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The "Sister Souljah" Moment As A Core Political Value


Peter Beinart has a rather bizarre column praising the Democrats for “sacrificing abortion and immigrant rights to get conservative Democrats to vote for expanded health-care coverage” amidst some nostalgia for the era in which the Democrats were forced to make sacrifices by its pro-apartheid faction. The historical analogy is problematic for some obvious reasons, namely that 1)it ignores the existence of liberal Republicans who often made the votes of the pro-apartheid faction that so often obstructed economic reform as well as civil rights unnecessary, and 2)ignores the many ways in which allegedly economically liberal pro-apartheid Democrats often made New Deal policies much worse. In terms of his contemporary argument, Katha Pollit disposes:

You know what I don’t want to hear right now about the Stupak-Pitts amendment banning abortion coverage from federally subsidized health insurance policies? That it’s the price of reform, and prochoice women should shut up and take one for the team. “If you want to rebuild the American welfare state,” Peter Beinart writes in the Daily Beast, “there is no alternative” than for Democrats to abandon “cultural” issues like gender and racial equality. Hey, Peter, Representative Stupak and your sixty-four Democratic supporters, Jim Wallis and other antichoice “progressive” Christians, men: why don’t you take one for the team for a change and see how you like it?

Right. The thing about arguments that the introduction of “cultural” issues into “economic” debates is a bad thing is that somehow the argument never cuts the other way. In this case, it was anti-choicers, not pro-choicers, who decided to introduce a cultural wedge issue that made the bill much harder to pass. Supporters of reproductive freedom, who for the most part suffer from the bargaining disadvantage of caring about whether access to health care is expanded, didn’t try to use the health care bill to expand access to reproductive services for women. And were then exposed as suckers when some conservative Democrats –who, Beinart notwithstanding, obviously don’t care weather health care reform passes or not — decided to inject abortion into the debate. But, of course, to the Beinarts of the world it’s always supporters of core progressive values who are the uncompromising extremists, not the cultural reactionaries.

And this is what is so deeply strange about Beinart and his ilk; with the possible exception of perpetual war and ever-higher defense spending, they don’t seem committed to anything. What they care about is whether a crucial Democratic bogeyman that actually represents Democratic values is being put in their place. Beinart’s devotion to the big tent is, to put it mildly, a recent conversion — you may remember him urging Democrats to purge people who were right about the war he got wrong from the party. (This also makes the cynicism of his claims that foreign policy hawkery was a good thing in part because it would advance the cause of gay rights more clear.) At any rate, what rings through loud and clear is that conflict over social issues only becomes a “culture war” when liberals are engaging in the struggle, and hence it’s only liberals who are ever subject to criticism.

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