The Glory of Defeat?

I know I’m risking starting yet another SSM war, but I wanted to point out an interesting op-ed in today’s New York Times. Thomas Frank writes that the constitutional amendment movement was designed to fail:

They went with a constitutional amendment, the one method where failure was absolutely guaranteed — along with front-page coverage. Then again, what culture war offensive isn’t doomed to failure from the start? Indeed, the inevitability of defeat seems to be a critical element of the melodrama, on issues from school prayer to evolution and even abortion.

Failure on the cultural front serves to magnify the outrage felt by conservative true believers; it mobilizes the base. Failure sharpens the distinctions between conservatives and liberals. Failure allows for endless grandstanding without any real-world consequences that might upset more moderate Republicans or the party’s all-important corporate wing. You might even say that grand and garish defeat — especially if accompanied by the ridicule of the sophisticated — is the culture warrior’s very object.

I think Frank overstates his case somewhat; after all, many culture wars are indeed fought to be won. But I think he’s on to something as regards this particular skirmish. Constitutional amendment supporters seem to have wanted the glory of defeat — and they got it.

28 comments for “The Glory of Defeat?

  1. “Constituional ammendment supporters seem to have wanted the glory of defeat . . .”

    Can you provide any evidence of this? Any evidence that doesn’t “psychologize?” I mean evidence so that you or anyone else could say persuasively, “His motives show he clearly wanted defeat, whereas hers show clearly she wanted victory?”

    Why would G.B. Hinckley want defeat? Or Rick Santorum? Most conservative Catholics I know who have views on this genuinely wanted to win, from what I could tell.



  2. Anna, Anna, Anna: Good point. Most conservative Mormons I know genuinely wanted it to pass, too.

  3. I think the point of this sort of analysis is more asking why they would put it up for debate/vote if they knew it wouldn’t pass. The answer is that they wanted to lose the vote to energize the base. I’m sure most want the bill or some variation on it to pass. But that doesn’t explain the recent actions.

    I’m not sure that this works that well, however. If anything it may come back and bite them a little given what the concerns of this election are. It seems like trying to change the subject somewhat. But it is also an election where energizing ones base will really be important. Further it is an election where the house and senate seem more disconnected from the Presidency. So the Republicans want to get their base energized so as to win house and senate seats. I think this a miscalculation though since even many people deeply opposed to ssm are leery of amending the constitution as well as election year gimicks. I think we are, in a way, a more sophisticated electorate than we were in the days of the flag burning issue.

  4. Anna: You mentioned Rick Santorum, but I also believe that Bush is sincere in his drive for the FMA, however misguided it is. He has consistently emphasized the importance of traditional marriage (i.e. it is not simply some little thing he has taken up all of the sudden in light of the upcoming election). It seems plausible that Bush was rushing this becaues of the state of things in MA. Perhaps he wanted to make sure things are in place so that out-of-state couples who eventually will be able to marry in MA will not be able to go back to their home states, shop for an activist judge, and force the state to recognize the marriage on equal protection or due process grounds in a state that otherwise would prefer not to allow SSM.

    Even though I question the appropriateness of a constitutional amendment and wouldn’t support it if anyone asked my opinion, I must confess that it is frustrating to read allegations like this in the media. It seems that when Republicans take action within their job descriptions, whether the President, the Senate, or the Congress, the media just accuse them of playing politics. Ironically, this is the case both when Republicans do something that they are stereotyped to do, such as promote the FMA, and when they do other things such as Medicaid reform that, according to the stereotype, they are not supposed to care about.

  5. I’ve observed a related phenomenon, in which people define themselves in terms of what they oppose. That’s why we as LDS (or conservatives) need to reassure each other about how society just keeps getting worse and worse with no end in sight, because it justifies the elements of our philosophy which we’re unsure of as the /clearly/ lesser evil, or a necessary counter-extremism.

    It also seems to play into addictive cycles somehow. Having lots of things to be exasperated about lets us stay isolated from those scary /other people/ out there who are hopelessly uninformed, apathetic or downright evil. They just don’t /get/ it. So that works well for being an enabler to another’s addiction, because it tells the addict that he fits into that category — he’s just too apathetic to change, or deep down doesn’t want to. Addicts themselves are often excellent enablers, too.

    So, I guess addicition is somewhat offtopic, with the similarity being a tendency to seek out things to be exasperated about and preoccupied with, rather than sitting down with the other human beings and finding personal solutions.

  6. As I said at the neglected end of another thread,

    Right now the state of Massachusetts is in the process of a constitutional amendment because activist judges imposed radical change on the state, supposedly based on an interpretation of the state constitution. The Massachusetts legislature shortly thereafter started the process of amending its constitution to remedy the court’s adventure. But there will be a few years’ worth of confusion and drama in the interim, even assuming the amendment passes, which is not clear.

    For the Senate to consider taking steps to prevent that sort of drama on a national scale before it happens, in stead of waiting until afterward, should hardly be surprising.

    The idea that the amendment was intended to fail seems pretty far out. On the other hand, if opponents of FMA are chagrined at how their very triumph in defeating it is in fact motivating conservative voters, that would be the most natural thing ever. And if advocates of FMA saw this effect as a reason why defeat right now wouldn’t be so bad, that wouldn’t be too surprising, either.

  7. I think Kaimi’s onto something. Sure, there’s little doubt President Hinckley, President Bush, Santorum, and others would like to ban gay marriage with a Constitutional amendment.

    But in this case, there was never any question that it would fail. Since there was never any chance of it passing (at least for now), then it is worthwhile to ask why they bothered in the first place. I suspect, as others have pointed out, it was to draw the line in the sand. It creates a them vs. us scenario – we supported this, we voted for it, we wanted it. They didn’t.

  8. Kaimi is right. The supporters of the amendment are not particularly troubled by losing a procedural vote, much less their incapacity to pass the amendment. What is more conservatives know full well that they have lost the struggle on gay marriage. But in politics you do not need to win to get what you want. The by-elections in Kentucky and South Dakota demonstrated that the Bushies are in trouble even in conservative non-establishment areas. People are upset about nation building while they do not know how to pay for education and health care, especially as the war turns out to be a total quackmire. For conservatives the amendment business of last week accompolishes four goals: a) remind the base that the Bushies are the conservatives and rev up the base, b) raise money from small donors, c) change the subject, drop war, talk about values, and d) make sure that the conservative churches will provide the bodies for the GOP get out the vote drive (GOTV) in November. In 2002 the Bushies matched the Unions for the first time in GOTV. The volunteers came from churches. You got to give folks something before they will take off a day of work, donate their mini vans and work thirteen hours for the good of the party.

  9. Just because something seems doomed to failure doesn’t mean that it’s a dumb thing to do. One should always try to do what one believes in, and I’m sure that’s what Santorum et al. were doing. This wasn’t an attempt to win over America in an election year – these senators were doing something that is increasingly unpopular. (As an example of the unpopularity of the FMA movement, I remember hearing an LDS man in the DC area tell me that because of his work against legalization of same-sex marriage, there were many people in his ward that didn’t even want to be seen talking to him.)
    I’m so glad that some of the Senators tried to pass the FMA; unfortunately, it seems to be too late now. Since the passage of DOMA, America mainstream culture has shifted to the point where to be against allowing same-sex marriage is equated with being against gay people. The public pulse appears to hardly be stirred by the failure of the amendment to pass because most people in the US, even if they don’t personally favor instituting same-sex marriage, are very hesitant to be perceived as homophobic.

  10. most people in the US, even if they don’t personally favor instituting same-sex marriage, are very hesitant to be perceived as homophobic. This is very very true. Usually it is the Left that talks about a “chilling effect” on free speech and on other rights, but this is an example where the Left doesn’t seem so concerned about the chilling effect that is resulting from the gay community’s agenda.

  11. Why would G.B. Hinckley want defeat? Or Rick Santorum?

    Whatever Rick Santorum may think about the amendment, he has been in the Senate long enough to know that this was primarily an election-year maneuver. I’m willing to believe that Gordon B. Hinkley actually wanted an amendment to pass, but that simply underscores why the Church is better off staying out of politics: there are always wheels within wheels, and it accomplishes nothing by making enemies for no reason by throwing its weight behind what proves to be a (rather transparent) partisan political ploy.

  12. Earlier I noted that I personally do not support the FMA. This is because of a number of structural and prudential concerns I have and of a general desire to keep the Constitution uncluttered with Amendments. But I have realized that despite my own misgivings about the issue and preference not to try to amend the Constitution over this, I need to support it because the Church has expressed its support for it. Specifically, I was called to repentance, so to say, as I read President Hinckley’s talk in Priesthood session in March 2003, in which he said:

    In 1933, there was a movement in the United States to overturn the law which prohibited commerce in alcoholic beverages. When it came to a vote, Utah was the deciding state.

    I was on a mission, working in London, England, when I read the newspaper headlines that screamed, “Utah Kills Prohibition.”

    President Heber J. Grant, then President of this Church, had pleaded with our people against voting to nullify Prohibition. It broke his heart when so many members of the Church in this state disregarded his counsel.

    On this occasion I am not going to talk about the good or bad of Prohibition but rather of uncompromising loyalty to the Church.

    How grateful, my brethren, I feel, how profoundly grateful for the tremendous faith of so many Latter-day Saints who, when facing a major decision on which the Church has taken a stand, align themselves with that position. And I am especially grateful to be able to say that among those who are loyal are men and women of achievement, of accomplishment, of education, of influence, of strength—highly intelligent and capable individuals.

    Each of us has to face the matter—either the Church is true, or it is a fraud. There is no middle ground. It is the Church and kingdom of God, or it is nothing.

    Those words are indeed prophetic, speaking precisely to the issue of supporting the Church in its support for an FMA over a year before the issue was brought to the table in the Senate. As such, I would like to express that although I have not favored the FMA or any such initiative up until now, I am willing to side with the Church on this.

  13. I’ll try again to make my original point.

    A number of people have said critical things, implying the dishonest or disingenuous motives of FMA supporters. I began my earlier comment by asking for evidence to support these criticisms. So far, no one has provided any: particularly Kaimi who made the original charge. Isn’t it responsible, indeed obligatory in such judgements to give evidence? I have a rule for myself: do not judge others negatively unless you can furnish really persuasive reasons. I have listened carefully to Rick Santorum and other social conservatives, both Republ. and Democrats, with whom I sypmathize. With rare exception they seem to me motivated by a genuine desire to preserve what they believe to be moral conduct, the “moral order of things.” It seems odd to me to give G.B. Hinckley a pass on his motives for promoting FMA, and condemn R.S. as electioneering, without good evidence against R.S. I don’t see also, what the clear evidence is that the church should stay out of politics. Nor do I see why the church should do so when so much is at stake. Why should churches as institutions automatically stay out of politics? Should we discout M.L. King’s arguments because he was a pastor? Isn’t it clear that his arguments were persuasive to lots of people because they, the people, were/are religious? The civil rights movement began and was carried on largely in churches.
    I cannot see why churches should, on grave moral issues remain silent. I wish church members would get more involved. I thought this was Brother Jensen’s point: that the democratic party keeps moving further and further away from mainstream moral values, in Utah, because so few LDSaints are willing to influence the party platform. LDSaints simply leave the party and join the Republicans rather than stay and fight for LDS values regarding abortion, for example, within the party. (I’ll assume without arguing it, yet again, that most LDSaints, even those who are pro-choice, would like to see the number of late-term and partial-birth abortions reduced to nearly zero.)

    Anyway, my original complaint was that it seems to me quite wrong to make negative judgements about the motives of various parties while ignoring the obligation to give evidence for the judgements. Without giving good evidence, it seems almost like gossip. It’s hard to give compelling evidence all the tmie, but that’s moral work: arduous moral work. Perhaps the labor required keeps us from too frequent offense, I think. And it helps us to keep from judging when we don’t need to or shouldn’t.


  14. Even if we assume it was an election year maneuver, that is not necessarily illegitimate.

    Knowing something is going to fail when voted on doesn’t mean that voting on it is useless.

    Yes, supporters of the FMA knew they did not have enough votes to pass it. So, how do you go about getting enough votes to pass it in the future? You start making it an election issue. You force incumbents to go on the record with a vote. Then, you start working against those who voted against it.

    What is wrong with that? It’s how the whole representational democracy thing works.

  15. If knowing that what I voted for would fail to carry made my voting useless, as a Utah resident I would just quit voting. I have rarely voted for a successful candidate since moving to Utah. I’ve even been known to campaign for candidates who didn’t have a chance of winning. In fact, I don’t think I’ve campaigned for any others. (I like to be consistent.)

  16. As anna says, the evidence offered in favor of Kaimi’s and Frank’s point is very poor evidence.

    Granted, the likelihood was that the FMA would not pass with the required two-thirds vote. It might be true to say that Santorum et al. expected it not to pass. The only evidence I have seen for disingenuousness is the claim that everyone knew a two-thirds vote in favor was improbable. But that is very weak evidence. Suppose my buddy falls in the river and is washing downstream. I throw a life jacket, knowing it is unlikely my aim will be good enough for him to grab it in the turbulent water. My intent is for him to be able to grab it, even though I know this is not the most likely outcome. Likewise, the fact that it was unlikely for the FMA to pass just doesn’t imply that the effort was designed to fail.

    Given how short the given evidence falls, the allegation that the effort was designed to fail seems like just a cheap attempt by its opponents to squirm out of the way of the blame for defeating FMA. This blame will in fact hurt them; they will lose votes in the coming election because of their opposition.

  17. Ben, I think that the reason people say what they do is because in interviews most Senators in favor of the vote were very open they weren’t going to succeed. Further they way in which the vote was framed – as a procedural vote rather than even a vote on the amendment suggested that they weren’t too serious about it. They all were very up front that it wouldn’t pass.

    The life jacket analogy is inapt since in the case of the Senate, everyone pretty well knew how the votes would go. In the life jacket example that knowledge isn’t present.

  18. Wow. We’ve got “allegations”; then we’ve got “A number of people have said critical things, implying the dishonest or disingenuous motives of FMA supporters” and “negative judgments” and so forth.

    Anna, you’re arguing against a straw man here. I haven’t made any critical statements or negative judgments. I’m not criticizing politicians for being politicians, that’s what they do for a living. My post is observational, and Mr. Frank’s point, at least the part cited, is the same.

    Politicians make moves that are designed to fail all the time, because they think that those moves will score them political points. One big recent example is the Clinton impeachment.

  19. Well, the Clinton impeachment did not fail — he was impeached, so I hardly see how it can be said it was designed to fail. While it’s true that the Senate failed to convict Clinton, it does not mean the House was incorrect in impeaching him.

  20. Well, Kaimi, I think pushing for a measure in a way that is “designed to fail” would be disingenuous in a rather distasteful way. Maybe being disingenuous is routine for politicians, but that doesn’t mean it should be. So it seemed to me you (and Frank) were making a serious moral criticism by saying the push for the FMA was designed to fail, whether you thought of it as a moral criticism or not. There is a big difference between expecting to fail and designing to fail.

    Perhaps I’m hanging too much on one word, though (and on Frank’s article, which you do note is a bit overstated). If you didn’t mean they were being disingenuous, just that they (at least the senators) knew they would not manage to actually pass it on this round but felt there were other benefits of raising the issue and getting a vote, then I think you’re right.

  21. After all, one benefit of raising the issue now and getting a vote is the potential that this would lead to people getting elected who would pass it. It might also turn up information on how it could be revised to pass.

  22. Anna’s insistence on proof is good thing. But politics is not a criminal trial. Show me who profits how and I tell you what is going on.

    If it looks like a distraction and smells like a distraction then it is a distraction. The fact that Santorum really does not like gays is in a sense irrelevant. I pointed out a variety of benefits to the Bushies that are sufficient to establish motive.

    You might remember that the Equal Rights Amendment was never passed. But women’s rights made substantial headway in that era because the oppoenents had to allow the passage of substantial concessions to take the wind out of the ERA’s sails.

    It is important to keep in mind that there is more to the gospel than the social issues.

    Given that our children, and the Saints have more children than others, will have to pay for the national debt, either in taxes or inflation, we should speak out against annual deficits exceeding half a trillion dollars.
    Given that over three thousand soldiers have returned wounded we should protest cuts to the Veteran’s Administration budget.
    Given that the goal of the war is to liberate the Iraqi people we should insist that the war is conducted accordingly.

    Given that little boys were sodomized in Abu Ghraib we should stand with innocent Iraqi mothers who were often arrested merely for being in wrong place at the wrong time.

    Focusing now on gay marriage is reducing the gospel to a couple of pages in Leviticus. What is going on? How can we allow those things to go on and just change the subject? What has happened to our priorities?

    People have been tortured in our name. Women and children have been raped in our name. Pisoners of war have been murdered in our name.

    Forgive me if I don’t get excited about a couple of men getting married. The gay marriage amendment gets in the way of holding the Bush administration for the incompetent and greedy execution of the war accountable. That is what it is all about.

  23. “Quackmire” is one of my favorite words I’ve ever seen on this site. I could spend days deconstructing it. Thanks Hellmut!

  24. The gay marriage amendment gets in the way of holding the Bush administration for the incompetent and greedy execution of the war accountable.

    Hellmut: What an interesting accusation this is. It reminds me of when I was a kid and my friend’s dad was a major conspiracy theorist and he would tell us all about how Bush senior had assassinated JFK and other lesser known facts of American politics and intrigue.

  25. About a year ago, I heard an excellent speech from Judge Calabresi. He spoke about true liberalism, and how liberals ought to be willing to do more than just speak out. He said that true liberals ought to be willing to open their own backyards, so to speak, to solve the problems of the world rather than decrying the problems and waiting for others to solve them. So with that in mind, let’s address Hellmut’s comments.

    Given that little boys were sodomized in Abu Ghraib we should stand with innocent Iraqi mothers who were often arrested merely for being in wrong place at the wrong time.

    How? How, exactly, do we stand with these mothers? We are trying to punish those responsible for the atrocities, what else can be done at this point? How do YOU PERSONALLY plan to do what you exhort everyone to do? How can I do it too?

    People have been tortured in our name. Women and children have been raped in our name. Pisoners of war have been murdered in our name.

    That was also the case in every war. You don’t think our soldiers raped women or murdered POWs in WWII or any other of the “great” conflicts? It doesn’t make it right, but it is one of the reasons why Satan loves a good war. War is hell- it should be avoided. But we are in war, whether that war is justified or not, and we are in a situation where just up and leaving may not be the best policy. What do you personally plan to do to remedy this situation? What can we all do to ensure that 1) there is never any war and 2) that some pervert, sadistic soldier who never learned self-control and has no concept of human dignity won’t rape or murder anyone?

    How are you going to take this from the level of verbal condemnation into practical reality? How can we?

    It is easy to sit back and criticize, but hard to actually do anything to remedy the situation. It is easy to vote Bush out (perhaps) and put yet another rich, disconnected and clueless President in the office, but hard to take personal responsibility for what we say.

    What I want to know is this: how are you going to take responsibility for these comments? Or are they just convenient things to say?

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