How Majorities Die: Why Peter Beinart is Wrong About Stupak.

civilrights_Johnson.jpgPeter Beinart had a cheekily counterintuitive piece in The Daily Beast yesterday, arguing that the Stupak Amendment is good politics, since it represents the functional "big-tentism" of the Democratic party, which hearkens back to the days of FDR and LBJ, when a big-tent Democratic party built the modern welfare state we know and love.

In general, I agree with Peter: The Democratic party is better for being bigger, even it is trickier to assemble decent legislation because of that fact. Sometimes the sausage-making is going to get ugly and compromises will be hard for progressives to stomach. In this case, though, Peter is wrong. For him, the Stupak Amendment is just one of those ugly compromises, but his analysis is flawed -- and offers a warning today's progressives and Democrats would be wise to heed.

The most important reason he is wrong is that the Stupak Amendment isn't responsible pragmatism -- it is retrograde. The amendment would actively remove existing access to abortion by creating incentives for private health insurance plans that already have coverage to remove it if health care reform passes, and it narrows the exceptions to the ban on abortion coverage in health insurance exchanges to the point where many reasonable claims would be denied. Many middle-of-the-road health care proponents cite the example of Social Security's creation, which essentially exempted all African-Americans from coverage to placate Southern Democrats. It was ugly and racist, but it created a framework that could be expanded over the years to include all Americans. This amendment, meanwhile, doesn't just recognize the ugly status quo, as Social Security did, it makes it worse.

More broadly, Peter also separates gender equality and civil rights from a "broader progressive agenda." One more example of the uselessness of "progressive" as a political term, but I digress. Most progressives would argue that gender equality, civil rights and, yes, reproductive rights are all major parts of the their agenda. What Peter is really saying is that Democrats now, as then, are happy to emphasize the economic equality portion of the progressive agenda over other issues, consciously or unconsciously, because economic inequality has become such a huge problem. Nonetheless, Peter could afford more clarity about what he is choosing to give up.

Ultimately, he fails to understand that every majority contains the seeds of its own undoing. While Peter focuses on the economic aspects of the previous big-tent Democratic majority, he downplays the advances made on civil rights and gender equality, especially by LBJ. As Peter recognizes, the Civil Rights Act and other culturally progressive victories led to the Democratic majority's defeat as racists and social conservatives fled to the Republican party. He suggests that this was a result of a decision for the party to become more "pure" under pressure from activists, but that's foolish. It was because the party decided to do the right thing under pressure from activists. Does Peter think this was a bad decision? He doesn't say.

Believers in the Big Tent, like Peter and myself, have to be very careful about the compromises they make. If you lose track of what the point of politics is -- what you leave behind -- then you risk betraying the entire progressive agenda. If Peter thinks today's progressives should choose economic issues over other ones, he should make that case explicitly. But he shouldn't pretend that it's a normatively good choice. There's going to come a time when this Democratic majority has the chance to do something so big and important that it will destroy itself by alienating its conservative and moderate members. Maybe it will be gay marriage, maybe it will be the Freedom of Choice Act, who knows. I hope the leadership at the time has the principles and the guts to pass the law and blow up their majority. That's what it's there for, after all.

-- Tim Fernholz

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