American liberalism is in crisis. The conservative movement in the US has turned against small-L liberalism and small-D democratic values, and America’s future as a liberal democracy is in question. To make matters worse, the alliance of progressives, social democrats and liberal moderates that make up the Democratic Party can’t seem to figure out the right message to beat back this anti-democratic challenge. Despite a roaring economy and an increasingly extremist GOP, Democratic popularity is slipping.
The failure of Democratic messaging is a big deal. Democratic activists keep shooting themselves in the foot with slogans like ‘Defund the Police’, ‘Reparations’ or ‘Open Borders’. The Biden administration is on track for one of the most impactful first years in generations, but Democrats are getting derailed by messaging about Critical Race Theory in state and local races.
I’d like to advance a theory that these messaging failures stem from the same place—the successful fight for gay marriage.
Gay marriage is one of the most significant accomplishments of American liberalism in the last two decades. It wasn’t that long ago that the political right was successfully using gay marriage as a cultural wedge to win elections—in 2004, being anti-gay marriage was a clearly winning issue for George Bush. But seemingly overnight public opinion flipped, and LGBT activists started succeeding. This culminated in the landmark decision Obergefell vs. Hodges, where the Supreme Court made gay marriage the law of the land. It’s now widely accepted that gay marriage advocates were correct and that the outcome was clearly for the greater good. But I would argue that liberal and progressive activists learned the wrong lessons from that fight, and that it’s haunted the Democratic Party ever since.
What were the specific conditions and tactics in the fight for gay marriage?
- First, it was maximalist. Activists weren’t asking for a partial victory or a negotiated settlement. They weren’t looking for a compromise (remember the brief flirtation with civil unions?). They wouldn’t ever accept any half-hearted solution. They wanted universal gay marriage, recognized everywhere, and they weren’t stopping until they got it.
- Second, it was costless. There really and truly was no cost to anyone to do the right thing. No straight person ever faced any actual harm or cost from allowing gay marriage to exist (other than personal discomfort). Activists were able to lean into this with slogans about “Don’t like gay marriage? Don’t get one!” They simply wanted to live as they wished without hurting anyone else.
- Third, it was moral. Activists successfully made the argument that LGBT individuals were targets of unfair, unethical, and immoral discrimination. The forces opposing gay marriage were painted (for the most part fairly, in my opinion) as prejudiced and backwards. Gay citizens simply wanted to live normal lives, as the argument went, and a bunch of narrow-minded bigots were standing in the way of decency and progress.
These tactics worked spectacularly for gay marriage and were well suited to that fight. It really was correct to say that the moral decision was to allow gay marriage, that such a thing would be costless, and that activists should go for the total victory.
But tactics that work for one fight don’t necessarily work for all fights. And the tactics and strategies used during the battle for gay marriage have taken over the Democratic Party, especially its progressive and activist wings.
Progressive Democrats are now maximalists—it’s not enough to help some people with college, we must make ALL college free for everyone. Cancel 100% of all student debt. It’s not enough to ensure access to medical care through a mix of methods—we must have Medicare For All. Anything else is a cowardly half-measure. You can see this maximalist messaging everywhere in today’s Democratic activism, from the Green New Deal to a Job Guarantee to Abolishing Police. Too often the only accepted policy is the biggest, most maximal policy, which is often not the best policy.
Left-leaning activists also struggle with cost. Gay marriage legitimately had no real costs, but that’s a rarity. Far more often, policies come with a complex set of gains and losses, benefits and harms. And even the best new fiscal programs must be paid for eventually. But progressives have shied away from having any hard discussions about costs or trade-offs. At best, they’ll pretend that the entire cost of massive spending programs can be borne by tiny groups—hence the shouting about the 1% and billionaires. At worst, they’ll simply deny that tradeoffs exist and live in a fantasy where everything can be easily done and nobody has to pay for it. The Green New Deal proposed trillions in new spending and promised to eliminate fossil fuels. But it couldn’t bring itself to endorse carbon taxes because a carbon tax would cause energy to be somewhat more expensive for regular people, and that undercuts the fiction that this all has no cost. There’s a troubling belief (backed by the Austrian Economics of the left, MMT) that the government can simply deficit spend in any amount, indefinitely.
Progressive issues are now messaged as moral imperatives. To listen to many activists, the only reason to be against Defunding the Police, Medicare For All or Critical Race Theory is that you’re an immoral reactionary. There’s often no attempt to argue for one policy over another. Instead, policies are simply asserted as moral necessities. This is politics by axiom—it’s simply true that this maximalist progressive demand is morally correct, and any attempt to argue for a different policy or to discuss costs or tradeoffs is immoral.
The truth is that the world is complicated, morality is hard, good policy is filled with complex tradeoffs and costs, and no single solution works for every problem. Gay marriage was a stunning victory for liberals and progressives, but not every issue works like gay marriage. Activists have taken the wrong signals from that fight and Democrats are currently paying the political price. The coalition of moderates, liberals and progressives that make up the Democratic Party must find a way to back down from their current messaging strategy of moral maximalism.
The maximalist approach to politics is poisonous. By its nature, a moralizing and maximalist message alienates rather than unifies. It makes enemies where there should be allies and increases polarization. If activists insist that Democrats must take the most left positions on every issue, they’re not going to end up attracting a large diverse group of people that can win elections.
Liberals should push messaging that touts their real accomplishments, without sniping from their left flank about how those accomplishments are feeble half measures or corrupt compromises. They should promote positive changes without judging or condemning those who think differently. And they should be honest with themselves about costs and tradeoffs. These kinds of messages aren’t always popular with activists, but they’re necessary to win elections. And winning is crucially important, because the danger from the American right is enormous.
Featured Image is Marriage Equality Decision Day Rally, by Elvert Barnes