Campaign perspectives and responsibilities
by Reese Aaron Isbell
Proponents of banning circumcision put forward a controversial ballot measure for San Francisco's November election. As the debate began taking shape there were obvious jokes, as well as the beginnings of some semblance of political discourse. Then anti-Semitic comic imagery including a blond-haired superhero named "Foreskin Man" doing battle with rabbis and an evil "Monster Mohel" were put forward, hearkening closely to imagery from Nazi Germany.
As a longtime political strategist, let me begin by giving the proponents of the ban some possible benefit of the doubt in their arguments and deconstruct their tactics from a plain campaign strategy perspective.
Going into this election, the proponents of the ballot measure had a small window of opportunity to begin their debate on supposed rational, sensible footing. Obviously this issue was not on the forefront of voters' minds and did not rank with issues such as transportation, education, or taxes. It also quickly and easily became a target of jokes. Therefore, from a simply strategic perspective, there was a high bar to overcome in the months before November to bring people to their cause and to frame it.
In this window of opportunity they could have promoted their cause on proposed practical matters or medical concepts. They could have started an intellectual dialogue from their perspective. They even could have attempted to tug at the hearts and minds of the public in ways to bring voters to their frame of mind.
They missed their chance.
Having looked strategically, now let's look at this from a supposed educational perspective.
Oftentimes organizations place issues on the ballot to simply promote a cause. They mean not necessarily to win – at least not to win the first go-round. While these campaigns may lose on Election Day they can still attempt to educate the public, frame a social dialogue, or to change people's habits in their own personal lives. Eventually, over time, should they continue properly educating a growing public to their perspective, they may win electorally one day. In order to be successful at this though, they must find ways to reach the largest audience, keep themselves from being labeled a niche concept, and frame themselves as above-board, honorable, and as caring as possible.
The folks working on the circumcision ban missed that chance, too.
Finally, let's look at their tactics from a moral perspective.
This is where many campaigns fail. This is not to say that they necessarily fail at the ballot box because we all know that negative campaigning can win strategically. As we saw with the anti-marriage-equality Yes on Proposition 8 campaign, inflaming a debate with bigotry and negative images can win an election. However, that does not mean that the tactics were ever justified or true. And we all know that we cannot trust the right-wing to run a campaign without showcasing fear and hatred of our community. However, campaigns often fail here because any type of public dialogue includes a moral responsibility not to incite violence and discrimination. Therefore, as the general public relates circumcision procedures to religious rites and practices, the proponents of this circumcision ban had an especially high moral responsibility to make sure the debate never devolved into religious intolerance, hatred, or anti-Semitism. The campaign's moral responsibility, and frankly from a strategic perspective as well, should have been to strongly and unequivocally distance itself from anything of a discriminatory nature and even find ways to show that the campaign was for religious freedom.
You better believe they missed that chance.
Making matters worse for themselves, not only did campaign proponents make all these striking mistakes above, they also wrongly attempted to justify their inflammatory campaign tactics. We've seen this before (again, see Yes on Prop 8 campaign as a textbook example). In the guise of supporting a ballot measure, there were ill-advised attempts to justify hate speech and discriminatory images and to cover themselves by equating their cartoons to supposed loftier goals of campaign promotions. They even fought anti-Semitic calls as people reading too much into the graphic images.
They were wrong.
Look, I know that politics can be a dirty business. But I also believe strongly that politics can bring out the best in our humanity. We are at our best as a body public when we come together to promote a great social cause, advocate for support for our neighbors, work together to solve a health crisis, educate our children, fight for love.
While the personal is political, it's also true that the political can get very personal. We as San Franciscans cannot stand idly by for the next five months while proponents of this measure utilize racist concepts in order to win their campaign. Such anti-Semitic campaign literature cannot be allowed credence nor bandied about and accepted as part of a political discussion. We must not be silent as these racist campaign tactics inflame the public debate in our city.
Our LGBT community knows what it is like to have negative campaigning thrust against us in order to win an election, and as such we must shoulder our own responsibility in speaking out against these tactics. And we must, despite any partisan differences on any campaign, state unequivocally that racism, anti-Semitism, religious intolerance, sexism, ageism, or other discriminatory isms will not be tolerated and will not be given justification or given credence in the public debate as a campaign tactic.
Reese Aaron Isbell is the co-chair of the Alice B. Toklas LGBT Democratic Club and a political consultant for state Senator Mark Leno (D-San Francisco). The above are Isbell's views and his affiliations are listed for identification purposes only. Currently celebrating 40 years of service, the Alice Club will once again be analyzing all campaigns and candidates before the elections this November in order to make ballot recommendations for the community. More information on the club can be found at www.alicebtoklas.org.