merely “public” and open church or public schools. But no. Instead, you handed your childen to the Molech of the soul run by Nero to have their souls burned to death if not their bodies.

    Everything following is merely Caesar ordering the Church to give up something because – like handling welfare for single mothers – the State makes it easier, and stopping fornication and divorce is a lot of complex work and involves – Morality. Have a kid, get a check is so much easier and we can look the other way.

    Just maybe, we need to shatter the idol of the State and return to God – shrinking Government back to the size of its rather small constitutional cage and handle the Morality questions in society and in public but NOT involving government.

    • Stephen D

      Yes exactly. And do know what? Here in Australia my denomination has recently decided to build – not a new church building – but a child minding centre! This accords perfectly with current Leftist government policy, which is to promote child-minding centres as a way of freeing women from domestic ‘servitude’ and ensuring they can live independently of the fathers of their children.

      • tz1

        Child minding center, or Child mind removal center?

  • Stephen D

    I disagree fundamentally with this analysis. The Left won these battles not because they presented a strictly moral case. They won them because they successfully equated ‘morality’ with removing restrictions on behaviour.

    The Bible teaches that morality implies restraint in thought and deed. Everybody knows this about morality intuitively. What the Left advocated and still advocates is the removal of restraints. But not only that. The restraints must be removed and the immoral behaviour must officially be given the stamp of approval by the State!

    Socially the effect of the Leftist program is to (literally) demoralise the nation and to destroy the biological family as the basic unit of society. Politically this then opens the door for the State to take control of children from their parents, and establish totalitarian rule on a firm footing.

    The battle for getting Leftism accepted in a democracy begins in the homes and schools of the nation. Anyone concerned about the future of America should (in my view) be working to get rid of state-controlled schooling as a first priority. All the battles now being won by the Left were won in the classrooms of American state schools a generation ago.

    • Actually they won because of illegal judicial activism and voter fraud.

    • Their case wasn’t moral in the sense of getting morality right, but it was a “moral” case in the sense that they rearranged American’s moral thinking on these things.

  • pablocruize

    For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given, and the government will be upon His shoulders. And He will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

    **Of the increase of His government and peace there will be no end.**

    He will reign on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish and sustain it with justice and righteousness from that time and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of Hosts will accomplish this.
    Isaiah

    “Never give in. Never give in. Never, never, never, never—in nothing, great or small, large or petty—never give in, except to convictions of honor and good sense. Never yield to force. Never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.”
    Churchill

  • James

    Americans like freedom.

    People want to marry who they want and smoke what they want.

    People also want to shoot what they want and don’t like paying taxes.

    It’s not rocket science.

    • Freedom is responsibility.

      What you are advocating for is like floating in the middle of space. How free are you to move then without anything solid like ground?

      • James

        Perhaps, but here in America, the burden of proof is on those arguing that responsibility requires denial of freedoms.

        • One cannot be free if dead and satanic rituals are pure death.

  • Trilemma

    We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

    Same sex marriage and recreational marijuana use are liberty issues. Same sex marriage should be legal because same sex couples should not be denied their creator endowed right to have the liberty to get married. Liberty is foundational to America and fighting it is a losing battle.

    • They are satanic practices and therefore pure death. Where is “liberty” in being diseased to death or comatose? Not to mention both drugs and sodomy destroy every civilization they touch, but of course that is the EXACT reason you want them. you honestly think destroying the west will make you “be like gods.”

      sodomy is the second worst sin of all, and your covens have been “marrying” men in order to attack the Sacrament of Marriage for a long time. There is no validity in this.

    • Stephen D

      Americans need to face the fact that the truths held to be “self-evident” by (some of) the founders are by no means self-evident in fact. (1) There is nothing “self-evident” about a Creator doing anything at all. If there were, there would not be so many atheists. We know about what the Creator has done by reading the Bible – it is not “self-evident”. (2) There is nothing “self-evident” about people being created “equal” unless you define “equal” so as to make it so, thus making the statement trivial. (3) Biblically there are no such things as “inalienable rights” (even if there were, they would certainly not be life, liberty or the pursuit of happiness, as one has all those things only subject to God’s good pleasure, and God can take them away at His good pleasure). Finally (4) the concept of an “inalienable right”, known today as a “human right” is intellectually untenable, for reasons adduced first by Jeremy Bentham and more recently by Alasdair MacIntyre. It is, as Bentham famously said, “nonsense on stilts”.

    • kenneth20754

      This definition of liberty runs aground on the idea of the moral. The Founders believed that liberty is the freedom to do the right or moral thing; this is one reason why they also believed quite firmly that the form of government they instituted is fit only for a moral people. There is no liberty to do the wrong thing; there is only license.

    • Please don’t hijack the conversation. The point of the article wasn’t to raise the question of legalizing pot, or even gay marriage, but to highlight and learn from the strategies their advocates used.

      • Trilemma

        I’m not trying to hijack the conversation. My millennial daughters said they wanted same sex marriage to be legal because they felt that their friends who are homosexual should have the same freedom or liberty to get married and be happy as people who are heterosexual. For them, it was not about policy trade-offs or morality. It was about liberty. I’ve heard that sentiment from others. Somewhere along the way, an appeal to liberty became part of your opponents strategy. The purpose of the US government is to secure rights such as liberty and not necessarily to impose morality. The appeal to liberty is a strong strategy because it appeals to something the government is supposed to protect. That’s a strategy you need to learn from or be able to defend against. I’ve heard the argument from your opponents that you’re trying to take away people’s freedoms or liberties and impose your morality.

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