What The Rest of Us Can Learn From Impatient Gay Activists

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Politicians respond to money, poll numbers, electoral strategy, and constant pressure from demanding supporters who care about results.

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Everything I've ever written in support of gay marriage has been influenced by Andrew Sullivan, whose pioneering work on the subject ranks -- alongside his opposition to torture -- among his best professional moments in a storied career. For that reason, I enjoyed his Newsweek essay on Barack Obama's newly announced support for gay marriage, despite the dubious headline and hyperbolic praise of the president. The essay is at its strongest as it makes the case that the Obama Administration has accomplished a lot of consequential reforms that benefit gays and lesbians: the end of the HIV travel ban and "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," the decision that the Defense of Marriage Act violates the Constitution, advocacy for gay rights abroad, and ultimately support for full marriage equality. Obama is owed credit for taking all of these positions.

But there is a tension in Sullivan's essay. At first, he acknowledges that Obama had to be pushed into these gains. "Yes, he was bounced into it by Joe Biden, the lovable Irish-Catholic rogue who couldn't help but tell the truth about his own views on TV," he wrote. He continued (emphasis added):

There was, of course, cold politics behind it. One in six of Obama's fundraising bundlers is gay, and he needs their money. Wall Street has not backed him financially this year the way it did in 2008. A few Jewish donors have held back over Israel. And when Obama announced recently that he would not issue an executive order barring antigay discrimination for federal contractors, the gay donors all but threatened to leave him high and dry. The unity and intensity of the gay power brokers--absent in the defensive crouch of the Clinton years--proved that FDR's maxim still applied: "I agree with you, I want to do it, now make me do it."

There's more:

If money was one factor making the move necessary, the youth vote--essential to his demographic coalition and overwhelmingly pro-marriage equality--clinched the logic of it. The under-30s were looking worryingly apathetic, especially compared with 2008... Obama advanced his key strategy to winning in the fall: to make this a choice election. If it is a choice election, he wins. If it is a referendum on the last four years of economic crisis, he could lose.

And finally, "The latest Gallup poll... offered another incentive."

That analysis reflects healthy skepticism. And it gives pro gay marriage activists their due: whatever Obama's "true position" on the issue, the politics had to be right before he'd take action, so everything from moneyed gays to shifting public opinion to electoral strategy to unity among "gay power brokers" mattered. As the essay proceeds, however, Sullivan abandons that realism.

"This was not an aberration. It was an inevitable culmination of three years of work [by Obama]," he begins. "He did this the way he always does: leading from behind and playing the long game."

Sullivan then he starts to criticize the people who showed skepticism of Obama on gay issues. "He endured a hazing by gay activists and writers (including me) on his slow pace on gays in the military," Sullivan writes. "But we were wrong."

A bit later, he writes:

He fooled most of us much of the time, our outbursts often intemperate -- I went on CNN at one point to say that the president had betrayed the gay community on the military ban. We snarked about the "fierce urgency of whenever." Our anger built. And sometimes I wonder if he goaded us into "making him do it." If he did, it worked.

Early in the essay, gay rights advocates were credited for forcing Obama's hand. By the last section, it's Obama who is credited for masterfully manipulating activist gays into pressuring him.

And by the final paragraph, "he intuitively understands gays and our predicament," for the gay rights movement "is not about helping people be gay. It is about creating the space for people to be themselves. This has been Obama's life's work." In the space of a single essay, Obama has gone from cautiously embracing gay marriage after a confluence of political factors pushed him in that direction to having dedicated his whole life's work to the essence of the gay rights movement!

By the conclusion of Sullivan's piece, you'd think the lesson for other activists who want something from Obama is to trust in his innate goodness and humanity rather than pressuring him.

What civil libertarians, medical marijuana advocates, anti-war activists, Occupy Wall Street protesters, and every other interest group with a stake in his actions should do is what gay activists did: pressure him relentlessly, without regard for his supposed inner thoughts and feelings, until he delivers. When he comes through on a small issue, keep pushing on the bigger ones. When he's proceeding slowly push him to go faster. Criticize his shortcomings. Credibly threaten to abandon him.

Repeat as necessary.

And remember that he's a politician, which is to say, an expert at bullshitting people. He does it professionally.  

Sullivan is one of the few Obama boosters with the reflexive humility to regularly criticize him on narrow issues and to air dissents from others who criticize him. I still wish The Daily Dish gushed a bit less about the man. In the aftermath of a huge step like embracing gay equality, gushing is understandable. But the prior months of comments about how lucky we are to have him, the invocations of "12 dimensional chess," constantly comparing him to the Road Runner, the celebrations of his strategic acumen as if it's as laudable as doing what's right, and enthusing about how cool he is?

It's increasingly hard to take at the end of a first term littered with broken promises. And it obscures the fact that Obama ought to be pressured much more on myriad issues. If under the status quo, Sullivan constantly emphasizes to readers how lucky the country is to have Obama, how virtuous a person he is, and how much he deserves reelection, rather than holding him accountable -- which ought to be the priority -- there's no reason for Obama to fully investigate his predecessors for torture; to hold his Department of Justice accountable for Fast and Furious; to get Congressional approval before going to war; to repeal the Patriot Act rather than renewing it sans reform; to stop spying on Americans without warrants; to abandon his list of American citizens to extra-judicially kill; to reclassify marijuana under the controlled substances act; to end his war on whistleblowers; to stop invoking the state secrets privilege; and the list goes on.

It isn't enough to mention these shortcomings in individual posts, only to forget them or relegate them to "to be sure" asides whenever the narrative retellings of his term are being crafted.

As it stands, Obama's tenure has a dark side, one that makes calling him "The First Drone President" or "the First Assassin President" every bit as apt as "The First Gay President." His first term isn't worthy of adulatory celebration. Nor is the function of intellectuals to celebrate powerful elites. That's what political operatives and partisan hacks are for. The issues on which Obama is wrong matter too much to shower him with effusive praise. That doesn't mean withholding credit where it's due. It does mean keeping achievements in context, and never apologizing for having pushed and cajoled and criticized Obama before he decided to do the right thing. His job is to do the right thing. Ours is to expose every instance where he's falling short.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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