What’s Left of the Progressive Cause Other Than Gay Marriage?

The law, lawyers, and the court.
July 1 2013 11:32 AM

What’s Left?

Have progressives abandoned every cause save gay marriage?

A 1954 Oldsmobile 98 Holiday in 1972.
A 1954 Oldsmobile 98 Holiday in 1972. Is progressivism also a relic of the past?

Courtesy of John Lloyd/Flickr

For those of you on the progressive merry-go-round, at least one brass ring is firmly within reach. The Supreme Court’s opinions in the pair of marriage equality cases decided last week have given the gay community— and all progressives who helped and cheered—much of what reasonably could have been expected. The justices shoved aside Congress’s moral tastes and preferences about marriage, as expressed in the Defense of Marriage Act, allowing the push for same-sex unions to march on where it should, in the states. Now that’s federalism. And polls show that while the march may be slow, it’s inexorable. 

But before you go all happy-dance, though, put your Champagne down for a second, because these decisions raise a profound question: What’s left? Not only as in “what’s next?” but more importantly as in “what else should the left stand for?”  While progressives were devoting deserved attention to gay rights, they simultaneously turned their backs on much of what they once believed. This raises a critical question: what does it even mean to be left anymore?

Progressives haven’t had a solid culture war win in the courts like this one for a long, long time. Since, come to think about it, Lawrence v. Texas—which was about gay rights too. (Lawrence was the 2003 decision striking down gay sodomy laws as unconstitutional.) Advocates, academics, and thinkers on the left have put tremendous energy and focus into the battle for gay rights and marriage equality, and the fruits of their labors paid off. They have moved what seemed to be an unmovable needle: on public opinion, in legislative houses across the country, and in the courts. Amazing.

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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.

It didn’t have to be an either/or proposition. Progressives could have pushed marriage equality without ditching all the causes and ideas on which their movement was founded.  It’s not like anyone in the gay community ever asked them to abandon the rest of their agenda. But progressives did. Perhaps it was battle fatigue, or a loss of confidence in how to fix things. Or maybe issues like poverty and education seem intractable, and it just got too hard to keep trying.

To be clear, we’ve been pro-gay rights all along. We have the records to prove it. To be clearer still, we surely are not discounting the hard work of any of the latter-day liberal lions at work in the other areas we canvass below (and those we’ve left out). We see you out there, voting rights advocates and death penalty warriors and pro-choice groups. You are our heroes. We’re just wondering why you are so often alone out there on the ramparts.

Progressives were once unapologetically pro-choice, committed to the idea that women would control their own bodies and destiny, and that the government should stay out of it. They insisted that women and their physicians should make intimate health care decisions without the genial assistance of state and federal legislators and their transvaginal probes. Then along came so-called partial-birth abortion and pictures of late-term fetuses, and all of a sudden the storyline shifted to killing babies, as if killing babies was what anyone ever wanted to do. Still, progressives, pushing their own babies in their Bugaboos, came to doubt their convictions on abortion, and abortion doctors, and even on Planned Parenthood clinics, which are often the focus of angry demonstrations.

Remember, too, the fight against the death penalty, and the days when the left was on the front lines to join most of the civilized world by doing away with it. Justices William Brennan and Thurgood Marshall and ultimately Harry Blackmun and John Paul Stevens, judicial heroes of the left, eventually refused even to consider the legal arguments in individual cases because time had proved again and irrefutably that the “machinery of death” could not be, and was not, administered justly. Can anyone credibly claim that this machinery is more just today? It is not. DNA exonerations in the triple digits should make us worry deeply about executing innocent people. And most defendants singled out for the death penalty don’t get the high-quality lawyers they need. But then came Willie Horton, and victims insisting they had rights too, and suddenly being for the rights of the accused and against capital punishment could get you labeled weak on crime, and that was political suicide.

Progressives also once believed that religious indoctrination in the public schools and in the public square was inappropriate and indefensible. They offered a full-throated defense of the separation between church and state. At the Scopes Monkey Trial, the question of teaching creationism in the schools was definitively settled—in favor of the monkeys. Provable facts of science mattered in designing a curriculum. But then the right attacked the left’s concern for a separation of church and state as anti-God, and thus un-American. Unnerved, progressives started lining up to sing psalms of praise, hosanna to the Lord, pass the peas, and never mind the Constitution. They caved to the argument that it excludes religious minorities to refuse to let them exclude others. School choice now means that it’s OK to spend tax dollars on religious indoctrination so long as the money goes through a cleansing dip in the public coffers.

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