Are the Democrats Right to Embrace Anti-Abortion Candidates? A Paste Debate

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Are the Democrats Right to Embrace Anti-Abortion Candidates? A Paste Debate

Jacob: The Democratic Party made an announcement today that is sure to stimulate a ton of debate. Per The Hill:

Democrats will not withhold financial support for candidates who oppose abortion rights, the chairman of the party’s campaign arm in the House said in an interview with The Hill.

Rep. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.) said there will be no litmus tests for candidates as Democrats seek to find a winning roster to regain the House majority in 2018.

“There is not a litmus test for Democratic candidates,” said Luján, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chairman. “As we look at candidates across the country, you need to make sure you have candidates that fit the district, that can win in these districts across America.”

Abortion is an issue that is difficult to discuss, largely because half the population (men) can never have the personal experience with the ordeal that the other half encounters. I have thoughts on this issue from a purely strategic perspective, but in order to get there, I first need to lay out my personal stance on abortion so we all know where I’m coming from on this.

Functionally, I am pro-choice because my belief that men cannot order what women can do with their bodies supersedes any personal beliefs I have on any issue pertaining to women’s health. I am not a woman, therefore my opinion about policies affecting their bodies is a secondary one at best.

However, I do have an opinion, and I tend to fall towards the pro-life portion of this debate. In college, my girlfriend had some health issues which we did not know about at the time, and these led her to be late on her period. For over a week, I contemplated my impending fatherhood, and this experience made me believe that it is impossible to ascertain your true opinion on this topic until you are able to consider terminating your own flesh and blood. It’s one thing to discuss this issue generally—it’s quite another when it’s your potential kid and their mother that you’re talking about. It was here I realized that if left entirely up to me, I could not pull the trigger, and I would accept the consequences of the folly of my youth.

Luckily, her health issue turned out to be minor and she was not pregnant, so I did not have to seriously consider this decision. But the saga left me realizing that I likely fall into the 33% of Americans who believe that abortion should be legal in most cases. This is the largest group of Americans polled on this topic, followed by the 25% who argue that it should be entirely legal, 24% who say it should be illegal in most cases, and 16% who assert that it should be completely illegal. America is divided on the degree of the subject, but 82% are in favor of some form of legal abortion.

These figures, plus my personal experience as a lifelong liberal, have swayed me to believe that it is strategically correct to not make abortion a litmus test for running as a Democrat. I certainly would feel differently if the Democrats became a party that voiced consistent opposition to abortion, but that doesn’t seem like a realistic possibility given how much overlap there is between Democrats and pro-choice voters.

57% of Americans believe that abortion should be either legal or illegal “in most cases.” I read that as an electorate who is willing to accept nuanced arguments, and is turned off by absolutism on either side. The Dems aren’t losing that 25% who want 100% legal abortion to the “sperm are babies, so cumming should be illegal” whackjobs running the GOP anyway, so this is an area where they can credibly deliver their favorite line: “What are you gonna do, vote for a Republican?”

I already know that I’m in the minority on the left on this topic, but what do you guys think?


Shane: First, thanks for the thoughtful words on your own experience and beliefs. I had a very similar pregnancy scare in college, and though I definitely didn’t want a child at that point in my life, and it was definitely a relief when my girlfriend turned out not to be pregnant, it did raise some of the same issues you described. However, it didn’t fundamentally change my belief that the decision belongs to the woman. I would also argue that almost everyone who falls in the pro-choice would agree that abortion is not an ideal result for anyone. Maybe there are some conservatives who think that liberals are enthusiastic abortion devotees (the same conservatives who thought this story was real), but in real life I can’t imagine who wouldn’t want to avoid ever having this procedure done.

But we’re talking about the Democrats now, and whether it’s a sound political strategy to open up the party coffers to anti-abortion candidates (which is not entirely new, by the way—as that Hill article you linked noted, Rahm Emanuel and Howard Dean supported candidates who are at least iffy on the abortion issue back in 2006, and current DCCC chair Ben Ray Lujan consulted Emanuel in the recent past…which opens up its own can of worms). I understand the philosophy behind it, of course—if you believe there are areas of the country where supporting abortion rights is a total dealbreaker, a simple reading of the situation leads to the conclusion that you either run an anti-abortion Democrat, or you essentially give up the seat to the Republicans without a fight.

That, of course, assumes that there are legions of anti-abortion voters out there who are ready to pull the trigger for a Democrat the minute they get one who wants to overturn Roe v. Wade, but who otherwise will never, ever do so. Surely those people exist, but I have to ask—are there really that many single-issue voters who would swing Democratic under those circumstances, and would they really outnumber the votes a candidate would lose, both by the women he/she turned away, and by the younger voters who he/she failed to inspire?

I think this idea is a centrist fantasy. Even if it resulted in a stolen seat or two, I think it would signal to the real base—the leftist base who has been ignored for so long—that the party establishment doesn’t truly care about progressive values. Just as the third-way economic policies espoused by Bill Clinton have all but destroyed the Democratic party in America, and just as Hillary Clinton was punished for years of Democrats abandoning the working class of the country, this too will signal capitulation and defeat.

Movements win elections, and the next great movement for Democrats will come from the left, not the center. I’m not being idealistic when I say that the best move for Democrats is to assert strong leftist values through the mouths of authentic candidates—this is how you’ll get people to believe in you, and to vote in numbers that dwarf any converts you win by the ticky-tack maneuver of making single-issue anti-abortion voters in red states your target.

The last thing I’ll share is a quick anecdote from the Labour leadership election in the UK in 2015. A man named Andy Burnham was seen as the left-most candidate in a pool full of Blairites, ie centrist liberals. But when asked about increasing taxes on the wealthy, Burnham—eager not be seen as too far left—called the concept “the politics of envy.” He and his staff shared the same belief you mentioned—his rhetoric didn’t matter in terms of the political left, because “what are you gonna do, vote for a Blairite?”

And then someone entered the race to Burnham’s left, and that new candidate wasn’t afraid to speak the rhetoric of the left without apology. His name was Jeremy Corbyn, and he didn’t just win—he blew Burnham out of the water, trouncing him by 40%. The point is, you don’t gain anything in the political world by prematurely conceding ground to the right and falling all over yourself to be seen as the most centrist. There are no votes over there, no matter how the media might try to convince you otherwise. Support the poor, support the workers, support a social safety net and universal health care, and you’ll win in the end. Basically, have the courage of your convictions.

Support the anti-abortion crowd, and you’ll find yourself on Republican turf, and you’ll get slaughtered. If the Democrats don’t understand that by now, they’ll get beat by someone who does.


Jason:Since I got to Politics Summer Camp here in the the attic of the Kremlin, I’ve been eagerly awaiting letters from home. Thanks for your messages. I’ll cut to the chase: I’m ironclad pro-choice, and Shane is correct that this idea is a centrist fantasy.

To my mind, the question of reproductive rights is already settled. Women are sovereign over their bodies. End of story.

Any man who advocates for the repeal of reproductive rights wishes to roll back the dawn. He steals women’s’ property—their bodies. He steals their dignity — equality before the law. He places his freedom above theirs. Can you imagine the wet-possum screeching from the men’s rights groups if women passed laws claiming they owned the prostates of the kvetching lawyers in our statehouses and Congress? It would drown out thunderstorms.

The old words work well: Men, their rights and nothing more; women, their rights and nothing less.

Speaking of words old and new, we have the problem of the Democrats. When in the course of political events it becomes necessary to sell progressive values down the river, the Democrats are always first on the scene. It’s their trick, it’s their calling card, it’s what they do. There is no left issue the Dems will not auction off, and reproductive rights is one of those causes. There’s an old line about the Dems: they’re the pro-choice corporate party. Not anymore.

Sometimes Twitter has the final word on any subject:

After the worst election upset in modern history, count on the party to miss the point. Indeed, they didn't just miss the point. They cold-shouldered the point, dodged the message in the most flagrantly wire-fu, bullet-time way. The public FedExed the Democratic Party a message, and here they are, refusing to sign for it. Leaning right to pick up imaginary diet Republicans will not work for the Dems anymore. They don't seem to know it yet, though.

It was a year ago—July 28, 2016—that Chuck “I Want to Marry Wall Street” Schumer said “For every blue-collar Democrat we lose in western Pennsylvania, we will pick up two moderate Republicans in the suburbs in Philadelphia, and you can repeat that in Ohio and Illinois and Wisconsin.” History did not follow his advice, and as a result, Donald Trump Jr. is now discussed in policy seminars by serious people.

It is now eight months since Clinton's defeat, and we have all aged two hundred years in that time. Could there be a more complete refutation of neoliberal doctrine than Donald J. Trump? Hard to imagine. But when faced with reality, the Dems decided to throw up their hands, cry out a primal yelp of “Meh,” and double down on the triangulation hustle. However, I didn't think they'd go this far. I figured they'd sell out workers and people of color before venturing into reproductive questions.

Let's look a bit closer at Luján's quote: “As we look at candidates across the country, you need to make sure you have candidates that fit the district, that can win in these districts across America.”

This translates to: What we believe in changes with each district. Well, why not? A salesman who doesn't really believe in his product will change the pitch, depending on what town he visits. The only part of his spiel that remains constant is the hunger behind it. For the Dems, there is no ideology, just endless maneuvering. The Dems think just being anti-Trump will save them. It won't. Ossoff showed the path (or lack thereof): a life without cartilage does not lead to victory.

It's almost funny—for the last 18 months, since Bernie became a threat to established power, every neoliberal in the party has been scolding the left for a variety of imagined crimes. The usual denunciation goes like this: the progressive wing of the party is not sufficiently woke. Of course this is make-believe—neoliberals are mostly interested in social justice as a tool to hit the left with. They used to be sneakier about it. Now they don't even care enough to hide their cynicism: even social justice can go by the wayside in a pinch. Retaining power is the only ideology that matters to them. But power is not the strongest factor in politics; irony is. The Dems' only path back to power—true progressivism—is the very medicine they refuse to drink in their hunt for health. Like a desperately thirsty man in bed, blind to the cup of tea sitting on the side table. Water, water, everywhere, but not a moment to think. If they only trusted their base a little more, they could have what they crave.

No party is perfect. Voters know this. Ordinary citizens pledge loyalty to the Democrats because they believe, at the end of the day, despite the wheeling and dealing, that the party still believes in something. But the Dems are willing to pawn off pieces of their beliefs, all to maintain their hollow edifice of power. They will end with nothing left except a name and hole where the world's oldest political party used to be. In the end, grasping reality with both hands is the only litmus test that matters, and the Democrats are failing.


Jacob:Thanks guys, just a couple retorts to good points you brought up before I close down my argument:

1. I was a little too flippant about the importance of my beliefs on this topic. I don't believe that all women effectively have the floor when it comes to abortion and men should just STFU, but if all things are equal and it's my opinion versus a woman's? It's hard to see how mine should take precedent over hers on this issue. That's what gets to the heart of my “it doesn't matter what I think, therefore I am pro-choice” stance. It's just weird to believe that I should have the authority to overrule a woman because of my beliefs on a topic that really doesn't affect me (until it does), and even more insane to think that I should be able to legislate that belief into existence.

2. You're both 100% right that the imagined centrist coalition that the Dems are trying to invent is a fantasy and a mistake both strategically and ideologically.

However, I don't believe that abortion falls on the traditional political axis. To me, it's its own thing. It's only on our spectrum because the Reagan Revolutionists put it there (which has acted as something of a Trojan Horse for more religious legislation), and I think that the overall goal of economic populism is aided by the Dems loosening their rhetoric around abortion. I'm not saying that the Dems should turn away from their base on this issue and embrace pro-life policies, just that they should be more accepting of other viewpoints when it comes to this topic, but still draw the line at legislation. They're not going to get any single issue voters on abortion to their side regardless of what they do—and besides, 65-year-old men voting 100% based on an issue of religion and the female anatomy is not the shade of voter you want to define your party through. As always, Bobby Big Wheel is able to sum up my feelings more succinctly than I can.

If you’re going to compete with an economically populist message (and they should, polls show that this message would play with at least 60% of voters, and that’s even before we get to the Dems 2020 favorite: the first person to embrace Medicare for All), by definition, you are courting a larger swath of the ideological spectrum. This economic message can play anywhere, but not if it’s drowned out by a fight that may not be relevant to every election. Purity tests are a luxury of prosperity, and we are fighting to regain the prosperity this land created. To me (and to get to Jason’s correct point that the national Democratic Party doesn’t believe in anything other than gifts for their friends), the economic populism is the base of the party; the thing they stay consistent on from district to district, no matter the candidate. We live in such wealthy and highly technological times, that everyone should be guaranteed housing, education and health care. How we guarantee those items is up for debate, but that everyone has access to the basic tenets of life should be non-negotiable, and it’s insane that we have to even have the debate as to whether or not people who own multiple homes should aid those with none.

All that said, when it comes to issues that tend to fall into tribalist corners, I think that some ideological flexibility is prudent. Not only am I in the minority of liberals who are squeamish about abortion, but of those who are squeamish about abortion, I am in the minority religiously. My personal discomfort doesn’t stem from any religious belief, but one of the main vectors of opposition to this issue comes from religion. So in a sense, challenging some winnable economic voters (earnest ones, not the ones who are hooked up to 1000 ccs of Fox & Friends all day every day—they’re never voting for Democrats) on abortion is like challenging their religious beliefs. As someone who did sales for nearly a decade, I can promise that you will never beat God in a sale. I’ve tried. “He’s” undefeated. That’s what we’re up against.

If this discussion were to cross in to actual policy-making, and not campaigning, I’d feel very different. But my sense is that this is a local issue—not one for the national Democratic Party to take the lead on—and the courts will likely be the final arbiter on all of this anyway. In blue states like Massachusetts, where access to abortions is fairly widespread, I would bet the issue is as economic as it is about government. Whereas in a state like Mississippi—where there is only one clinic period—economics don’t matter if you can’t even get in the door. So I think it’s a wise strategy for Democrats competing in more ideologically conservative districts in places like MA to say that they would like to see some restrictions on abortion, just so long as they don’t follow through on it once they’re in government. It’s not so different from what the Republicans have done, but instead they made it into a massive issue that they never fix when they’re in power because then they’d have to run on actual policies instead of siphoning their supporters’ aggrieved anger into Roger Ailes’ giant self-perpetuating cacophonic grievance box. Sorry, I’m rambling now. Fuck the modern Republican Party. Fuck them so hard.

I guess what I’m saying is that because I am a liberal and I am a bit squeamish on the topic of abortion, I can see how other liberals may see this as a cause for optimism, and 75% of Americans not in support of completely unfettered legal abortion is a big mountain to climb. Not to mention, the fact that the map is gerrymandered to support Republicans. We can say “screw the GOP, we’re moving left and we’re bringing people with us” and be right, but even in complete and utter victory over the Dems, the Democratic Socialists of America would still have to play on a GOP-drawn map in 2018 and 2020. Liberals are playing away games for at least the next two elections, no matter who is driving the car (or in a rational universe: an independent council would draw our districts instead of us continuing to be the dumbest democracy on the planet and allowing our politicians to pick their own voters, but I digress).

I figured that I may ruffle some feathers with my viewpoint after seeing the reaction from leftist Twitter once this was announced, so because ultimately I am a capitalist (Paste politics’ lone capitalist?), the thought of revenue entered my brain, and I figured at worst, we could farm my contrarianism for those juicy rage clicks. So I thank you both for indulging my case and taking my argument at face value, and I hope that we have provided a model for how to reasonably disagree on the internet. For those reading, agree or disagree with me, I hope you know that I am completely earnest in this take, and my “both sides-ing” of the abortion debate happened as a natural cause of events triggering some paternal instinct that I have since been unable to locate—an instinct which was unable to overrule my existing feeling that this wasn’t my hill to die on. In short: I get opposition to abortion even though I don’t really get it.

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