I spent some time over the holiday weekend fighting on the internet (as one does) about some of the tactical and strategic decisions made by the Sunrise Movement (blasting an incredibly ambitious Beto O’Rourke climate proposal, uncritically embracing a Sanders climate proposal that ruled out nuclear and carbon capture, spending July advocating for police abolition, absurd attacks on Brian Deese) over the past 18 months.
This led several people to accuse me of not understand or approving of activism or activists in general, which is not true.
I could try to do a broad theoretical account of activism or something, but I think that would be tedious. Instead I think it’s probably more helpful to talk about a specific issue. There is a style of activism that is heavily invested in a set of in-your-face tactics aimed largely at holding Democrats’ feet to the fire and pressuring them to be bolder. And the topic of marijuana legalization could use more activism and more activists. Of course there are already activists working on this issue. But they would benefit from more money, more publicity, and more support.
Not because marijuana legalization is the most important issue in the world. But because marijuana legalization is an issue where this kind of activism really does look like it operates on the relevant margin of change. A lot of politicians are old, and politicians tend to be a bit stodgy and they spend a lot of time with other stodgy old people. This has led a lot of them to underrate the public’s appetite for change on marijuana policy — an area where the case for legalization is strong on the merits and where there are no real technical or logistical barriers to going forward. There is a lot of promising change that could happen in states that Democrats fully control or might plausibly control soon. And there is a clear path forward for executive branch action on marijuana that will have a substantial impact on the situation.
I’m not an activist myself or an expert in organizing tactics, so I wouldn’t presume to tell marijuana legalization advocates what exactly they should do. But I think donors and funders to political causes should see that this is very much the kind of cause where the broad suite of activist tactics aimed at turning up the temperature and increasing the volume are likely to be successful and productive.
In some areas of policy, contemporary progressives could use more perspective. But marijuana legalization, like raising the minimum wage, is place for more passion.
Marijuana legalization is popular
A really key feature of the politics of marijuana legalization is that support for it is high and rising.
Gallup’s numbers show that 15 or 20 years ago when folks like Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi, and Chuck Schumer were already important politicians this was a pretty marginal cause. And the marginalness of marijuana legalization is doubled by the fact that the people most likely to support it (young people and people who get high a lot) are low propensity voters. But this has really changed to the point where it polls very well.
This transformation from being an unpopular to a popular topic also changes the calculus around marijuana enthusiasts’ tendency to be low propensity voters. A popular position that has particularly strong appeal to people who often don’t vote is a fantastic position to pick up — it won’t hurt you with most voters but might help you mobilize people who otherwise wouldn’t vote.
Now of course marijuana legalization has also made a lot of progress since 2004 thanks to becoming more popular. But it really is an issue where the state of the law lags public opinion, including in states where Democrats wield power.
Blue states could do more
There are lots of states where marijuana is not legal. This includes the states of New York, Connecticut, Delaware, Rhode Island, Hawaii, Virginia, and New Mexico which all feature unified Democratic control of government as well as Minnesota and Maryland where Democrats are within striking distance.
In those seven Democratic trifecta states, pure activist pressure to raise the salience of the issue might well generate policy change. To the extent that it doesn’t, picking the intra-party fights creates an issue politically ambitious people could use to fuel primary challenges. In Minnesota, this is an issue that moderate Democrats running in R-leaning districts might pick up to garner some progressive enthusiasm. Alternatively, it’s an issue that moderate Republicans afraid of losing their seats could very plausibly adopt.
What’s more, there’s also a very plausible account of why politicians may not be eager to pick up the banner but could be willing to bend to activist pressure.
Activism could deliver results
The marijuana issue has a couple of quirks that help explain why legalization hasn’t happened yet even in places where the political fundamentals seem to support it.
One is that it’s not fully polarized.
It’s popular enough that 51 percent of Republicans support it in the Gallup poll, but sufficiently disorganized that 23 percent of Democrats oppose it. And American political institutions have a ton of status quo bias, so unless someone does something to force an issue onto the agenda nothing will change.
Both insider lobbying and outsider activism are classic ways of trying to put a topic on the agenda.
So a noisy, confrontational activist movement could achieve something very important just by raising salience and setting the agenda. It’s also often does seem to be the case that the personal views of (usually elderly) politicians is a stumbling block on marijuana. There’s just a huge structural difference between something like Dianne Feinstein opposing legal pot and Joe Manchin opposing a phase-out of fossil fuel extraction. Yelling at Dianne Feinstein and threatening her with a primary loss prompted her to switch her view, and obviously does not raise the prospect of a Republican winning a senate election in California.
This is exactly the kind of terrain that is fertile ground for this confrontational style of activism. And while intensifying marijuana activism still won’t lead to federal legalization in the very short term, there are straightforward federal policy asks that a Biden Administration can and should deliver.
There’s a clear federal ask
The senate is almost certainly not going to pass a marijuana legalization bill this congress no matter what anyone says or does.
But state level marijuana policy is impacted by the fact that marijuana remains classified as a Schedule I substance by the Drug Enforcement Administration. There is plenty of legal wrangling about this and has been for years, but there’s no dispute that the DEA can change the scheduling of various substances. This is one of those situations where congress chose not to designate substances but rather to create an agency charged with making the determinations.
So asking Biden to appoint a DEA head who is committed to getting this done does not involve any wild legal theories or breaks with precedent. It’s a simple policy ask for the executive branch to do something that’s clearly in the scope of things that the executive branch does.
It’s of course possible that Brett Kavanaugh and company will issue some crazy legal ruling if the Biden administration tries. But that’s no reason not to try.
And best of all, this is something Biden really did say he would do — so holding his feet to the fire is completely reasonable. Any time there’s a meeting about this internal to the administration, the proponents of rescheduling can point to actual campaign commitments by Biden to bolster their position. They are likely to win such arguments. Again, simply raising the temperature on the issue is likely to deliver results.
Three cheers for activism! But the key thing is that the merits of this stance depend on assessing the actual situation.
The facts matter
We are, currently, at a point in time where a confrontational style of activism that involves a lot of yelling at incumbent politicians, threats of primary challenges, strident denunciations, and in-your-face tactics makes sense.
Legalization is popular. Legalization exists in several places and it’s going fine both politically and substantively.
The policy parameters are well-understood on a technical level.
It is clearly true that electing a Democratic majority does’t automatically lead to legalization because East Coast Democrats haven’t done it.
There is a legally and politically feasible ask of the president-elect that he has promised to deliver on.
But getting to this point required a lot of other steps along the way.
Back in 2007, there was a vacancy for Attorney General and Democrats held a slim majority in the senate. The kind of pure 100-proof Activist Brain that we are seeing a lot of these days would have cooked up a demand that Democrats refuse to confirm any Attorney General who doesn’t commit to immediate rescheduling and say that anyone who doesn’t do that is a phony.
Doing that — especially if backed by a couple of media-savvy members of congress — would have delivered the nonprofit sector Holy Trinity of media attention, list-building opportunities, and wins you can write down on your annual report in the form of Senators you persuaded to vote no.
But it wouldn’t have actually delivered any policy change. And it would have been counterproductive politically — promoting divisiveness and ill-will inside the Democratic coalition while raising the salience of a then-unpopular cause in a way that made its advocates look like weirdos.
What made the difference instead was ongoing efforts to change minds and critically a real effort to deliver state level policy change and develop models. As with marriage equality on a slightly earlier schedule, actually doing the thing in states where public opinion is unusually friendly helped further move public opinion by demonstrating that the idea worked. There was also a favorable generational change dynamic for both issues.
But most of all, large-scale persuasion happened. I’m not sure I could tell you exactly how it happened, but most likely it happened in the mass media and with messages designed to persuade. Marriage equality is now happily past the point where it needs aggressive shouty activists. But marijuana legalization is at exactly the point in the issue cycle where that kind of thing is most relevant and necessary. The public is ready, the real life models exist, the technical issues are well understood, and the politicians need a good shove. But if you go through life thinking *every* issue is like that you’re in for a world of disappointment.
A lot of topics either don’t have a compelling executive action agenda (minimum wage) or else are simply in a place where changing peoples minds or coming up with workable policies is much more important than twisting politicians’ arms. But these kind of judgments are fact- and context-dependent. On marijuana, we need more activism!