The Senate’s failure to consider both the DREAM Act and the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, was a clear defeat for advocates of immigration reform and GLBT activists. Both sets of activists are, understandably, frustrated with the Senate, President Obama, and conventional politics more generally. What does this mean? What happens next?
Let’s look at the activists’ agendas and at their tactics:
Agendas: For both sets of activists, the defeated proposal represented a sliver of their broader agendas. Activists always have to do this. Although they may have a broad political agenda, they have to pick a piece, or issue frontier, that is big enough to be significant, yet limited enough to be possible. You can’t “end patriarchy,” “establish world peace,” or “restore constitutional principles (or honor????),” for example, all at once. Rather, you have to work piece by piece, and the coalitions you can form around each piece vary. Progress on an issue frontier might help achieve their larger aims–or it may serve as an obstacle.
DREAM activists have focused on the most sympathetic constituency: college students and military personnel who came to the United States as children. Taking care of this group may make it harder to build a reform coalition around the claims of 6-9 million other immigrants who entered the United States as adults or haven’t gone to college or served in the military.
While some gay and lesbian activists are specializing in legal status in the military, others are interested in range of other issues; same sex marriage is certainly the most visible at this point. There is no broad public support for maintaining Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. In contrast, a majority of Americans still oppose same sex marriage–despite massive change in opinion over the past few years. Winning equal treatment for gays and lesbians in the military is likely to provide a basis for making further claims about social and legal inclusion elsewhere in American life.
Tactics: When a group faces defeat in institutional politics, it may make sense to intensify its efforts outside those institutions, but it’s not a risk-free strategy. Protest can fragment a campaign’s supporting coalitions, and protesters can lose the sympathy of institutional allies and the broader public.
Gay and lesbian activists have made good progress recently in the legal system, winning favorable decisions from Federal district courts on same sex marriage–and even directly on Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Things seem to be going their way, although certainly not at the pace they’d like to see.
This is emphatically not the case for advocates of immigration reform. The Dream Act has been stalled for nearly a decade, and efforts at broader reform have been on the back-burner since the Senate killed President Bush’s comprehensive reform effort in 2007. (Oddly, George W. Bush represented the political center on immigration!) The few Republicans who supported a comprehensive policy, most notably Senator John McCain, have aggressively worked to run away from their previous position, displaying the zeal of the newly diverted. Anti-immigration activists have also become a powerful force, particularly within the Republican party, including the Tea Party.
I’d expect to see much more protest from immigration reformers in the next few months than from GLBT activists.