How change happens: What can we learn from the same-sex marriage movement in the US?

August 20, 2014

     By Duncan Green     

As I begin work on the book on How Change Happens (no I haven’t written it yet, please stop asking), I’m collecting good analyses of social/political equal marriage 1change processes. So thanks Bert Maerten for sending a fascinating account of the same-sex marriage movement in the US, by Paul and Mark Englers.

The speed of the change is breathtaking: As of 1990, three-quarters of Americans saw homosexual sex as immoral. When the Vermont Supreme Court ruled to allow civil unions in that state in 1999, Republican presidential candidate Gary Bauer called the decision “in some ways worse than terrorism.” Even as late as 2006, only one U.S. senator was openly supportive of same-sex marriage.

‘Currently, 19 states and the District of Columbia allow same-sex marriages, a number that is increasing at a brisk rate. An ever-growing majority of the public expresses its support in national polls, and statistician Nate Silver projects that majorities favoring marriage equality will coalesce in even deeply conservative Southern states by 2024. Surveying this landscape, Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch has conceded, “Anybody who does not believe that gay marriage is going to be the law of the land… isn’t living in the real world.”’

While a lot of attention has been focussed on decades of trench warfare in the courts, the Englers have a different story of how the change happened. Court cases are a symptom of deeper tectonic movements in US society that defy ‘many of our common ideas about how social change happens.’

They describe an equal marriage movement, inspired by a ‘transformational vision’ rather than incremental policy victories, and ‘grounded in the idea that if social movements could win the battle over public opinion, the courts and the legislators would ultimately follow.’

But this was not a kind of gay rights Arab Spring, with mass protest on the streets. Instead, like termites, the equal marriage movement nibbled away at the pillars that supported the status quo:

equal marriage 2‘Power resides in the general population’s willingness to accept the legitimacy of a regime and to comply with its mandates; however, this power finds expression in institutions both inside and outside the government: the military, the media, the business community, the churches, the civil service, the educational system, and the courts, among others. These are all bodies that, in one way or another, provide a regime with the backing it needs to survive.’

Chew away at enough of these pillars, and the whole temple will suddenly come crashing down in the kind of tipping point that we are seeing in the US right now.

This links to the idea that change movements are generally not homogeneous blobs of protesters, but are ‘granular’, made up of more durable grains (trade unions, faith communities, identity-based groups, neighbourhood associations, producer organizations) that coalesce to form a spike of activity, but remain after the spike subsides. So, according to the Englers:

‘People do not merely interact with a regime as individuals. Instead, their decisions about when and how they might cooperate are channeled through their various social and professional roles. The “pillars” allow for better strategic thinking on the part of those trying to force change. Instead of focusing on elites, activists immersed in a social view of power have an alternative: influencing public opinion outside of formal political channels. Movements can scheme about how they might undermine one or more of the various sources of social support for the system — removing the backing of the clergy, for example, or prodding the press to adopt a more critical posture — and thus place the rulers on an ever-wobblier foundation.’

There are some interesting comparisons with the Civil Rights movement here. While the equal marriage movement did not go in for mass protest, they shared the use of test cases to achieve wider change.

‘Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in 1967 about how the crises created by demonstrations in individual cities propelled national civil rights legislation: “Sound effort in a single city such as Birmingham or Selma,” he explained, “produced situations that symbolized the evil everywhere and inflamed public opinion against it. Where the spotlight illuminated the evil, a legislative remedy was soon obtained that applied everywhere.”’

This was not some kind of centrally planned movement. Different activists chipped away at the pillars most relevant to them. The Englers identifyequal marriage 3jpg

–          The entertainment industry (Ellen DeGeneres coming out)

–          Protestant Churches

–          The ‘legal community’ (hey, this is the US)

–          Academic experts on parenting and childhood development, who destroyed the arguments on the supposed benefits to kids of ‘normal’ families

–          Corporates: ‘“The number of Fortune 500 companies offering healthcare benefits for same-sex partners rose from zero in 1990 to 263 in 2006.”

–          Youth: LGBT student groups grew in record numbers in the 1990s, making it safer to come out. Partly as a result ‘the “proportion of Americans who reported knowing someone gay increased from 25 percent in 1985 to 74 percent in 2000″ — and that young people were far more likely to be in the new majority than their parents. Knowing someone who is gay is a strong predictor of support for marriage equality.’

Like a kind of gay equivalent of the fall of the Berlin Wall, when the tipping point was reached, change happened almost overnight. The Englers highlight 2011, when polls showed US public support for same-sex marriage exceeding 50% for the first time.

‘As the temple has begun to crumble, pillars have fallen like dominos, toppling in areas including local government, business, religious organizations, the military, professional sports and even conservative political groups. In just one week in April 2013, six U.S. senators declared their support for marriage equality.


Only 67% to go

Only 67% to go

‘Whether they come through state-level legislation, national legal decisions or changes in behavior on the part of employers and religious authorities, future gains will represent the codification of a victory that, in an important sense, has already been won. The change has come about through a mass withdrawal of cooperation from a past order based on prejudice. It could be felt well before it was written into law, and well before it was acknowledged by those leaders now struggling to show that they have “evolved.” Indeed, like the members of a military command who have been caught off-guard by an uprising outside their palace, these politicians — the people typically seen as holding power in our society — were the last to know.’

Fascinating, do send in your thoughts on this theory of change (what are its implications for the way we work on inequality or climate change, for example?), plus other analyses of big change processes and what we can learn from them.