Let’s say you have a dog you are teaching how to sit. You can push her bottom down and say “Sit!” and then give her a treat. That’s how you show what you want. The hope is that once she understands, she will obey for verbal praise and then for no praise at all. But what if she doesn’t totally get it? What if when she hears “Sit!” she only touches her butt to the ground for a second and then comes back up? What if she only goes down halfway? Clearly, she knows what you mean by “Sit!” but she doesn’t want to sit, and she doesn’t actually sit. Do you still praise her or give her treats for showing you she knows what you want without actually delivering it?
If you do, she’ll never actually sit for you on command. It’s basic psychological conditioning. She’ll just learn that she gets rewarded for the non-action, for knowing how to sit but not actually sitting. Does this require you give away your treats to other dogs who are even less behaved? Not at all. It simply means you keep training her, but hold out the treats until she shows she can deliver, until she will actually sit, and then lay down, and then shake, and then roll over, and whatever else you think she ought to learn to do. She is your dog, after all, and treats can be expensive. You want her to be a good dog, the best dog she can be.
Given that we’re eight days from an election, a lot of blinders are on. This post will either fall on deaf ears or outrage some people, but I’ll give it a shot anyway.
There are some folks in the LGBT community who don’t think Democrats deserve our votes right now. They see the Democrats as the dog in my little case study. The Democrats clearly know what issues are important to us, and some of them are even good at showing what they know with their words. But when it comes to action, they (and particularly President Obama) have fallen quite short. No action on ENDA, DOMA repeal, Safe Schools, or Student Non-Discrimination, and a complete fumble of DADT. They can’t be bothered to actually sit, regardless of how many treats we’ve given them.
To suggest we shouldn’t vote for every Democrat in every race elicits a huge backlash from a lot of people in the movement. They are quick to say, “You think the Republicans would be any better???” as if we just crawled out from under a rock completely unaware of how much the Grand Ol’ Party has unflinchingly abused our community in every single election since “homosexual” was vernacular. This suggests to me a severely dualistic point of view that equates advocating for gay rights with voting Democratic with unyielding allegiance.
To my knowledge, the big orgs rarely (if ever) support a candidate they don’t think is viable. This means a lot of “loyalty” support for unfriendly incumbents if it’s deemed that the primary challengers don’t have a chance, regardless of how much more pro-gay their platforms are. It also means very little attention paid to any third-party candidates, regardless of their positions. Are we just a crutch for the Democratic party? (And if so, why bother with the redundancy of Stonewall Democrats?) From my perspective, this approach lacks integrity and speaks of desperation. The talking points echo this sentiment: “If we let the Republicans, all hope for change is GONE!”
This all-or-nothing paranoia is disturbing, our movement’s own version of Beckian fear. First there’s the patronizing assumption that anyone in doubt about the Democrats is a conspirator for a Republican overthrow of the legislature. You’re either supporting the Dems or you’re not supporting the movement! Add to that the assumed bizarre dichotomy that Democrats are saviors and Republicans are demons. Yeah, the Republicans don’t like us, but they’re not actually going to pass a federal marriage amendment, and I don’t think Democrats deserve all that much credit just for not trying. I really appreciated what Jon Stewart said in his most recent interview with Fresh Air’s Terry Gross:
Beck and Palin are easier punching bags. And we can think of it as, oh my God, I’m so scared if they take over. And you know what? We’ll be fine.
You know, we had a Civil War. Just – we’re not that fragile, and I think we always have to remember that people can be opponents, but not enemies. And there are enemies in the world. We just need the news media to help us delineate.
And I think that’s where the failing is, that the culture of corruption that exists in the media doesn’t allow us to delineate between enemies and opponents. And that’s where we sort of fall into trouble.
Exactly. The whole situation is a lot more nuanced than anyone is willing to talk about it.
But what do we wind up with? The polarization I wrote about last month. While some are trying to raise the discourse above “The Dems gotta win! The Dems gotta win!” others have the hubris to call any sheep who stray from the flock “enemies.” We’re shooting ourselves! We’re poking each other’s eyes out! And the dialogue never evolves. We stay in survival mode and the movement just keeps catering to the Dems, thrilled that they at least say nice things about us, even if they don’t actually act on our behalf. (They know how to “Sit!” so who cares if they actually do?)
Life is more intricate than that, and you know what? Sometimes if you want to move forward, you have to take a risk. If Democrats can always count on votes from the LGBT community, they have no reason to ever act on our behalf. This isn’t a new revelation, either, though President Obama raised his own stakes and has faced the consequences for not living up to his “fierce advocacy.” Either the LGBT movement has power and sway or it doesn’t. If we’re always willing to throw money at every “lesser evil,” then we have absolutely no clout. It’s only if our support has to be earned that we can actually start exercising some control over how our politicians treats us.
What does this mean? Well, for this election cycle, it doesn’t mean much. We’ve already fallen into our own trap of being in the Democrats’ back pocket again. Nothing’s going to change in eight days; we have the candidates we have and we have to make the most of it.
We need to go out and vote next week. We need to remember there are other issues and communities other than our own worth considering. And maybe the Democrat is the best choice. Maybe a third-party candidate is. But an informed vote is always important.
I’d love to teach the Democrats a lesson and completely hold out any support until they step it up, but we’re not set up to communicate that right now. As long as there are so many militant folks in the movement pushing for unequivocal support of Democrats, the message won’t get across.
But after next week? I think we really need to reevaluate LGBT politics and the risks we’re willing to take. We need to stop silencing every opinion that goes against the grain of the movement (as many will undoubtedly try to do with THIS opinion). We need to consider whether being a lapdog to the Democratic party is getting us anywhere. Do we really need to back a horse in every race? Do we need to spend all of our money in every election cycle? Do we always support incumbents even if they haven’t taken action on our behalf? Does our movement have any real political sway, or are we just a fundraising/vote-rallying arm of the Democratic party? Do we ever support the candidate that actually most supports us, even if as a third-party candidate or primary challenger they aren’t as viable? Are we really content with a paranoid “at least they’re not persecuting us” limbo?
If the movement’s movers and shakers are unwilling to change anything, then I want a new movement. What’s “good enough” for some doesn’t seem to be very good at all.
Stop throwing my treats away; hold out until the dog actually listens.