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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Abstinence Education

By Jasmine Beach-Ferrara
On a 100-degree day this summer, I took my dog on a run through Tower Grove Park in St. Louis. A mile into it, I looked up to see two teenagers, a guy and a girl, walking toward me, their shoulders brushing. Beyond us, an African drumming circle pounded away as part of an International Festival taking place on the park’s periphery.
My dog stopped abruptly in his tracks to relieve himself and I slowed down to jog in place. This, apparently, was all the prompting the teenage duo needed. In tandem, they veered towards me on the path and the guy — his shaggy bangs fanning coyly over his eyes, the collar on his pink polo perkily up — started talking about Jesus. As in, I’d like to tell you about my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. In the distance, the pace of the drumming picked up to a frenetic pace. Sweat dripped into my eyes as I blinked rapidly. Jesus?
I mumbled something about being comfortable with my faith and then gestured toward my dog, who was still crouching in a patch of weeds and staring off nobly into the distance. The guy smiled easily, undeterred. He was very calm and tan. Well, maybe you’ll join us for a church service this Sunday? he asked. The girl, much paler, nodded encouragingly as she offered me a brightly-colored, illustrated Jesus pamphlet. Maybe, I said as my dog jerked on his leash and pulled me down the path. Thanks, I called over my shoulder, out of a compulsive, and perhaps pointless, Southern politeness. My partner and I had moved from North Carolina to St. Louis just a week earlier and, in the midst of a Midwestern landscape that still felt foreign to me, there was something reassuringly familiar about crossing paths with evangelists.
Running again, I laughed, not derisively, but rather at the necessary absurdities of our America. Different day, different neighborhood, that could well have been me, waving someone down to talk earnestly about, oh, say, voting against a marriage amendment.
Might the progressive movement have more in common with the Evangelical Right then we like to admit? Like the pair I encountered in the park, we’re relying on door-to-door and in-the-streets evangelism to change hearts and minds about core spiritual beliefs and values. Across the country this fall, for instance, campaigns to defeat marriage amendments sent cadres of volunteers to knock on strangers’ doors and recite a two-minute script focused on conversion. I’ve been that volunteer and I’ve seen the guarded look on the face of Poor Voter X as she tries to shut the door without being too rude. Who can blame her?
Scripted, involuntary interactions with strangers are not an effective way to engage people, much less change their minds, about deeply-held beliefs. Election results, polling data and common sense all support this conclusion. Why, then, are progressive campaigns still relying so heavily on this strategy? I’m honing in on the LGBT movement in this article, but this question must be asked of any campaign attempting to defeat, or pass, a values-based ballot measure.
Since 2004, anti-marriage amendments have passed resoundingly in twenty states, including seven in the 2006 election cycle. The defeat of an amendment in Arizona is a tremendous victory for the movement. The narrowing gap between “yes” and “no” votes in several other states is also noteworthy. But the hard truth is that the LGBT movement is partly to blame for this storm of defeats: we can do better, if only we are willing to change our strategies.
As we knock on strangers’ doors, our opposition is busy preaching about the sanctity of marriage to thousands at a time from the pulpit, and microtargeting voters using consumer data. Putting aside basic democratic values like equality, they deserve some credit for their strategies. A hot button issue on the ballot does indeed boost turnout among your base. And when you put a “yes/no” question about gay marriage to a populace that is still figuring out what it thinks about the issue, most people will stick with what’s safe and familiar. Once again, the Right is playing smart offense while the Left cobbles together a formulaic — and ineffective — defense.
In the long view, anti-marriage amendments — and even the marriage issue itself — may come to seem incidental in the LGBT community’s journey towards civil rights. But in the short-term, we face a real, pressing dilemma in figuring out how to defeat these amendments. A holistic solution involves restructuring the LGBT (and the broader progressive) movement and adopting an approach to community and political organizing that is rooted in values and relationships rather than strategies of questionable effectiveness like canvassing and phonebanking. These are bigger picture topics for another day, though.
The question on the table today is how to engage meaningfully — and strategically — with the American public about values-based issues, including the charged question of whether full civil rights should be extended to LGBT individuals. Surprisingly, the short-term answer may be adopting another strategy from the Far Right: Abstinence Education.
Currently, when an anti-marriage amendment goes to the ballot, campaigns on both sides compete ardently for swing voters. Meanwhile, voters face the flawed, dichotomous choice of voting either for or against an amendment. For those on either extreme of the issue, these options are a good match. But what is that coveted swing voter, who, after all, isn’t quite sure what she thinks about gays getting married, to do? Anti-amendment campaigns expend tremendous financial and human resources trying to convince her — through short, scripted interactions with strangers — to cast a “no” vote. But, time and again, they fail to change her mind, her heart or her vote.
This should come as no surprise; after all, as people change, they typically do so slowly and idiosyncratically. Conversion takes time and the sooner we accept this, the better off we’ll be. In the short term, we’re not going to win the swing vote; so why not destabilize it?
For the time being, let’s say we’d still knock on a swing voter’s door to contact her. But when she opens it, our message, tone and goals would be different. Instead of simply exhorting her to vote “no” against an amendment, we would instead start a conversation acknowledging the complexity of the issues at stake. While still encouraging her to vote “no,” we would also present her with another option: to abstain from voting on this one ballot measure. As the election cycle progressed, we would use increasingly tailored messaging for a) our base, b) swing voters that seemed likely to vote “no” and c) swing voters who seemed likely to abstain. The only voters excluded from targeting efforts would be those who were certain to vote “yes,” a much narrower pool than is currently being excluded.
At first, the idea of abstaining from voting chafes against the basic democratic impulse that it’s always good to vote. But give it a few minutes. The questions being posed to voters by values-based ballot measures (about gay marriage, about stem cell research, about abortion) are inherently flawed; they don’t allow room for the nuanced and even conflicting belief systems that polling and anecdotal evidence suggest so many people hold. There’s no reason for us to continue to be complicit in this. Why not, instead, give voters a proactive option — abstinence — that actually correlates with their beliefs.
If sufficient numbers of swing voters abstained and if a campaign’s base turned out robustly, it could impact election results. Implemented successfully, this strategy would increase the likelihood of defeating an amendment by (1) reducing the number of votes necessary to defeat a ballot measure and (2) pulling swing voters away from the opposition. (For the sake of brevity, the details of implementation are not enumerated here, but they are available on request.)
A quiet piece of 2006 Election Day data from South Carolina points to the potential of this strategy, and the fact that some voters are also acting on the impulse to abstain. The South Carolina Equality Coalition reports that a total of 26,021 people who voted for governor abstained from voting on Amendment 1. Could this number be grown if a campaign were willing to adopt abstinence education as a proactive strategy?
Polling data and election results from 2004 and 2006 provide insights into the tension between actual beliefs, beliefs reported to pollsters, and voting behaviors. National polling conducted by the Princeton Survey Research Associates International in the months leading up to the ’04 election showed that 29% of people favored gay marriage, 60% opposed it and 11% were unsure. However, when asked whether they favored or opposed a legal agreement that would grant gay couples many of the same rights as married couples, 48% were in favor, 45% opposed, and 9% unsure. In 2004, amendments passed with at least 60% of the vote in ten states; in Mississippi alone, a full 86% of voters supported the amendment. In other words, many of the people who reported believing in equal rights, or who weren’t sure what they thought, ended up voting for amendments. Why? In part, at least, because our campaigns failed to engage them meaningfully, and failed to provide them with a way to accurately express their beliefs.
With the notable exception of Arizona, these tensions held true in 2006 as well. According to July 2006 polls conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, 56% of people polled opposed gay marriage, 35% favored it and 9% were unsure; meanwhile 54% of people reported favoring a legal agreement that would grant equal rights to gay couples, with 42% opposed and 4% unsure. On Election Day, amendments passed by margins ranging from 4% (South Dakota) to 54% (South Carolina).
Public opinion is changing, and our strategies need to change along with it. The question is whether our movement is nimble enough to do this.
The problem with “Abstinence (Voting) Education” is that it’s a new strategy and thus challenges established methods of political organizing. But a variation on this approach has proven effective in public health work, a field that is also concerned with changing human behavior. The “Abstinence (Voting) Education” model is rooted in the public health theory of harm reduction, which years ago redefined how we think about treating addiction. In a harm reduction approach, a person gradually reduces her risk-taking behavior, such as drug use, and each reduction in risk is defined as a success. If a person uses drugs once a week instead of three times a day, for instance, they are making progress. In public health and in political organizing, the polarized choices — to vote yes or no, to be sober or relapsed — leave out that great swath of people who are in flux, who are in the midst of the (beautifully) messy and human process of change.
If any community knows about the change process, it’s the LGBT community, and it’s time to extend the lessons learned in our personal lives to the political sphere: people change, but they tend to change slowly, and what they need through this process is choice and latitude, not exhortations and polarities. “Abstinence (Voting) Education” meets people where they are and, like the most effective political strategies, plays to human nature instead of trying to change it.

Jasmine Beach-Ferrara is the Director of The Progressive Project and is a consultant to non-profits and political campaigns. She is currently working on a novel and her writing has appeared in The Harvard Review, The Advocate, The Bellevue Literary Review and on Alternet.org. Those interested in discussing this strategy can reach her at jelibe@hotmail.com.

2 comments on “Abstinence Education

  1. Pompano Pete on

    Living, as I do, in a much more enlightened environment, Massachusetts, I have seen what is needed to obtain equal rights for all. My take is simple – changing people’s values is ineffective and inefficient. The solution lies in contract law, no where else for now.
    John Adams wrote the Constitution of Massachusetts and built the structure upon a simple concept – equality. And as a lawyer, he realized that everyone must be equally able to enter into a binding contract. Now I’m simplifying because in his world women and Indians didn’t qualify (MA had banned slavery before he wrote the Constitution) though his writings clearly indicate that he did not expect those disqualifications to last. The only way that the State could discriminate was if there was an obvious and compelling reason to do so.
    A marriage license is a standard form, State approved, contract which becomes effective when signed by the parties and a state certified individual, often, but not necessarily, a priest, minister, rabbi, etc. Being able to enter into this contract has been shown to be beneficial for the parties. Thus, the MA Supreme Judicial Court framed the question as whether or not the State could show there was a compelling reason to prohibit any class or group from entering into such a contract. It’s just that simple.
    I’ve explained this to numerous friends and relatives, many of whom are staunch Catholics or evangelicals, and no one has ever been able to counter this argument. A contract is not a religious ceremony, doesn’t require the approval of any religious figure or third party, and must be available to all.
    Forget values, traditional definitions, and all religious arguements. Get people to admit that a “marriage license” isn’t something special, but rather is a contract completed on a State approved form. Nothing more. And the battle is half won.
    BTW, I hope you picked up your dog’s refuse and placed it in a trash can.

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  2. Ginny in CO on

    I’m an RN, activist for civil rights and been active in the Democratic Party since ’88. This is one of the soundest ideas on bringing about change I have seen anywhere. I would point out that Lincoln initially did not want to abolish slavery because his assessment of what had happened in Europe – mostly England as I recall- indicated that forcing these changes creates backlash that makes the situation worse. We saw that not only right after the Civil War, but 100+ years later when Goldwater lost the ’64 race.
    Having a degree in Sociology and being a Unitarian-Universalist, I am totally dedicated to civil rights for GLBT, and that the way to do it is this kind of passive-assertive approach. The change in attitudes of the younger generations who have grown up with more awareness of sexual orientation, friends with GLBT orientations and some positive TV programming will add to the other societal changes. Resistance to this kind of change is a sad fact of human nature. So are the attitudes towards war, money, lying, etc.
    Denying the reality of human nature does not help finding a solution to the problems it causes. To illustrate: I started reading this expecting it to be about sexual abstinence education. Something that as a UU I know is highly ineffective and downright stupid. As I have maintained for over a decade: teachers do not worry that algebra students will go out and experiment with calculus. The fear of experimentation with sex due to classes is so groundless it is beyond ludicrous. True, the sex education classes are not very effective – mostly because they are biology education. If the type of sexuality education taught in the UU churches were also taught in public schools, we might actually see more kids get it. Instead, kids like mine who took the UU classes, hear conversations among their peers with the stupidist myths repeated as facts.
    Alan Patton (Cry the Beloved Country) once pointed out that humans have a tendency to avoid doing what will most help a problem. This is very true in my experience, and it is countered with education that really helps. I have done it many times teaching my patients about heart disease, diabetes, smoking, etc. If you give the critical information in a way the person can understand it, they either stick their heads in the sand or change. Most change. Denial takes mental effort to sustain.

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