I like to have a lot of discussions around political strategy with friends, both politically-oriented folks as well as more detached friends. I was e-mailing with one fairly politically-oriented friend of mine back and forth through the day yesterday about Don't Ask, Don't Tell, and the question of issue prioritization.
He wasn't comfortable with me publishing his response or naming him, but his complaint boiled down to why the LGBT movement is prioritizing repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell - which, in his eyes, affects a tiny fraction of LGBT people in this country - over passage of other issues, notably ENDA, given that employment discrimination against people based on sexual orientation is still legal in 29 states, and legal based on gender identity or expression in 38 states.
I think this question is an important and valid one, and I have a number of thoughts on what's wrong with the question itself, and why it isn't entirely up to "the LGBT movement." More in the extended entry.
- While it is true that the momentum has shifted from ENDA towards DADT, the work to pass ENDA has not completely stopped. There are a number of organizations out there who are focusing almost entirely on ENDA, as well as activists in online spaces such as this one. Frankly, that is probably a good thing. There shouldn't be one collective hive mind directing everyone to do one thing. There is a diverse movement that is moving on many different issues at once, so calls for "the LGBT movement" to do something, aside from being vague and unproductive, don't mean a lot since "the LGBT movement" never moves in lockstep.
- That said, there is the question of resources. As I wrote at my home blog, OpenLeft.com, when raising questions about the timing of the National Equality March and being spread thin, I have never been a "we can walk and chew gum at the same time" - you have to have enough gum to go around for every issue movement, and there isn't enough.
The answer to that is that sometimes this is out of activists' hands. President Obama mentioned DADT in the State of the Union (and did not mention ENDA). The result was increased chatter on DADT for the next several days on cable news, in op-ed pages, polling firms choosing to poll on the issue and release the results, and people like me writing about all of it. All of that led to John McCain's comments, Colin Powell and Dick Cheney choosing to speak out, and so forth. In other words, the President helped kick start the momentum - momentum we haven't had since 1993, in my view - and now that it's there, it's important to take advantage of it. You could say that activists like me calling for the President to discuss repeal in the speech, and institutions lobbying for the same, helped lead to all of that, but there wasn't any one major decision that "okay, the LGBT movement is going to collectively shift to Don't Ask, Don't Tell! Go!" Thus, another reason why attacks on "the LGBT movement" aren't entirely accurate. President Obama played a major role in starting this momentum, and when it's there, you have to grab it, and channel resources to that effect.
- The third point I want to mention is on the question of resources and enthusiasm. The question was raised in the same way around how activists working on marriage equality were "sucking the energy out of the room" around ENDA. On this, I turn to the words of Markos at DailyKos - "it's a big internet." If you don't like the direction being taken in terms of strategy or prioritization, you can always do it your own way.
I also would refer to a piece my colleague at OpenLeft, Chris Bowers, wrote titled "how to start your own netroots organization," in which he describes methods we have used at OpenLeft to build online mobilization efforts. When I was in Dallas for Creating Change, where I had the pleasure of serving on a panel with Bil, one thing I mentioned is that a number of institutions - including OpenLeft - have sprung up in response to disagreement with the strategy or prioritization taken by other institutions. Hell, that's one big reason some of the earliest progressive bloggers started blogging.
Now OpenLeft even has our own tools like an e-mail list, a fundraising apparatus and action tools for contacting legislators, and with our readers' help, we got a health care public option in merged Senate bill, elected Rep. Donna Edwards in the face of establishment backing for Al Wynn, got every major 2008 Senate Democratic challenger to come out in favor of net neutrality, and other wins, not to mention some close losses like in Maine (coming close in no small part due to the efforts of Projectors!), and changing the debate on issues like no residual forces in Iraq. Folks like Dr. Weiss here at TBP are already taking it into their own hands to work on ENDA. All of that came because a number of us didn't like the way other institutions were acting, so we built our own, and so can you.
The bottom line is that there are entirely valid questions about channeling resources and issue prioritization. Some of it is in activists' hands, and some is not, but there is no collective focus on just one issue, nor is it wise to just ignore all of the momentum on Don't Ask, Don't Tell and insist on focusing on ENDA. Opportunities must be taken as they come.
Cross-posted from my home blog, OpenLeft.com, where I write about LGBT and progressive movement strategy, and build online mobilization efforts.