Criminy, even gun control fits the pattern to a greater extent than you’d expect. Progressives once believed there was a difference between responsible gun regulation and no regulation. But somewhere on the way to your nearest grade school, movie theater or college campus, they decided this wasn’t a fight they could fight to the finish. It became an article of faith that to favor any gun control at all was to end one’s political career. Even after the shooting of Gabby Giffords, and Sandy Hook, and the Boston Marathon bombing, when great majorities of the country behind gun control pushed Congress to try again, progressives convinced themselves that they ultimately would lose the effort to reinstitute background checks. And then they did.
And somehow, somewhere along the line, to be progressive also stopped meaning a commitment to help the poor. The central problems that defined the left from the early history of the Progressive movement through the Great Society are as urgent today as they ever were: Economic fairness; a war on poverty, meaningful education reform, voting rights, workers’ rights, racial justice, women’s rights, equal access to child care and health care. But while none of these social ills has been remedied in modern America (and many are now worse) all that talk about “welfare queens” seems to have scared folks off. Face it: There is not, and never has been, anything sexy about the minimum wage.
Which raises an interesting question: Why gay marriage? What made this issue, above all others, the issue du jour of liberal law students, Hollywood A-listers, and increasingly, moderate Republicans, all of whom flocked to join the cause?
Certainly, this fight appealed in deep and visceral ways. As it should. Really, the government can determine whom you can love and to whom you can commit yourself?
Also, the optics of gay marriage were terrific. It was hip. It was romantic. Same-sex families at the rallies waved, beaming and happy, and the kids with them looked so happy too. Most of all, we know these families; they are our friends and relatives. We wanted to go to their weddings, and now we can.
At bottom, though, the reason gay marriage stuck while everything else fell away had to do with winning elections. Abortion, the death penalty, gun control, economic injustice, all that stuff was fraught enough to make you just want to triangulate. Abortion clinics don’t poll well. Good grief, even access to primary health care polls poorly. And those issues are as popular as plums compared with the rights of death row inmates and freedom from religious coercion. By 2008, on the other hand, gay marriage was becoming acceptable enough to pose a puzzle for the Republicans. Increasingly bipartisan, it was safe. Is it any wonder that the only other issues the left wholeheartedly and unequivocally embraced were electing the country’s first black man as president, and immigration reform? Those were about winning elections too. The left would not have been nearly as excited about electing an African-American if he were a Republican. And amnesty for millions of unlawful immigrants promises eventually to put an end to the modern-day GOP.
Now that gay marriage is looking like a check in the win column, it is precisely the right moment to ask: What does it mean to be left anymore? Is there even a left left? Or just a center that calls itself left because it is always standing next to the dude labeled “right” in the photographs?
By necessity, then, what we’re telling here is only half the story. The half about what got left behind on the way to the altar. To remain vibrant and effective, the American left must be for something, not just against the right’s most idiotic ideas. Winning elections is vital, of course, but the point of winning elections is to have an agenda once you get there. What should be the agenda for the left? What is left?