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The Liberal Agenda Isn’t the Problem

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As you would expect given the parties involved, Barry Friedman and Dahlia Lithwick’s argument that with the progress towards SSM the agenda of the left is exhausted is smart and interesting reading. But I’m not sure I really buy the bottom-line argument:

But did you notice that, on the way to this victory, the left, as a movement, seemed to abandon almost everything else for which it once stood? That while gay marriage rose like cream to the top of the liberal agenda, the rest of what the left once cherished was shoved aside, ignored, or “it’s complicated” to oblivion? Stipulate: Gay rights is an unequivocally just cause. But this win, however deserved, addresses no more than a small fraction of what the left once believed essential.

I assume here that by “left” Friedman and Lithwick here are referring to liberals mainstream enough to be a major part of a winning national coalition, not “the left” in some global sense (where there’s obviously a robust agenda but very few jurisdictions in the United States in which even being a major coalition partner is viable.) Even so, I don’t think that the progressive agenda has been excessively dominated by same-sex marriage. Last week alone, we saw a robust defense of reproductive rights in one of the most conservative states in the country, the president giving a major speech on climate change that wasn’t just symbolic bully pulpitism but had an eye on viable policy changes, and strong opposition to an odious voting rights decision. For just one week of a news cycle, seems like a pretty robust agenda to me. And, of course, within the last four years we’ve also seen major comprehensive health care legislation that is going to involve a lot of fights to implement properly, fights that liberals are committed to.

I think the apparent focus on same-sex marriage has its source in something else. For example, the reason that the left won on same-sex marriage while getting hammered on other civil and labor rights issues in this Supreme Court term had nothing to do with the liberals on the court, who voted consistently. The key dynamic, as I argued earlier today, is whether it’s an issue where a conservative justice can be peeled off:

The somewhat erratic record on such issues is a straightforward outgrowth of the necessity for the Court’s four-member liberal bloc to obtain at least one additional vote. In some issues—Kennedy on LBGT rights, Scalia and Thomas on some civil liberties issues—this is possible. But on the larger number of issues where all five of the conservative justices exhibit hostility to the rights of women and racial minorities that increasingly characterizes the contemporary Republican coalition, backsliding is the order of the day. (And while the liberal coalition is relatively unified, Stephen Bryer is always a risk to defect in civil liberties cases.) What’s depressing going forward is that whatever heterodoxy there is to be found among the Supreme Court’s conservative wing comes from justices prior to the presidency of George W. Bush. Anthony Kennedy, the most moderate of the conservative nominees, is not only the kind of Republican increasingly unlikely to be found in the current GOP, he was Reagan’s third choice. If Kennedy and Scalia were to be replaced with (even) more consistent reactionaries like Alito and Roberts, we would be looking a Court as consistently to the right of the mainstream as the New Deal Court that precipitated a near constitutional crisis.

What part of the liberal agenda is successful, in other words, is dependent on whether any of the conservative majority is wiling to go along. Liberal priorities are beside the point, because they can’t achieve anything alone.

And here’s the thing: the dynamic of the current Supreme Court is a pretty good microcosm of the current American political context, except that most Republican parties are composed almost entirely of Alitos. Even mainstream liberals, in national and state-wide governing bodies, are rarely functioning majorities. Some veto point — median legislative vote, executive branch, committee chair, the courts — is typically controlled by a Republican or conservative Democrat. The liberal agenda can proceed only if some non-liberals are willing to be allies.

Which is why same-sex marriage has been a rare source of victory in a time of reaction. Wealthy conservative Democrats and (if any) moderate Republicans are 1)much more likely to have liberal positions on social issues than economic ones, and — this is important — 2)bans on same-sex marriage affect the rich and poor alike. (The same group of people might oppose or be indifferent about legal restrictions on abortion — but regulations of abortion affect poor women far more than affluent ones. But rich people in states where SSM is illegal still can’t get married.) It’s far easier to find moderate or fake-moderate allies on same-sex marriage than on abortion. And climate change or card check legislation — forget it.

An instructive example is the respective fate of legalizing in same-sex marriage and strong reproductive rights legislation in the New York state assembly. The latter didn’t fail because liberals, even fairly broadly construed, were less committed to it. It failed because the wealthy Republican donors who could pressure marginal senators on same-sex marriage weren’t going to be around to fight for reproductive rights. And even a relatively progressive state, without some support from DINOs or moderate Republicans, the robustness of the liberal agenda is beside the point because you’re generally out of luck.

There’s some truth to the Friedman/Lithwick thesis — in particular, labor issues need to be a higher priority. But in general, I think the problem isn’t the lack of a robust liberal agenda so much as that the institutional reality of American politics is that liberals are all too rarely in a position to enact anything.

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