This article is part of HuffPost’s biweekly politics newsletter. Click here to subscribe.
The name Aaron Belkin may not mean a lot to you. But his history as an advocate should, if you care about progressive politics. And you might want to pay attention to him now, because he’s about to retire, and he’s got a few important things to say before he does.
Belkin is a celebrated political scientist and activist based in California. He is probably best known for his role in the campaign against anti-LGBTQ discrimination in the military, an effort that led in 2012 to full repeal of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy that had been in place since the early 1990s.
“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” or DADT as it came to be known, permitted gay Americans to serve as long as they did not disclose their sexual orientation. It was put in place by then-President Bill Clinton, who as a candidate had promised to end the long-standing ban on gays in the military. He ran into stiff opposition from military commanders and their allies in Congress, who insisted that the presence of openly gay soldiers and sailors would compromise unit integrity.
The public was divided, according to polling at the time, with a slight majority opposing an easing of restrictions. Opposition from currently serving members of the armed forces was much higher. Clinton, reeling from some other political setbacks, settled on DADT as a compromise solution.
It was supposed to be a big step toward LGBTQ equality ― the best possible outcome, under the political circumstances, even though it meant expulsions would continue, and LGBTQ members would have to keep living their lives in secret.
Belkin was among those who thought it was possible to do better and made it his mission to do so, through an approach that was more radical than it might sound at first blush ― and that he says could still work today, on a whole variety of issues, if only more progressives adopted it.
Prevailing On ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’
As Belkin tells the story, a chronic problem for Democrats and their allies has been their focus on winning debates through better rhetoric. They assume public opinion is relatively static, and think the key to victory in any given argument is picking the right words or trying to shift the focus of conversation, so that the debate can take place on more favorable political grounds.
This advice makes plenty of sense in certain contexts, Belkin says. But one of his core principles is that too much focus on language and framing can limit the prospects for reform, by giving up on the possibility of changing minds over time.
“As long as we emphasize frame over facts,” Belkin said in a recent interview with HuffPost, “we’re going to be playing small ball.”
In the context of the DADT fight, Belkin said that mentality meant conceding that the majority of political and military leaders ― as well as the majority of voters ― would never accept openly LGBTQ Americans serving alongside their straight counterparts. And Belkin wasn’t ready to accept that. He established a new research institute that later became the Palm Center, following a $1 million grant from the Michael Palm Foundation, and used it to develop a multi-prong strategy for changing perceptions.
“As long as we emphasize frame over facts, we’re going to be playing small ball.”
A key element of the campaign was the production and dissemination of research to make the case against DADT ― like the 2000 paper showing the British had repealed their long-standing ban on gays with no ill effects, or the 2006 report demonstrating that enforcement of DADT had cost the Pentagon hundreds of millions of dollars. Both reports generated coverage in national media and, for much of the 2000s, you couldn’t read a story about DADT without a reference to Belkin, Palm Center research, or both.
Another element of the strategy was linking the research to storytelling, the kind that would get a breakthrough to a frequently distracted, generally wary public ― something Belkin and his allies did successfully in the years following Sept. 11, when they showed that DADT had led to the discharge of multiple Arabic and Farsi translators, right when the military desperately needed them. The story was consistent with a key point that advocates like Belkin had been making: Excluding openly gay service members weakened the military, rather than strengthened it.
In publicizing these findings and stories, Belkin and his allies made a concerted effort to enlist or win over high-profile veterans and former national security officials on the theory they would have extra credibility with skeptics. Among them, was a former Reagan and a former Clinton official who served together on the Palm Center’s board and co-authored a widely read New York Times op-ed called “Military Tolerance Works.”
That particular op-ed appeared in 2000, a time when public feelings about the LGBTQ community looked a lot different than they do today. A majority of Americans still opposed same-sex marriage, by nearly a 2-to-1 margin, and that opposition quite likely helped then-President George W. Bush win reelection in 2004.
But sentiments changed as more and more officials were coming out in favor of allowing gay members to serve, until finally in 2010, Congress formally passed a bill formally repealing DADT and then-President Barack Obama signed it.
The victory was by no means the work of Belkin individually, or any individual for that matter. It was the culmination of activism, advocacy and strategizing, some of it going back decades. But veterans of the LGBTQ equality movement say Belkin’s contributions were pivotal ― and unique.
“Aaron has made an immense contribution in an almost unsung, quiet way, that reflects in a way that twin, great strengths he has,” Evan Wolfson, longtime leader in the LGBTQ rights movement, told HuffPost in an interview this week. “He has such substance and smarts ― a commitment to marshaling facts and evidence and arguments and reason. But he’s also very skilled at getting things to happen and thinking about how to use that substance, to engage people and to deploy in the world and to mobilize.”
“He’s not just about scholarship,” Wolfson added. “He’s about, how do we make our scholarship matter?”
Applying The Template To Other Causes
Belkin made clear he thought the model for change would work for other causes, and in the interview earlier this month, cited as an example a progressive cause that might seem to have nothing in common with LGBTQ issues.
That example is taxes, an issue on which Democrats have been playing defense at least since the 1980 election of Republican President Ronald Reagan, who promised to slash taxes, and in the process shrink government.
In the decades since, Democrats have been able to win arguments on taxes when they can make it a debate about tax fairness, and more specifically, whether wealthy Americans should be paying more. But they’ve struggled to make the case for new taxes that would affect non-wealthy Americans, which in turn has limited their ability to finance new programs, since their more ambitious schemes on everything from child care to health care require an infusion of new revenue that taxes on the wealthy can’t provide on their own.
“We have a lot of catching up to do, and it’s not going to happen overnight.”
Belkin doesn’t begrudge Democrats and their allies for making the best of a bad political situation, or for settling on less-than-ideal policy solutions because they can’t find the money to support more ambitious schemes. But he’d like to see progressives devoting more energy to making the case that taxes are OK, and a more-than-worthwhile trade-off, when they lead to the kind of public programs and services that most Americans say they support ― and that many desperately need.
“I’m not saying that pragmatism is wrong,” Belkin said. “What I’m saying is that when we don’t have a parallel set of voices that are advocating for big change, then we’re always on the defensive.”
“The other side is 50 years ahead of us in making this argument, so we have a lot of catching up to do, and it’s not going to happen overnight,” Belkin said.
As a counter-example ― an issue on which Democrats and their allies have managed to put in work and change minds in ways that enabled legislation to pass ― Belkin mentioned the clean energy provisions of the Inflation Reduction Act, which President Joe Biden signed into law this summer.
“I don’t think that Biden would ever have gotten the climate bill through Congress if the groups hadn’t spent years making the case that climate change is real, and that it’s the result of human action,” Belkin said. “It’s not that changing the conversation about climate change was sufficient for change. But it was necessary for change.”
Winning In A Dysfunctional Political Environment
There’s polling to back this up: In 2020, 60% of Americans thought climate change was a major threat, compared to just 44% in 2006, according to surveys from the Pew Research Center. But the increase was nearly all among Democrats, which is emblematic of how polarized every political debate in the U.S. has become ― potentially two big problems for Belkin’s theory of change.
One is that Belkin’s approach depends on persuading people with evidence. But that’s a lot more difficult when the opposition increasingly operates within a media ecosystem that even the most compelling, least ambiguous evidence sometimes can’t penetrate.
The other problem is that the threshold for political victory ― that is, the number of people you have to win over ― is a lot higher when even a small minority of the electorate can dictate policy, as Republicans can today thanks to institutional advantages like the over-representation of conservative, small-population states in the Senate and Electoral College.
“Donors have been understandably socialized to worry about the fires burning now ... There’s much less of a focus on building progressive messaging and building progressive power.”
Belkin has spent the last few years working on one response: A project to expand the Supreme Court, in order to make up for the way Republicans “stole” a seat when they refused to consider Obama’s nominee to replace Justice Antonin Scalia after his death.
The project is called Take Back the Court and its team of staff and advisers include a lot of familiar names from the progressive intellectual and political universe, including Wolfson, Heather McGhee (of Demos) and Laurence Tribe (of Harvard Law School). And it seems to be making progress: The big liberal advocacy groups that focus on the courts now endorse a larger court, as do many Democrats in Congress, though the votes to make such a change are not there yet.
With so much work to do on that and other causes ― and gains for the LGBTQ community seemingly under new assault ― it might seem like a strange time for Belkin to step back, and for the Palm Center to shut down, both of which will officially happen this Friday, Sept. 30.
Belkin, who is just 56, said he will continue to teach courses at San Francisco State University, where he is a full-time professor. He also expressed confidence that longtime allies like the ACLU and Lambda Legal will carry on the work of promoting the LGBTQ agenda. At the same time, he said, he worries that the people and institutions who finance progressive causes don’t think enough about the long term.
“Donors have been understandably socialized to worry about the fires burning now, where the marginal impact of their dollar is going to matter most today,” Belkin said. “In my experience, there’s much less of a focus on building progressive messaging and building progressive power.”
Whether that mentality changes may go a long way to determining how much progressives can achieve in the future.