Human Rights

Laura Flanders: To Beat the Right, Clinton and Obama Need to Be Clear About Supporting Gay Rights

Democrats will keep getting attacked on sexuality, marriage and abortion for as long as they dodge the discussion.
The following excerpt is adapted from Blue Grit: True Democrats Take Back Politics from the Politicians by Laura Flanders (Penguin, 2007).

In 2004 it was Swift Boating. In 2008 will it be gay-baiting that skewers the Democratic candidate? It's not too late for Democratic contenders to start thinking about the so-called culture wars. Indeed they'd better do more than think, if the campaign so far is any indication of where it might be headed.

Ann Coulter's not going anywhere. There was tut-tutting in the media when she told the annual Conservative Political Action Conference that she couldn't talk about John Edwards without using the word "faggot," but the crowd in attendance roared. I suspect her trial balloon's not burst yet.

When General Peter Pace, the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff told the Chicago Tribune that homosexuality was immoral and should be prosecuted, the response of the Democratic front-runners was worse than weak. Asked to respond to Pace's assertions, both of the Democrats' lead money-raisers prevaricated.

Is homosexuality immoral, an ABC reporter asked Hillary Clinton point-blank: "I'm going to leave that to others to conclude" she answered. When asked by Newsday, repeatedly, if same-sex relationships were immoral, Barack Obama changed the subject: "I think traditionally the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman has restricted his public comments to military matters...That's probably a good tradition to follow."

Both candidates' spokespeople tried to massage those messages in the hours that followed, to little effect. A few days later, Senator Clinton released a third statement, in writing: "I disagree with what he [Pace] said and do not share his view, plain and simple," said Clinton.

But nothing Senators Clinton or Obama has said so far is anywhere near as simple as a "no" to the question of whether homosexuality is immoral. Or as plain as a plain-old "yes" to the notion that this nation's constitutional protections are supposed to apply equally to everyone. Only John Edwards seems to have learned that a direct answer isn't fatal. Asked by Wolf Blitzer "Is homosexuality immoral" he answered "I don't - don't share that view."

The reality is that national Democrats rarely speak plainly about anything to do with the so-called culture wars. To the contrary, Democrats running for a president typically run for cover when any gay related topic comes up. Worse, having utterly failed to tackle the topic with anything resembling principle (or panache) they blame the victim when homophobes win the day.

In 2004, election night wasn't even over before the best paid consultants in the land were blaming Kerry/Edwards defeat on gays, abortion, and the so-called "social issues." On a conference call with high ranking campaigners, Matt Foreman, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, (which had turned out voters and trained key activists in several battleground states) heard Clinton consultant Harold Ickes sum up the race in a single sentence: gay marriage "lost us Ohio."

By the end of the week, the pundits weren't only diagnosing the problem, they were prescribing solutions for it: "The Democrats have become a party too dominated by social issues ..." wrote Nation contributor Marc Cooper. Democrats need to turn their attention "away from culture and back toward class," wrote Alan Brinkley in the liberal American Prospect.

The culture wars, wrote Thomas Frank, are not about culture at all, "they are a way of framing the ever-powerful subject of social class," which is what Democrats must confront directly "with genuine economic populism." In his book, liberal evangelical James Wallis urged a departure from the "bifurcating politics of liberal and conservative, Left and Right," to open up a new "politics of solutions."

In the years since, we've heard a lot from national Democrats, liberals, and the traditional Left to the effect that "cultural" matters (like abortion, marriage, sexuality, secularism, and family "lifestyle") are a trap dreamed up by the Right to distract good working-class people from their ruling-class enemies. The solution the conventional-wisdom purveyors propose is for liberals and the left to abandon the "culture wars," get religion, and get down with blue-collar America again.

The unfortunate thing about this analysis is that it dooms politicians like today's crop to yet more years of defeat-by-denial. Worse, by casting queers, people of color, women and assorted other "culture warriors" as "problem" groups, this analysis leads Democrats to distance themselves from the very people and movements who know how to fight -- and win -- the culture wars.

As the late, great culture critic, Ellen Willis wrote in her work, culture war by culture war is how US history has advanced. Fights over "culture" are fights over the basic constitutional promise of equality and freedom -- for whom and to do what? Although it's not very "cultural" when you're denied a job on account of your race or turned down for an adoption on account of your sexuality, people seeking to expand the reach of that Constitutional promise -- are ipso facto "culture warriors." Generations of them have spent decades in Right's cross-hairs and they've learned a thing or two about beating back the baiters' attacks.

The Bush/Cheney campaign framed John Kerry as a "flip-flopper" on issues (they even deployed youths dressed in dolphin suits to dog him on the campaign trail), but what did the Senator in were the lies about his Vietnam career -- lies that he refused to refute. No single message did more to destroy Kerry's presidential chances than the so-called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth advertisements but John Kerry is not America's first Swift-Boating victim. Think "gay agenda" think "welfare queen" think "racial preferences." Some Americans have been "Swift-boated" for years.

When the Olin, Bradley and Scaife Foundations wanted to unleash an anti-affirmative action drive, they bankrolled a campaign that put a misleading measure on the ballot in several states that they called "The Civil Rights Initiative." When such a measure, Proposition 209, passed in California, exit polling showed that 28 percent of those who'd voted in favor did not realize that 209 banned affirmative action.

In 2004, a group calling itself "Minnesota Citizens in Defense of Marriage" sent so-called "Truth Trucks" around rural and suburban districts to target state legislators who had voted against a proposed amendment to ban gay marriage under the state constitution. The trucks carried large billboards emblazoned with the words "Want Gay Marriage? Vote Democrat this November."

Anyone from the AIDS activist group ACT UP could have told John Kerry that Silence = Death. They could tell the Senators from New York and Illinois that most bullies don't stop just because you're non-confrontational and quiet.

Unfortunately, traditional political calculus takes people of color, sexual minorities, and abortion-rights defenders for granted because they're unlikely to defect to Republicans. The result is that Democrats have limped through two elections hammered by the Right on "hot button" issues like abortion and gay marriage, and the only strategic response they've come up with is to dismiss those issues -- and those groups -- as "special interests."

It's appealing to believe, as Thomas Frank does, that the "culture wars" can be trumped by talking about class or, as Wallis seems to, that one can flee false dichotomies by changing the subject. But the fact is, Democrats don't have a choice about whether to tackle gay issues or abortion or immigration. In this respect politicians find themselves in the same position as queer people: sticks and stones do actually break bones. You can take every high road all the way to the hospital, but it's better to fight back. In politics that means getting out front with a message that works -- on class and national security, yes, and also on the "cultural" issues.

The truth is that Democrats, progressives, and fair-minded Republicans will never be anti-gay or anti choice or anti-racial justice enough to quiet their opponents. The only people left with any doubt about where Democrats stand on cultural issues are those whose lives are at stake. Those inconveniently irreverent and striving real people -- whom pundits dare not mention by name but allude to with the code name "culture" -- those Americans are the Democrats' base, whether the party likes it or not.

The culture advances at its own pace regardless. Surprising as it may seem, those "cultural issues" that every candidate fears, aren't necessarily losers. Just look at how far our society has come and how fast. Immediately following 2004's supposed anti-gay backlash, Illinois and Maine passed nondiscrimination laws. California's legislature voted to gender-neutralize marriage -- a first -- despite Governor Schwarzenegger's veto. Massachusetts legislators upheld marriage equality.

Connecticut passed a civil unions law. In the next months, Indianapolis and Topeka -- passed LGBT anti-discrimination laws. In 2006, Arizona voters were the first to reject an anti-gay marriage ballot measure outright. Just this month, the New Hampshire house passed civil union laws and in Indiana, a constitutional amendment barring same sex marriage died on the vine, unable to get out of a committee in the house. If grassroots culture warriors are doing this well while their leaders sell them out, imagine where the society would be if a big, powerful national party actually put up a fight.

The LGBT movement has a word for a frame that's built around the fear of being honest: a closet. And there's only one exit: coming out. People who are clear about who they are, and who clearly respect themselves and their beliefs, attract respect. Consider Lupe Valdez, a fifty-seven-year-old lesbian Latina who was elected Sheriff of Dallas in 2004. Valdez is the first woman, first gay person, and first Hispanic ever to be Sheriff of Dallas, and the first Democrat to hold the job in twenty-five years. A former prison guard and federal agent, the 5'2" daughter of migrant workers was opposed by the unions representing many of those working in the sheriff's department. She was outspent three-to-one.

At the last minute, her opponent, the favored candidate, raised alarms about her acceptance of campaign contributions from Washington-based Gay and Lesbian Victory fund. How did she win? People in Dallas were ready for a change. Their Republican sheriff, a twenty-year incumbent, had just been indicted on charges of corruption. Valdez cast herself as an agent of change and made her sexuality work for her, rather than against: "I'm not like anybody in here. I'm the element of change. I'm a lesbian" she said. A third of those who voted for her were cross-overs, voters who didn't vote a straight Democratic ticket. Now Valdez is the only woman among 254 sheriffs in Texas.

After years of taking advice from consultants who urge "caution" and conciliation so as not to scare away anyone who might be undecided about their vote, Democratic candidates for high office, especially the Presidency seem almost incapable of expressing anything resembling genuine feeling. Commitment doesn't have to be synonymous with being bullheaded or insensitive, but you do have to take a stand and explain your reasons. Valdez didn't win by obscuring who she was, she won by doing the opposite - by "coming out" and taking on her opponents.

Or take Paul Wellstone, the late progressive Senator from Minnesota. Three weeks before he died, Wellstone voted against invading Iraq despite polls telling him that a vote against the war would lose him the election. Wellstone told the Washington Post two days after the vote, "I think people want you to do what you think is right..." Wellstone's vote resulted in a surge of support among Minnesotans that almost certainly would have led to his reelection had he and his wife Sheila, their daughter, and three campaign staffers not died in an airplane crash.

"The compromise strategy doesn't work," Bill Lofy, communications director for the campaign training group Wellstone Action, told me. "For two reasons. If people are given the choice between a Republican and a Republican, they'll choose a Republican every time. And people are craving leadership that is real."

For far too long the Democratic Party has urged candidates to be what I call lip-synched liberals, cautious of speech, cut off at the heart. Hundreds of decent candidates have taken that advice -- to disastrous effect.

During election '04 many Democrats expressed a longing for "the real John Kerry" the young Vietnam Veteran, who returned from war and told the truth as he saw it to Congress. He also participated in public hearings with other vets about the effects of service on those who served. The young man from Massachusetts wore his hair long and his jacket loose. He bonded with guys who didn't just throw their medals over the White House fence they jettisoned generations of military tradition. They bared their hurt and spoke as "real men" weren't supposed to (most especially soldiers.) Some cried. In public.

They described the life-wrecking trauma of killing and torturing and they expressed remorse. In dehumanizing the "other," they said, they'd diminished their own humanity. Some, like Kerry, walked into the hearings room with shrapnel wounds or worse, many having left the military hospitals. Leaving the closet where we shut up society's savaged soldiers, vets left their private hells and, with their ugly stumps and missing limbs and signs of suicide attempts, came out. They shifted a frame and moved the culture. The nostalgia so many expressed for "that John Kerry" during election '04 was a desire not just for a man with political "spine" but for a culture warrior.
Laura Flanders is author of Blue Grit: True Democrats Take Back Politics from the Politicians by Laura Flanders (Penguin, 2007).
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