Democrats are pro-choice – except when they’re not

Of all the arguments why lefties should support the Democratic Party, there are a couple that shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand.

One is that the Democratic and Republican party lines really do differ when it comes to so-called social issues (reproductive rights, gay rights). The other is that Democratic presidents, no matter how conservative their policies, at least appoint liberal judges.

I disagree with my friends who are single-issue Democratic voters, but it’s not because I think those issues don’t matter. On the contrary, I think they’re quite important. Abortion access is a human right, and judicial nominees matter – especially in red states where a federal judge might be the only thing standing in the way of a de facto statewide ban on abortion. 

So why did President Obama – a “pro-choice”, “pro-gay” Democrat – nominate anti-choice, anti-gay judge Michael Boggs to serve on a US district court in Georgia?

Boggs is a Democrat, too, but you wouldn’t know it from his record: “As a state senator from 2000 to 2004,” the Washington Post reports, Boggs

supported keeping the Confederate emblem on the Georgia state flag; supported establishing a “Choice [sic] Life” license plate that helped fund antiabortion groups; opposed same-sex marriage; and supported a law that would require parents to accompany their daughters to abortion clinics if the daughter is younger than 18.

Obama’s pick has prompted backlash from groups like the ACLU and NARAL Pro-Choice America – and even some Democrats. The Post and other outlets call Boggs a “conservative Democrat”, but his reputation has nothing to do with fracking or deportations or school privatization: He’s a social conservative. His politics align more closely with the GOP than the right wing of the Democratic Party.

So why would Obama nominate him?

My running hypothesis since the 2012 election is that Democrats aren’t just spineless in their opposition to Republican policies – they love having social conservatives in power. In that election, the heavy-handed misogyny of Republican neanderthals like Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock served as a bogeyman (bogeyperson?) to distract from something far more scandalous: how little else there is separating the two parties.

Why would Republicans bet the presidency on overtly bigoted views the majority of Americans no longer hold? Because Democrats, particularly since losing the 1988 election, have made it more and more difficult for Republicans to carve out space to their right.

Clinton’s strategy of “triangulation” appealed to swing voters by co-opting the GOP platform, from “free trade” to gutting welfare. Under Obama, even the most savage and authoritarian national security policies (like extrajudicial killing) enjoy broad support from liberals. Margaret Kimberley’s analysis remains as insightful today as it was in 2012:

The ever-rightward moving shift of the Democrats has brought us to this juncture, where we are told to fear Republicans who are more radical on social issues precisely because the Democrats have copied them in every other aspect. If Democrats also believe in wars of aggression and bail outs and subservience to finance capital, Republicans are only left with abortion and gay marriage as issues to differentiate themselves.

Democrats are pro-choice (except when they’re not), and Democratic presidents appoint liberal judges (except when they don’t). Obama’s nomination of Boggs suggests they don’t just tolerate the overt bigotry of their colleagues – they actively enable it.

Nothing makes right-wing assaults on abortion access more inevitable than the unconditional support of left-leaning Americans for a party of neoliberal economic policies and war. The threat of social conservatives in power gives Democrats a blank check to move right on every other issue, knowing liberals will run to catch up – and the vicious cycle begins anew.

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