The Duck of Minerva

Battlefield Normatica

5 July 2011

Last week’s vote for gay marriage in New York state was a signal win for U.S. advocates.  Two weeks earlier, in a move hailed by gay groups and the Obama administration, the UN Human Rights Council  voted 23-19 to commission a study on “discriminatory laws and practices and acts of violence against individuals based on their sexual orientation and gender identity.”  Do these and other recent advances for gay advocates demonstrate that a new norm of gay rights is establishing itself on the global scene?

Certainly this seems to be the case, although the arrival of any “norm” is much harder to pinpoint than the promulgation of a new policy or law, such as New York’s.  Many more countries, and, in the U.S., states expressly prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation than even 20 years ago.  And the lives of gay people are far more open and accepted today, influencing broader heterosexual culture.
Nonetheless, foes of gay rights remain powerful.  In the U.S., this is primarily the case with regard to gay marriage, which is likely to be a battlefield for years.  Internationally, the U.N. Human Rights Council vote was in fact only a small step, notwithstanding the fact that it received major media attention.  It did represent the first time that the Council as a whole had used the terms “sexual orientation and gender identity” in a resolution.  But foes were quick to denigrate the accomplishment.  They also vowed to fight any further steps, as they have been doing consistently at the UN and in many countries for years.
The broader point is that gay activists face powerful opponents at home and abroad.  And they too operate through networks that cross national and institutional boundaries.  What I have termed the “Baptist-burqa” network spans religious conservatives among many faiths, most importantly Catholic, Protestant, and Muslim.  It encompasses both states, primarily in Africa and the Middle East, and NGOs.  And it fights the gay rights network, which in turn fights back, on varied issues and in many forums worldwide.
Notably, these kinds of protracted and vehement conflicts are not confined only to gay rights.  They go well beyond culture war issues—to numerous others.  Josh Busby’s recent post makes the point that in the U.S. at least, how one stands on global warming has become something of a litmus test for party affiliation.  As Josh points out, there are Republicans who fear climate change (and different ones who support gay marriage) just as there are some on the left who remain climate skeptics.  But although the battle lines are sometimes blurry, on most global issues, groups of civil society “good guys” do not face off against “bad” old states or corporations.  Rather, contending networks encompass the gamut of international actors, both state and nonstate.
Those of you who know my recent work will know that this is a lead-in to a bit of shameless self-promotion for my forthcoming book, The Global Right Wing and the Clash of World Politics (Okay, I’m a tiny bit ashamed–sorry).  That book will explore this network vs. network conflict, and the diverse ways that contending networks duke it out in varied institutions worldwide.  I still have one last chance to tweak the final product and would be interested in YOUR thoughts.

I hope that the book will serve as a corrective to the many studies focusing primarily on networks promoting change, even though real change is in fact rare and difficult.  A better approach to understanding how politics works, I claim, is to examine the ongoing conflicts—and to analyze powerful contenders in those conflict on a more or less equal footing.  How do they mobilize?  How do they affect and attack one another?  What tactics do they use, not just to promote themselves, but equally important, to torpedo their foes?  True there are differences between the strategies of those protecting the status quo and those seeking change.  But often it is not so easy to place antagonists in either of those boxes, particularly as time passes and policies change.
These analytic points are equally valid in international and domestic settings. Consider, for instance, the case of health care reform in the U.S.  The idea that all Americans should have some form of health insurance has been around for many decades.  But to have analyzed only those promoting this policy would have missed the vast bulk of the day-to-day politics that made this goal so difficult to achieve.  Even to examine the “political opportunity structure” for proponents would miss the fact that this “structure” is in large part the continuous creation of powerful political actors.  In that context, it is true, the Obama health care law was a milestone.  But of course, it came long after its original proposal, at very high political cost, and with the ultimate outcome still uncertain because opponents, now on the defensive, continue to fight on in the courts—and probably ultimately the U.S. Supreme Court. 
All the more so in the international realm, where this kind of protracted policy conflict is endemic, where there are any number of institutions national and international in which “defeated” opponents can fight on, and in which normative talk is so cheap.  All the more reason then for analysts not to dwell on the few victories, usually at best partial and contingent.  To understand how the politics of norms works most of the time, one must look at the conflicts, the defeats, and the contending networks equally.  A few other analytic points I’ll throw out there for YOUR thoughts: 
Political scientists including myself have focused too much on “agenda setting.”  Certainly it can be a major accomplishment to draw media attention to an issue and even more so to put it on a governmental decision agenda.  But there is of course no guarantee that this will lead to anything–or at least anything anytime soon.   In fact getting one’s issue onto an agenda, invariably mobilizes contrary forces who work hard to get it off the agenda and their own ideas back on.
Political scientists and sociologists, including myself, have focused too much attention on “framing” as key to understanding policy change.  Yet there are a huge variety of frames out there, even within a single polity—and many of them are equally compelling (at least if one looks at them objectively).  Consider the supposed “master frame” of human rights.  It is so broad as to make it possible for all sides in many policy battles to tap it for their own uses.  Even more specific frames such as “harm to bodily integrity” often remain available for multiple sides to take up.
Political scientists, including myself, have focused too much attention on “persuasion” as the mechanism by which policy change happens.  Unless that term is given a broader meaning than normal, “persuasion” fails to capture the concrete combat that dwarfs most rhetorical efforts, even if it is often harder to see and study.  This includes efforts at excluding the other side from key institutions, at silencing opponents, at keeping others’ ideas off the agenda, at fighting back even after a policy has been established (see the continuing court battles over California’s Prop 8), and of course at raising money.
Finally, political scientists, in this case not including myself, have put too much faith in the power of deliberation to elevate the decision processes of leaders and citizens.  Recent work on deliberative democracy finally seems to be getting this criticism.  Many “target” audiences are beyond persuasion, due to self-interest or ideology.  And few promoters of ideas, whether new or old, truly want a free and fair debate.   Obviously such debate would be optimal–if it were possible to establish agreement on what that would mean, not in the abstract, but in an actual political conflict.  In reality, decisions are invariably made in the absence of the kind of deliberation political philosophers would prefer.
Gay rights is just one of numerous issues in which these normative battles play themselves out.  Those of us studying them ought to pay more attention to the fray itself, rather than primarily to those promoting change. 
Your thoughts welcome either on this blog or direct to me at