Well, it’s official: The Democrats believe that affirming the bodily autonomy of roughly half the population constitutes a ‘litmus test,’ so they’ll be funding runs by anti-choice candidates in future elections rather than passing them over in favour of those who can actually fulfill the promise of liberal values. This ‘great compromise,’ they tell us, is necessary in this political climate — evidently the lesson they learned from running a proud supporter of reproductive freedom who won the popular vote for president in 2016 was that they should pander to anti-choice ‘values’ in the next election.
The Democrats are desperate to regain control of the House in 2018, and the decision to support anti-choice candidates shows that they’ll stop at nothing to do it, but in the process, they’re putting on an extreme display of poor political strategizing.
Potential needers of abortion services — primarily cis women — make up a huge part of the Democratic base, and they turn out in droves to support candidates. 75 percent of Democrats support access to abortion, along with a larger framework of access to reproductive health services. It is Democratic women and people of colour who led the party to national victory in November, and it’s not their fault that the structure of the electoral college allowed the loser of the election to take the White House. People of colour of all genders are a sizeable portion of the Democratic base, and it is again people of colour who are more likely to support abortion.
This decision flies in the face of the base the party expects to turn out election after election no matter what, with the party assuming that even a lacklustre, questionable candidate is better than whoever Republicans have to offer. This lack of imagination on the part of Democrats may explain why the party’s popularity is waning, with a growing number of voters defecting to nonpartisan or independent status. The Democrats have become the party of ‘not the Republicans,’ not a party of clear, definable values.
If you want to run a successful political campaign, if you want to leverage ‘the resistance’ to retake control of government, you have to give voters something to turn out for. A ‘Democratic ticket’ isn’t enough — voters need to know that Democrats stand for something, and will defend it. Lawmakers like Senator Maxine Waters stand out not because they are Democrats, but because they are defiant, proud people who know their values and cleave to them, and will not be pushed around. Capitulation, these politicians know, gets them nowhere.
This is an issue that is much, much bigger than whether it is possible to be anti-choice and still be a Democrat (it isn’t) or whether the party should make sacrifices to get ahead (it shouldn’t). This is about fundamental questions of what it means to be a Democrat. Does this party stand for health care? For economic independence? For anti-poverty initiatives? For fair access to education? For equal pay? For women’s rights? If the answer to any one of these is ‘yes,’ supporting anti-choice candidates runs contrary to party values.
Look at the intersections between abortion and health care, for example: Access to a full spectrum of reproductive rights also lies at the core of the debate over health care in the United States. Opposition to abortion has led to pushes to defund Planned Parenthood on the grounds that some of its facilities offer abortion services. It has led lawmakers to sneak poisonous clauses into already horrific bills that would make it functionally impossible for people to obtain insurance coverage that includes abortion on the private market. It has emboldened Trump to reinstate the global gag rule, which denies government funds to nonprofits overseas if they mention abortion services, let alone provide them.
This issue, the politicisation of the fact that some people who get pregnant do not want to be, and take steps to terminate, has driven regressive and damaging social policy across the US. This is policy that many Democrats have rightly criticised, not least for the amount of collateral damage it causes. The push to defund Planned Parenthood harms low-income people who need a range of health services, for example.
The war on abortion is also fueled by sexism and misogyny — the vast majority of people who need abortion services are women, and that is very demonstrably part of the reason why conservatives think it’s such an important policy priority. This is about controlling and dominating bodies, about sending a message to women that they are less-than and can exist, and access health services, only under sufferance and with special permission.
It was not that long ago that women were dying of dangerous abortions in unsafe conditions because legislators wanted to control their bodies. Already, a growing list of states have made it nearly impossible to access abortion services, with legislation that effectively regulates clinics out of existence. Women are already ordering drugs from Mexico, driving across state borders, and taking other steps to terminate pregnancies at a time when the state is angling to take control of their bodies. Patients have never lost the fear, and the knowledge, of misogyny and the drive to control very personal, intimate decisions.
Democrats have apparently lost this awareness, and they may be in for a rude surprise in 2018. Some say it’s impossible for Trump and the Republicans to pull out of their current nose-dive, that 2018 will be a sweeping victory for ‘the resistance.’ That assumes, though, that sustained protest and political awareness is functionally possible — it likely isn’t — and that the left won’t be splintered, as it so often is, by ideological divides.
The problem with dismissively labeling these divides ‘identity politics’ and acting like they don’t matter, though, is that Democrats are missing the fact that they do matter, a lot. Bernie Sanders surged into popularity in 2015-2016 because voters felt like he was offering something the party wasn’t. Voters cleave to individual Democratic lawmakers because they see the fire of possibility.
They’re cooling from the party itself because it’s diluted itself out of a job — it is too afraid to develop a robust set of values and articulate them. Come 2018, it may find the vote split between more leftist candidates and its usual parade of dull centrists, and that will leave one clear winner: Republican candidates, who benefit from a party machine that specializes in establishing values and holding firm in the face of any and all opposition.
Just as the resistance is borrowing from the Tea Party, the Democrats should perhaps try borrowing from the Republicans. Is it too much to ask that you affirm the values already stated by 75 percent of your voters and state that you support bodily autonomy for Americans who are pregnant and won’t want to be?
Illustration: Georgia Democrats/Creative Commons