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.

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?

Barry Friedman is the Jacob D. Fuchsberg professor of law at New York University School of Law and the author of The Will of the People.

Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate. Follow her on Twitter.

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