Progressives have suddenly woken up to the fact that civil rights are in serious jeopardy in California. Current polls show that Proposition 8, which would amend the state constitution to eliminate equal marriage rights for same-sex couples, may be headed to victory. This would be a major setback not only for queer people, but for the progressive movement more broadly, for it would send a message from the country’s most populous and most diverse state that America is “not ready for equality.”
Some have chosen to lay the blame at the feet of queer people who have not been donating enough to the No on Prop. 8 campaign, a statewide coalition of organizations working to defeat the measure. Others have decried the proposition system itself, pointing to the likelihood of Prop. 8 passing as even more evidence (on top of Prop 209, which banned affirmative action in California) of the need to eliminate a system that is fundamentally unfair to minorities.
The biggest problem in my mind, however, is that progressives could manage to be so inattentive to this issue. For it is obvious that we — myself included — were complacent about the fate of Prop. 8. We all fell into the cultural logic that the right wing has promoted over the past several decades, which has told us that the West Coast and Northeast are bastions of liberalism, gayness and abortion. We thus fooled ourselves into thinking there was no way West Coast voters would vote against gay people, despite the fact that 26 states now have constitutional amendments banning gay marriage. Could anybody really forget the impact such ballot initiatives had in mobilizing the conservative vote in 2004?
This perhaps more than anything else demonstrates the continued power the conservative movement has in setting the terms of political discourse and action in this country, and part of why we always seem to find ourselves on the defensive with issues like this. The conservative movement is still strong, as the crowds that have flowed out to greet their new standard-bearer, Sarah Palin, have demonstrated. In some ways, they’re also madder and more vocal than ever in their vehement bigotry. And, despondent at the likely defeat of McCain, they are now moving more money and resources into California.
Now some progressives are scrambling to make an impact on this. I myself will be phone banking from home to fight the amendment, something I never would have expected I’d feel compelled to do several months ago when it first became clear Californians would be voting on the measure. I’m donating to the campaign, too.
Regardless of the outcome next week (either way, the vote will be very close), we must see this as a major failure of the progressive movement in the face of a much better-organized conservative movement that has spent decades building up local leadership and infrastructure. We can argue, of course, that Barack Obama’s election is far more important than any ballot referendum, and demonstrates the strength of the progressive infrastructure that has begun to emerge in the last eight years.
But if we are truly committed to more than just winning elections for particular candidates, we have to see the situation in California as a serious problem and warning. If we lose Tuesday in California, we cannot just hang our heads and say “oh well,” and then pop back a few more to celebrate Obama’s victory. And if we win, we’re not out of the woods either.
We cannot rest safe in the belief that the future is now secured and that progressives have an infrastructure in place for the future or that conservatives are on the wrong side of history. We need to develop the level of organization and capacity to fight all the fights that are coming our way in the coming years, and to actually win more than a few of them, and we have to start the day after Election Day. Otherwise, we’ll never stop playing defense, and more progressive futures are bound to remain out of our reach.
Hugh Baran is a senior in Davenport College.