NY Gay Marriage Vote's Lesson for Progressives: Being Right Is the Easy Part

In the New York Timeslook inside the campaign to legalise gay marriage in New York state, this passage will catch the eye of anyone with experience in progressive politics:

[Governor Andrew] Cuomo was diplomatic but candid with gay-rights advocates in early March when he summoned them to the Capitol’s Red Room…

The advocates had contributed to the defeat of same-sex marriage in 2009, he told them, with their rampant infighting and disorganization. He had seen it firsthand, as attorney general, when organisers had given him wildly divergent advice about which senators to lobby and when, sometimes in bewildering back-to-back telephone calls. “You can either focus on the goal, or we can spend a lot of time competing and destroying ourselves,” the governor said.

…The gay-rights advocates agreed, or at least acquiesced. Five groups pushing for same-sex marriage merged into a single coalition, hired a prominent consultant with ties to Mr. Cuomo’s office, Jennifer Cunningham, and gave themselves a new name: New Yorkers United for Marriage.

I’m not close enough to this story to judge how fair this is to the advocates in question, but it sure rings a bell: even if it didn’t happen quite that way this time, it sure has a lot of other times. Too many progressives sabotage themselves because they haven’t learned this important lesson about making change happen: Being right is the easy part.

As the Times reports, passing the gay marriage law in New York took a lot more than figuring out that full equality should apply to gay people — and let’s face it, for the well-educated critical thinkers who make up much of the progressive movement, that should be a light lift by now. Here are some key features of what made this campaign not just right, but effective:

  • Recruiting critical support from Wall Street financiers, whose Libertarian leanings favour a live-and-let-live approach to morality
  • Taking advantage of the laissez-faire leadership style of the Republican leader in the state Senate
  • Lots of negotiations with politicians who had a variety of reasons, both political and personal, for ambivalence on the issue.
  • Half-hearted opposition from the Catholic Church.

In other words, this was politics. You start by figuring out what you think is right. Then you try to get other people to vote for it. That’s the hard part. Hard because if democracy means nothing else, it means it’s perfectly legal for people to disagree with you. It’s even legal for them to be flat out wrong.

But, probably because progressives do tend to be intellectuals, their habitual response to disagreement is to repeat their arguments, often with rapidly mounting anger when the other side just won’t see the obvious truth.

The frustration springs from focusing only on the rightness of their ideas. But, as I’ve said elsewhere, politics is about much more than ideas. It’s also about interests and identity.

Upton Sinclair gave an elegant account of the power of interests: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” And much psychological research shows the power of identity: once we identify with a set of beliefs, we tend to listen only to arguments that support them, a tendency greatly enabled by the modern explosion of information sources.

Furthermore, focusing only on being right isn’t just counter-productive. It can also lead quickly to intolerance — “If you disagree with me, you must be either stupid or evil.” That’s an ironic outcome for progressives, but, as Reinhold Niebuhr showed so eloquently, history is full of such ironies.

Rightness matters, of course. It’s necessary, but it isn’t sufficient. As the saying goes in marriage counseling, “You can be right, or you can be married.”

In a democracy, like it or not, we’re all married.

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