Social movement activists lose all the time. The stalwarts find ways to be more optimistic about the next battle (see Bill McKibben tracking the Keystone pipeline). Occasional activists and amateurs can pick other issues and redirect themselves to more promising efforts, political or personal. For the professionals who’ve built reputations–and careers–in a movement that’s losing, recognizing defeat and finding an exit strategy is a little tougher–and it’s all public.
Even before today’s Supreme Court decisions about marriage, the road ahead looked very rough for opponents of same sex marriage. The change in public opinion, rapid and rooted in demography, makes life particularly difficult for the “traditional marriage movement.”
So, what do you do when you’re losing, and when it looks like it’s going to get worse, not better?
1. Give up and join the winners. A few visible national Republicans have publicly changed their minds on same sex marriage, generally describing the conversion as heartfelt, pragmatic, and really conservative. Rob Portman described two years of coming to terms with the conflict between his position and his gay son’s welfare. More recently, Lisa Murkowski, whose victory over a Tea Party challenger has afforded her the space to be a truly independent conservative, described her new support for same sex marriage as inspired by a conversation with a lesbian veteran. Some larger number of people will acquiesce to political reality more quietly.
2. Change the battleground. Republicans in Congress decried the Court’s decision today, but shifted the political focus to the states. This is pragmatic in every way, most notably in relieving themselves of doing anything on the issue.
3. Change the battle. Last year one-time traditional marriage stalwart, David Blankenhorn, said he saw the writing on the wall about same sex marriage. Standing up against the flow of history was futile, he said, and even worse, counterproductive. Blankenhorn had been the spectacularly ineffective expert witness in the federal trial about California’s Proposition 8, unable to cite damage that same sex marriage would do to anyone. Blankenhorn had a personal story also, developing a friendship and empathy with Jonathan Rauch and his husband as they traveled around the United States debating same sex marriage. More important, Blankenhorn decided it was more important to engage a larger battle that might be winnable: preserving and strengthening marriage generally.
Gay conversion ministry Exodus recently announced plans to shut down, including an apology for damage done from founder Alan Chambers. Homosexual activity is still a sin, he said, but there are lots of sins, and Christians should try to help and support each other.
4. Redefine the battle and claim victory. Young conservative Dana Loesch writes at Red State that the Supreme Court’s decision was a victory for limited government and conservative principles. It keeps the federal government out of people’s lives, and repudiates a policy, the Defense of Marriage Act, signed into law by Bill Clinton. Nice juggling.
5. Dig in and deny. The National Organization for Marriage’s Brian Brown described the Court’s decision as the product of corruption. It’s time to nourish and mobilize the faithful for more struggles, in the public sphere generally, in the states, and in future Court challenges.
We know that Supreme Court decisions don’t generally resolve highly contested issues, and that the losers in a Court case can organize, make significant politics (See the backlash from Brown v. Board of Education or Roe v. Wade), and sometimes, even engineer a reversal over time (see Bowers v. Hardwick). It’s hard to think it works out for them on this issue, but the groups have to do something.
One strategy is building alternative organizations. When the Southern Baptists criticized a new Boy Scouts policy that welcomed gay scouts, they urged local churches to form Royal Ambassadors troops as an alternative.
How viable is this? Over time, it gets harder and harder to avoid being completely marginal, as the distance between the remaining gay marriage opponents and the Westboro church gets smaller and smaller.