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The Democratic Party Is Not the “Prochoice Party” and It Never Will Be

There are few controversies in American politics more enduring than the argument over whether the Democratic Party should be a “big tent” on the issue of abortion and welcome candidates and officials who oppose reproductive rights. The debate recurs every four years over the terms of the Democratic Party’s platform, and it simmers consistently beneath the surface of the party’s generally strong support for reproductive rights and access to abortion services. The controversy has flared with particular intensity in recent months in response to Sen. Bernie Sanders and DNC Chair Tom Perez offering their support to “prolife” Democratic mayoral candidate Heath Mello in Omaha, Nebraska. Perez backed down pretty quickly in the face of outrage among prochoice activists within his party. But former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi fanned the flames rather furiously when she offered that “of course” it is possible for an opponent of abortion to be a member in good standing of the Democratic Party. “This is not a rubber stamp party,” Pelosi said, noting that the “one thing” that truly “unifies” congressional Democrats is “values about working families.” Otherwise, she noted, “some people are more or less enthusiastic about this issue or that issue. They’ll go along with the program, but their enthusiasm is about America’s working families.”

Pelosi’s statement was remarkably obtuse on its face in that it blithely decoupled access to reproductive services from public policies related to the “values of working families.” But in its cold-hearted calculation of partisan advantage, her remarks were as clear an indication as one is likely to get that the elected leaders of the Democratic Party cannot be counted on to maintain nonnegotiable institutional support for reproductive rights if those leaders conclude that such a stance might cost the party votes and electoral victories. At a fundamental level, in other words, Representative Pelosi’s statement on abortion’s place in the Democratic Party was an illuminating lesson in how American political parties actually operate.

 

The Nature of Parties

Political parties in the United States are nonideological, mass-based coalitions that by their very nature are best understood as vehicles for winning elections—nothing more and nothing less. I am tempted to say that American political parties do not stand for anything substantively, but I do not want to be misunderstood on this crucial point. To be sure, at any given moment, or during any given period of time, the Democratic and Republican Parties will tend to have relatively consistent and more or less coherent platforms that allow voters to make sense of policy choices and aid those voters in making their selections in the voting booth. But the major parties are not wedded to those positions or platforms in any organic or persistent manner, not in the same way that the Green Party, say, is devoted to ecological conservation or the Right-to-Life Party is committed to restricting reproductive rights. Instead, the major parties are more like huge, complex conglomerates made up of various interests in society that have come together for the purpose of advancing those interests through electoral politics.

Political parties in the United States are nonideological, mass-based coalitions that by their very nature are best understood as vehicles for winning elections—nothing more and nothing less.

There are many historical and structural reasons why this is so, but the two most direct are that our legislative elections are run on a plurality basis and our presidential elections are decided by candidates receiving a majority of votes in the electoral college. Many other democracies operate legislative elections according to some version of proportional representation, whereby political parties are awarded the number of legislative seats roughly equivalent to the percentage of the vote they receive nationally. According to something called “Duverger’s Law,” proportional representation systems provide an incentive for organized interests to form their own political parties, turn their electoral support into real power within the legislative chamber and then hope to serve as one narrowly targeted party among several others in a coalition government.

Interests in the United States have precisely the opposite incentive, given that the only way to actually gain a seat in Congress is to win the most votes (a plurality) in a district or state—to be, as the saying goes, the “first past the post” in a horserace in which one candidate wins and all the other contestants lose. Smaller, issue-based parties can almost never win seats in Congress given this system. Similarly, the electoral college and its “winner take all” rule means that presidential candidates generally only receive support among electors if they actually win the most votes in a particular state (Nebraska and Maine excepted). Third- or fourth-party candidates from more narrowly defined parties have a terrible time establishing themselves within those strictures. The Reform Party’s Ross Perot got 19 percent of the popular vote in 1992, for example, yet he received not a single electoral vote. Not surprisingly, his party, such as it was, quickly drifted into irrelevance.

This definition of the nature of the American party system forms the basis of the simple but important observation that although the institution of the Democratic Party is now and has been for some time supportive of reproductive rights, the Democratic Party is not, never has been and never will be the “Prochoice Party.” To say that it supports reproductive rights is itself a misleading characterization. It is not an entity with agency; the Democratic Party, as such, does not decide things. It is the vehicle through which various segments of society come together to advance their individual interests. For quite some time, it has supported reproductive rights because that support has garnered votes from prochoice Americans and—and this is crucial—because that support has not directly conflicted with other major interests in the national coalition that might find sharing partisan affiliation with prochoice voters unacceptable. But all of this has always been entirely conditional and predicated on the assumption that the prochoice label has been helping the Democratic Party win elections. As soon as that assumption is no longer operative—or as soon as party leaders come to the conclusion that it is not—that will be precisely the moment when the prochoice label will be obscured by the Democratic Party.

To repeat, American political parties are nonideological, mass-based coalitions. They are big tents by the very workings of the US electoral system. Individual interests do not own the tents and, to extend the metaphor, they do not control the list of invitees to the circus. This means that issue activists who have aligned themselves with a given political party during a given period—in this case prochoice Democrats in our contemporary era—have to be utterly clearheaded, persistently mobilized and never complacent. They can never be sure when “their” party leaders will deem their central interest to be no more than “this issue or that issue.” At any moment, these leaders are liable to diminish the party’s commitment to the activists’ cause by inviting that cause’s sworn enemies into the tent, if they determine that the invitation will help the party win elections.

This means that issue activists who have aligned themselves with a given political party during a given period—in this case prochoice Democrats in our contemporary era—have to be utterly clearheaded, persistently mobilized and never complacent. 

The History of Parties

The history of the American party system clearly reveals that relationships between specific interest groups and particular political parties are inherently unstable, subject to change over the long term and often difficult to predict. Perhaps most famously, the Democratic Party was for the longest time a big tent on the question of racial segregation. Southern Democrats were for it, and their copartisans in the North were against it, by and large. This coalition of odd bedfellows was explained by the now-embarrassing fact that the northerners did not care enough about the rights of African Americans, particularly in the South, to allow racial justice to become an electoral issue on the national stage. For nearly a century, northern Democrats tolerated Jim Crow laws in the South as an acceptable price to pay for electoral success on the basis of the economic and regulatory issues that held the national party together. As late as 1960, John F. Kennedy was still cautioning Martin Luther King Jr. and others not to press their agenda too hard, lest they break apart the Democratic coalition and elect Barry Goldwater president. King’s refusal to temper his demands—his book on the subject was entitled Why We Can’t Wait—was part of the heroic effort on the part of the civil rights movement to force racial equality onto the national political agenda and shoehorn it into the Democratic Party’s platform. Not surprisingly, it was not until southern Blacks were actually enfranchised by the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that opposition to legal segregation on the basis of race finally became an article of faith within the Democratic Party.

When Roe v. Wade placed abortion at the center of the national political agenda in 1973, it was not at all obvious how the issue would play out in terms of party politics. The first real, organized opposition to the decision, in fact, took place within the Democratic Party and coalesced around Ellen McCormack’s single-issue bid for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination in 1976. There was no logical reason to believe at the time that the Republican Party—the party of “small government” and “individual liberty”—would morph with such alacrity into the partisan home of an anti–reproductive rights movement demanding some of the most aggressive governmental interventions into individual decisions ever countenanced in modern American politics.

However, the party system was shifting dramatically in the early 1970s. The Democrats were reeling from their loss of the “Solid South,” and through the struggle to redefine themselves they became the home of what came to be called social liberalism. Starting with George McGovern’s doomed candidacy in 1972, the Democrats opened themselves to the “new politics” movement and sought the votes of those who supported the gains of the civil rights movement, opposed the war in Vietnam and celebrated the social transformations and disruptions promised by the women’s movement and other calls for social and legal equality in US society. Concurrently, the Republicans, unburdened by the presence within their ranks of either social justice activists or feminists, enthusiastically accepted the mantle of “conservatism” and opened their doors wide to those whom President Nixon had termed “the silent majority.”

This is how the “party of Lincoln” transformed itself into the party of the white southern establishment, and this is how the GOP transformed itself into the partisan vehicle of voters energized and mobilized by social issues like abortion. As President Nixon’s aide Pat Buchanan famously put it: The GOP needed to be willing to hunt where the ducks were if it held out any hope of becoming a majority party. Moreover, Buchanan (and Nixon) knew from the very beginning of their effort to transform their party that it would be more acceptable and more viable in the long term to gather the ducks through an emphasis on the “social question” rather than civil rights, through support of “family values” rather than opposition to racial desegregation. One of the central forces pushing the Democratic Party towards prochoice exclusivity in the 1970s and 1980s, in fact, was the depth to which their opponents were able to use the prolife label as a central marker of a form of a broader social conservatism that much of the new Democratic coalition found deeply unpalatable.

 

Personally Opposed, But…

This purported exclusivity on the question of abortion has proved enduringly irksome to antichoice Democrats who find themselves in agreement with other planks in their party’s platform. Indeed, the focus in recent decades has been on the evolution of that platform—a quadrennial statement of shared principles—and how its terms have become less hospitable over time to antichoice members within the Democratic ranks. In 1976, in its first post-Roe iteration, the platform “fully recognize[d] the religious and ethical concerns which many Americans have about abortion,” while nevertheless declaring it “undesirable to attempt to amend the US Constitution to overturn the Supreme Court decision in this area.” By 1992, “Democrats [stood] behind the right of every woman to choose, consistent with Roe v. Wade, regardless of ability to pay,” although they added four years later that “the Democratic Party is a party of inclusion” that “respect[s] the individual conscience of each American on this difficult issue.” That bow to “inclusion” had disappeared by 2004, and by 2016, the abortion plank had become a lengthy endorsement of reproductive rights and access, including a strong statement of support for Planned Parenthood and for public funding of abortion services.

The Democratic Party has always pitched a big (moral) tent around abortion, and that is one of the central reasons it has never quite matched the rhetorical and political intensity of its opponents on the issue. 

While this platform language was evolving and strengthening, however, Democratic Party leaders persisted in sending a muddled message concerning the degree to which the “prochoice party” viewed abortion as a settled right under the Constitution that was worthy of protection and support on par with the protection and support offered to other fundamental liberties. From Jimmy Carter’s initial dissembling and obfuscation on abortion rights, to Bill Clinton’s call to make abortion “safe, legal and rare,” the most prominent Democratic Party spokespersons spent the crucial post-Roe years advancing a social and political norm that required every purposeful pregnancy termination to be spoken of (if spoken of at all) as a wholly regrettable, if not shameful, occurrence. At the same time, the Democratic Party persisted for almost a half century in nominating candidates for national public office who surreptitiously reinforced antichoice norms by emphasizing their own personal opposition to abortion.

The long and distinguished list of Democratic (and not incidentally, Roman Catholic) candidates who have adopted the “personally opposed, but” position in the context of presidential politics includes Geraldine Ferraro (1984), John Kerry (1996), Joe Biden (2008 and 2012) and Tim Kaine (2016). Even Hillary Clinton, arguably the most unambiguously prochoice presidential nominee in modern US history, deemed it acceptable at a minimum to select as her vice presidential running mate a Catholic former governor of Virginia with a “faith-based objection” to abortion who had supported and signed laws restricting access to reproductive services in his state. From the perspective of prolife Democrats, the “personally opposed, but” position of so many of their party’s national candidates bespoke moral relativism and a failure to acknowledge the legal and political consequences of moral opposition to abortion. But prochoice activists, lulled into believing that the Democratic Party was unambiguously committed to the defense and promotion of reproductive freedom as a fundamental liberty, ought to have recognized the persistent equivocation at the top of their national tickets for what it was: an indication that their party was consistently hedging its electoral bets.

The Democratic Party has always pitched a big (moral) tent around abortion, and that is one of the central reasons it has never quite matched the rhetorical and political intensity of its opponents on the issue. While one major American political party was loudly denouncing the other as the political home of “baby killers,” it was revealing, to say the least, that the accused party decided to consistently advance national candidates who acquiesced in the central moral claim of their opponents. To put it plainly: no other “fundamental right” endorsed by the national platform comes to mind that Democratic presidential and vice presidential candidates have felt entirely free to “personally oppose.”

 

The Age of Trump

Our political party system is once again undergoing one of its cyclical periods of dramatic flux and perplexing uncertainty. The age of Reagan, during which partisan coalitions were by and large persistent, party platforms were by and large coherent and definitions of conservative and liberal were by and large agreed upon, is no more. Large fissures have appeared in the national coalitions of both the Republicans and the Democrats, and both party leaders and disruptive outsiders have been presented with the challenge and the opportunity to think anew about national electoral politics. Donald Trump rode such a disruption to the White House by devising an electoral appeal that was able to hold together the economic and social wings of Republican conservatism, while adding to the Republican ranks enough members of the disaffected “white working class” in just the right states to flip the electoral college in the GOP’s direction. This was a truly epochal event, the causes and ramifications of which will be dissected for years. The early signs are that it was probably a good bit easier for Trump and his Republican Party to forge this fractious coalition as an electoral vehicle than it will be to hold it together as a governing institution.

For the Democratic Party, however, the central lesson of 2016 ought to be that a number of assumptions that the party’s leadership made about the makeup of its coalition and about the appropriate emphases of its policy platform were overly optimistic and perhaps starkly inaccurate. The Obama years had convinced many Democrats that social and demographic trends portended decades of electoral dominance for their party. The thinking was that the coalition of Millennials, women and racial minorities that had elected the nation’s first African American president would follow that up by electing its first female chief executive. In time, a reliably progressive enduring majority would emerge that would be able to secure national health care insurance, codify reproductive rights and consign remnants of social conservatism to the dustbin of history.

The actual results of the 2016 election came, therefore, as a shock to the Democratic Party’s leadership. And just as their predecessors did during the painful realignments of the 1970s, those leaders are smarting in defeat at the moment and casting rather desperately about for explanations, exculpatory excuses and viable paths forward to victory. It is in this specific context that leaders of the Democratic Party have decided that their party’s real problem in 2016, and in the years leading up to the debacle, was that it had expressed itself too strongly in support of reproductive rights. The “model is failing” according to Sen. Bernie Sanders, and one way it is doing so is by neglecting the interests of abortion opponents who might otherwise vote for Democratic candidates. The party has been too focused on this one issue, according to former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. And her solution, apparently, is for the Democratic Party to send a signal to Trump’s voters that disagreement over a woman’s constitutional right to terminate her pregnancy is not to get in the way of forming partisan consensus around more central matters related to “the values of working class families.”

It must be said first that these claims and tactical maneuvers are deeply problematic and based in highly debatable interpretations of what has actually been going on at the tectonic level of US politics in recent years. Does Nancy Pelosi really believe that the Democratic coalition that elected Barack Obama twice has been torn apart by the issue of abortion, an issue that every poll reveals to be relatively low on the salience scale for most American voters? Is it really the case, as she argued in an interview with the Washington Post, that social issues like abortion and same-sex marriage “trumped all else” on the national agenda in 2016 and gave the country President Donald Trump? What about the long list of other issues the polling data suggest drove the electoral choices of the elements of the Trump coalition the Democrats need to win back? Will the former Speaker of the House demand that her party change its contradictory and often incoherent views on trade? Will she abandon her party’s cozy—to put it mildly—relationship with Wall Street donors and acknowledge that relationship as an explanation for the disaffection of working-class Democrats? For that matter, will she insist from here on out that the Democratic Party’s national campaigns be fought with minimal levels of competence? Will she, the most powerful Democratic elected official in the country, define the constitutional rights of racial minorities as merely one issue about which “some people are more or less enthusiastic” so as to welcome back to her party southern voters who flooded the Republican ranks in the 1960s and 1970s in response to the civil rights and voting rights revolutions becoming associated with the Democratic Party?

They are doing so as leaders of a political party that is not and never has been the “prochoice party.” It is (and will remain) the Democratic Party and that party’s main goal, its primary job and its overwhelming incentive is to win elections. If leaders of that party calculate that welcoming more abortion rights opponents into their ranks will help win elections, then they will do so.

At one level, in other words, prochoice Democrats have every right to be angry at these developments and at the evident willingness of Representative Pelosi and others to downgrade reproductive rights as a defining feature of their political party. As I indicated at the outset, however, the comments by Pelosi, Sanders and others ought to be received at another level by prochoice activists as a jarring reminder of the true contours of their relationship with the Democratic Party and as a powerful incentive to press their interests both inside and outside the Democratic tent.

An important corollary of the central fact that American political parties, at their heart, are nonideological, election-winning vehicles is that our system is fundamentally an interest-based polity. In a proportional representation system, prochoice activists could run under the “reproductive rights” or perhaps “women’s health” partisan label and turn their electoral support directly into legislative influence. But that party-based option is simply not available to supporters of reproductive freedom in the United States. The only path to institutional political power in a plurality electoral system is to catalyze a segment of the population around a shared interest, mobilize that interest in political terms and offer electoral support to the political party willing to accept that support in return for advancing that interest through legislative and administrative enactments.

Prochoice voters need to recognize, in other words, that the Democratic Party’s elected leadership, through spokespersons like Nancy Pelosi and Bernie Sanders, is purposefully signaling a concrete willingness to put forward and support candidates and elected officials who want to turn the clock back on reproductive freedom and access to abortion services. Pelosi and Sanders have, in effect, announced their willingness to accept (among others): (a) Democratic state legislators who will press clinic regulations in transparent efforts to put as many abortion providers in their states out of business as possible, (b) Democratic governors who will champion and sign laws mandating pre-abortion sonograms, longer waiting periods and ever more insidious forms of “informed consent,” (c) Democratic members of the House of Representatives who will support personhood amendments to the US Constitution and national antiabortion laws designed to hamper the efforts of prochoice state legislatures, and (d) Democratic senators who will vote to confirm Supreme Court nominees who will go on to eviscerate the right to abortion and consign American women to the mercies of their individual state majorities.

Nancy Pelosi and Bernie Sanders are not doing all of this because they personally want these outcomes to ensue. In fact, they have both been reliably supportive of reproductive rights throughout their long legislative careers. Representative Pelosi, a Catholic, does not even avail herself of the “personally opposed, but” position on this issue of central concern to her church’s hierarchy. But when a Democratic former Speaker of the House and a once (and future?) Democratic presidential candidate call for a big tent on the question of reproductive rights, they are not doing so as prochoice legislators. They are doing so as leaders of a political party that is not and never has been the “prochoice party.” It is (and will remain) the Democratic Party and that party’s main goal, its primary job and its overwhelming incentive is to win elections. If leaders of that party calculate that welcoming more abortion rights opponents into their ranks will help win elections, then they will do so.

That is the sort of calculation that American political parties are designed to make. Therefore, it is the indispensable job of prochoice Democrats to prove this particular electoral calculation to be mistaken. That will require more prochoice activism and strengthening of prochoice organizations. That will require clearer identification of prochoice voters and more targeted mobilization of those voters explicitly on the issue of reproductive rights. And that might require withholding prochoice votes from Democratic candidates if Democratic Party leadership at the national level decides to take those votes for granted. The simple fact of the matter is that the battle among organized interests within the US polity for control of its mass-based, nonideological parties never ends. That fact is operative today, and it will be equally operative tomorrow. And it is a fact of American political life that supporters of reproductive freedom should never allow themselves to forget.

 

Timothy A. Byrnes is the Charles A. Dana Professor of Political Science at Colgate University. His books include Catholic Bishops in American Politics, Transnational Catholicism in Postcommunist Europe and most recently Reverse Mission: Transnational Religious Communities and the Making of US Foreign Policy.

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