One of these things is not like the other. (photo: Sean Loyless)

Suffice it to say, my ideas on marriage are complicated. Not, mind you, complicated as in ambiguous, just complicated as in complex. I could go on at length, though not so much because I want to—marriage is really (or should be) a personal matter—but because others always want to. I think that in a lifetime of political conversations, I have maybe had more of them about marriage than any other single subject.

But I don’t want to go on at length here. Really. Let’s just boil it all down to something like this: I am uncomfortable with the shoehorning of what I see as a personal and religious matter into our purportedly secular and civil society. Alas, “Civil Unions for all, marriage for none,” makes a better rallying cry than it does a point for considered conversation.

That said, however, I can quite simply say that in our civil society, if something is legal for one, it just has to be legal for all. The bottom line is, everyone is equal under the law.

At least that’s how I see it.

Not so, it seems, for Lanae Erickson and Jon Cowan, two Third Way muckety-mucks who recently penned a piece for the Baltimore Sun in which they argued that if LGBT Americans want to see marriage equality become a reality, they need to make it less about equality and more about embracing what the authors see as traditional values.

Moderates needed to hear that gay couples understand that marriage is essentially about vows, not rights. And they needed to see that gay couples would take the tradition seriously and cherish — rather than mock, even inadvertently — the institution of marriage.

“Moderates” is their term, obviously. Here is an example of a moderate, an example Erickson and Cowan choose as their signature synecdoche:

One research subject was particularly upset by a picture we showed of a lesbian couple getting married because the women were wearing jeans. He observed that he and his wife had taken six months to plan their wedding, and said: “To me, it looks like they called up the day before and said, ‘Hey, do you want to go get married?’” Those interviewed saw a wedding as a joyful but weighty occasion, freighted with solemn, lifelong vows.

“Joyful but weighty,” in Third Way World, is not, apparently, office casual.

But how did corporate America’s culture desk come to these conclusions? It seems Third Way did what any good company does, they did research. . . or at least that is what they call it:

At Third Way, for example, we went beyond traditional polling and conducted a series of innovative and intensive one-on-one interviews — akin to the sort of market research tool used by the Fortune 500. Those interviews proved revelatory and have profound implications for extending marriage to lesbian and gay couples.

Oh, man—as some of may or may not know, before my time at Firedoglake, I spent an eternity (OK, it just seemed like an eternity) as a strategic marketing and communications consultant, and, boy, have Lanae and Jon pushed my consultant hot buttons. Hell, Erickson and Cowan make Mark Penn look good.

First of all, one-on-one interviews aren’t “akin” to a “sort of” research tool used by companies, they are a research tool used by companies. And, they are far from “innovative”–interviews have been around as long as research, itself. What they are is expensive.

If you have a ton of dough, you do ethnographies (yeah, that’s what we called them). Send a researcher out to spend a day with someone, follow them, ask them annoying questions like, “What are you doing now?” and “Why did you do that?” Maybe, if you are really in-the-money, you have a videographer along and cut together some awesome corporate reality show from all your footage.

Next on the menu are the one-on-ones. In-person, in-depth interviews that last about two hours. Or, if you have a little less money, you do phone interviews. Either way, they are full and intense. I have done hundreds of them. They are exhausting.

Still too expensive? Well, then, how about focus groups? More bang for the consultant-hour buck. . . but obviously, less intensive, and with more chance of peer pressure screwing with your data.

But, and here is the real point, when you are done with any of these methodologies—all qualitative methodologies—you do not have recommendations, you do not have analysis, you barely have findings. What you have are a series of un-projectable anecdotes. You use those anecdotes to build hypotheses, and then you test those hypotheses in a randomized survey of “x”-hundred respondents–quantitative methodologies–then you present findings, then you do analysis, then you make strategic recommendations. . . and maybe, if you are feeling really brash, you make tactical recommendations.

What you never do is take a single data point–one interview–and project that as a finding. Taking one anecdote and making it a tactic–well, that’s what your idiot clients try to do. It is the guy behind the mirrored glass that says, “see, they like blue things, make the box blue!” It is the thing you work night and day to dissuade your clients from pursuing.

But maybe this is a third way of consulting. You know, neither proper or projectable—but still useful to a client with a predetermined strategy. That probably works fine, given their milieu, but if Erickson and Cowan actually had to make their money by selling their research–instead of being showered with walking-around money by corporate sugar daddies—this quality of work would relegate them to conducting Pepsi challenge taste tests at the local mall.

The fact of the matter—what projectable, quantitative analysis will tell you, time and again—is that marriage equality, to great extent, is a problem of demographics over psychographics. If you are over 50, you tend to oppose man-on-man or woman-on-woman marital action; if you are under 30, you mostly don’t see the problem. Opposition to marriage equality, like any lesbian’s blue jeans, will fade with time.

Even more importantly, however, is that even with proper measures by proper researchers, some things require real thinking. Third Way, being the good corporate mouthpiece that it is, is doing right by their clients. They are applying market methodologies to moral issues. That might be fine if they were simply trying to get more homophobes to drink Pepsi, but if you are building a political movement, you are not just pushing an impulse buy. A political movement, a political party—or, to put in terms Erickson and Cowan can better understand, your brand—does not stand for a tactic, it stands for a belief. It is a tie that binds, not just hetero men to women, it is a value that unites an entire tribe. Honoring some old bigot’s idea of what a wedding should look like is a tactic; honoring equal rights is a value.