Kerry Eleveld writes in Salon about the lessons that gun control advocates can learn from gay rights and immigration rights advocates.
Kerry’s point is that both gay rights and immigration rights were once considered “the third rail of politics” – i.e., don’t touch ’em, you’re gonna get burned if you help “those” people.
But after a lot of pressure from activists who pushed both issues in the face of members of Congress, and particularly the President, politicians started doing to the right thing. Suddenly, Washington learned that these “dangerous” issues were not only not dangerous, but were actually electorally helpful.
Of course in 2008, after a parade of a couple of dozen states had banned same-sex marriage, the topic was still considered a political taboo even by many LGBT activists. Yet other gay issues fared much better with the public. A solid majority of Americans (65-80 percent), for instance, consistently voiced support for allowing lesbians and gays to serve openly in the military throughout Obama’s first two years. Still, Congress didn’t squeak out repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” until just four days before the close of the 2010 congressional session.
Similar to the DREAMers, LGBT activists spent nearly two years prodding Congress and President Obama to act through direct actions that often weren’t popular with Democrats. But only a year and a half after repeal, the nation would tune into ABC News on May 9, 2012, to watch President Obama declare the love of same-sex couples worthy of the word “marriage.” What was once considered a taboo had become an electoral necessity in just four years’ time.
Gun control could similarly transition from political impossibility to political reality with activists pushing from the bottom and President Obama pushing from the top. Universal background checks, which about nine in 10 Americans support, might serve as a gateway to other safety measures in the same way repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell” led to other LGBT advances. And much like DREAMers helped shine a softer light on the plight of undocumented immigrants, the Newtown tragedy has recast the gun debate around the vulnerability of the nation’s most innocent and precious resource – children.
Once third-rail issues transform into moral imperatives, impossibilities sometimes surrender to new realities.
And as Kerry notes, while each coalition did a lot of hard work to get Americans on their side in the polls, they still had to surmount politicians who remained deathly afraid of doing the right thing. Our own Joe Sudbay labeled this “political homophobia.” Here’s what Joe had to say a few years back on AMERICAblog:
We all know practitioners of homophobia — mostly Republicans, right-wingers, Catholic leaders, etc.
There is, however, a version of homophobia that is much more insidious: Political Homophobia.
Political homophobes aren’t gay-hating in the traditional sense. In fact, publicly, most are strong supporters of LGBT equality. But, behind closed doors, many Democratic leaders, consultants, Hill staffers and the rest will vociferously argue that there is no political benefit to actually supporting LGBT rights. Political homophobia is rampant among some Democrats. In some ways, it’s worse than blatant homophobia, since we think most Democrats are on our side. And outwardly, they are.
Political homophobia dictates policy in DC more than we’d like to think. I believe it’s happening in the West Wing right now. I’ve been told by several people that while the president’s chief of staff, Rahm Emmanuel, isn’t a homophobe in the traditional way (he always voted the right way when he was in the House), he is always the first person to suggest that his colleagues (and now boss) avoid gay issues. He’d rather not deal with them because he thinks they’re bad politics.
Joe wrote that in 2009. Now, suddenly, in 2013, Democrats can’t be gay enough. The President made the repeal of the military’s anti-gay Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy a hallmark of the 2012 campaign. And as Kerry notes, the President has been vocal in his support of marriage rights for gay couples as well. A presumed net negative was suddenly recognized as an actual net positive. (Though we still have a ways to go, including the President issuing an executive order banning anti-gay and anti-trans job discrimination among federal contractors.)
Still, the lesson remains that when dealing with politicians who are afraid to do the right thing, sometimes you have to get in their face, a lot. And eventually, they’ll cave. If only to make you go away :)