How Social Movements Can Win More Victories Like Same-Sex Marriage

Source: Mark Engler and Paul Engler, Dissent blog, July 16, 2014

Not long ago, same-sex marriage in America was not merely an unpopular cause; it was a politically fatal one—a third-rail issue that could end the career of any politician foolish enough to touch it. The idea that gay and lesbian couples would be able to legally exchange vows in states throughout the United States was regarded, at best, as a far-off fantasy and, at worst, as a danger to the republic. …

… Currently, nineteen states and the District of Columbia allow same-sex marriages, a number that is increasing at a brisk rate. An ever-growing majority of the public expresses its support in national polls, and statistician Nate Silver projects that majorities favoring marriage equality will coalesce in even deeply conservative Southern states by 2024. …

…What is striking about this is not just the seeming suddenness of the reversal. It is that the rapidly expanding victory around same-sex marriage defies many of our common ideas about how social change happens.

This was not a win that came in measured doses, but rather a situation in which the floodgates of progress were opened after years of half-steps and seemingly devastating reversals. It was not something enacted thanks to a senate majority leader twisting arms or a charismatic president pounding his bully pulpit. Instead, it came about through the efforts of a broad-based movement, pushing for increased acceptance of LGBT rights within a wide range of constituencies. The cumulative result was to change the terms of national debate, turning the impossible into the inevitable.

This is perhaps the most important point: Rather than being based on calculating realism—a shrewd assessment of what was attainable in the current political climate—the drive for marriage equality drew on a transformational vision. It was grounded in the idea that if social movements could win the battle over public opinion, the courts and the legislators would ultimately follow.

For those interested in promoting further transformation in the United States and beyond, there are few ideas more worthy of careful and sustained examination….