One of the accusations tossed against the political end of the anti-abortion movement relates to its relationship with particular political parties.
“When,” it is asked in various forms, “are you all going to understand that the GOP is just using you? When are you going to figure this out and divest yourself of the fantasy that the GOP is your savior? The cultural warriors are all about making abortion a wedge issue for the GOP and nothing more.”
Again…get that straw out of my face!
There’s a lot to be said about the relationship of the anti-abortion movement to the GOP, past and present. Attitudes of those involved in the former to the latter are scattered all around the map, ranging from die-hard party loyalty (rare, IMHO) to a weary sigh, prompted by political necessity. Of course the GOP leadership has a conflicted relationship with the anti-abortion movement, as well. They know they need the boots on the ground that the movement provides, but much of the GOP leadership is uncomfortable, too say the least, with the issue and the people devoted to the issue as well. Many of them wish it – and they – would just go away. Some, of course, are supportive of abortion rights to varying degrees. No one needs lessons in the nature of the GOP in, say, California and New York, and what the way those state parties skew on the issue.
The assumption behind the questions about anti-abortion activity and the GOP is often strained and incorrect, though, because the assumption is that, absent a 3rd-party option, that the anti-abortion movement actually has a choice regarding its frequent alignment with the GOP. That the Democrats are just, you know, waiting to welcome them with open arms, but the stubborn, unthinking, loyalists just won’t budge. Because it’s really not about abortion for them – it’s about the Republican party. Which they love, blind to the possibilities of the Dems.
Forgetting the inconvenient truth that in 1972, the Democratic party embraced the abortion rights cause as its own, and hasn’t let go since.
Mark Stricherz tells the story – which is about more than abortion – in his excellent book Why the Democrats Are Blue. Stricherz, who’s written for a number of publications and has been a Get Religion blogger as well, explores how the Democratic party was transformed into one dedicated to the primarily economic concerns of working class people to one dedicated to the full spectrum of liberal causes.
He begins by discussing the shape of the northern and midwestern segment of the Democratic party from the 30’s on, taking a close look at party bosses in cities like Chicago and Philadelphia and explaining what, exactly it meant to be a “party boss,” what kind of power they had, particularly in regard to selecting nominees and delegate selection.
The conflicts were visible before the 60’s, of course, particularly in the Stevenson nominations. The Vietnam War and student activism of the 60’s pushed the issue and alerted those dissatisfied with the old system to the possibilities and shape of change.
There’s a lot of discussion of arcane machinations, but it’s necessary because that is the place where those things we vaguely call “changes” and “transformation” take place – in the issue of who gets to be delegates, how those delegates are selected…and who chooses who’s going to be on the commissions and committees to decide who makes the changes. It’s politics, and that’s the level where power is ceded, lost and seized, where numbers and procedures are manipulated with the specific purpose of getting an anti-war candidate at the top of the ticket.
It all came to a head in 1972, as most of us know, but even if you do know, Stricherz’s account of the 1972 convention is helpful and even riveting at times. What’s most interesting to me is that the abortion issue more or less came out of the blue. It was only the feminists who wanted it and McGovern’s people were actually rather frantic that it not become a part of the platform, knowing full well what it would do to the traditional party base.
It really is quite amazing to consider the transformation in the priorities of the Democratic party in just those few years – who in 1964 could have imagined that gay rights and abortion rights would become such a focus just a decade later.
As interesting as that was, I’ll tell you that the segment of the book that interested me the most was the material dealing with Carter in 1976. Only three years after Roe was decided, abortion was an ever bigger issue than it had been four years previously and a Human Life Amendment of some sort was a matter of serious discussion as a realistic possibility in many quarters.
Carter played both sides, but the party platform remained clearly in support of abortion rights, with a stated opposition to a constitutional amendment overturning Roe – a fact that prompted many bishops to make extremely strong statements, including – and this might surprise some – Cardinal Bernardin:
Archbishop Joseph Bernardin of Cincinnati, the head of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, blasted the party platform as ‘irresponsible’ and ‘morally offensive in the extreme.’ On the eve of the Democratic convention, ten thousand people rallied under a blazing sun in Central Park and marched to Madison Square Garden to urge the party to oppose the abortion plank….The priest chosen to give the closing benediction at the convention backed out, citing Carter and the party’s stand on abortion.
It was soon realized that Carter had a “Catholic problem,” one not alleviated even by the efforts of staffers hired to specifically address it. On August 31, he met with six bishops in DC, including Bernardin:
At the August 31 meeting, [Bernardin] left no doubt about the importance he assigned to the rights of unborn infants. Reading from a prepared statement, the archbishop stressed the prelates’ insistence on a constitutional amendment that ‘will give the maximum protection possible to the unborn.” As Bernardin explained, “If there is agreement that aobriotn is a moral evil because it violated a person’s most basic right, then the only logical conclusion is that something must be done to correct the evil; and the only remedy is a constitutional amendment….Indeed without such a remedy, the effort to promote other human life causes for individual and social betterment, about which we are concerned, is seirously weakened.”
Carter continued to finesse, being vage about some things, expressing his personal opposition to abortion at times, and pleasing pro-lifers and infuriating pro-abortion feminists by signing the Hyde Amendment in 1977.
In 1980, Carter and his supporters worked against pro-gay rights and pro-abortion rights planks in the platform but were handily defeated, on the latter, by a margin of 2-1 voting in support of planks supporting unrestricted abortion and taxpayer-funded abortion, the vote achieved in great part by maneuverings and decisions made over the previous years to enact a quota requiring a 50-50 female-male split on delegates.
And then came Reagan.
Gee. I wonder why the pro-life activists starting doubting the Democratic party was open to their concerns?
There’s much more to appreciate in the book than what I’ve managed to cite here. If you’re interested in politics, religion and the juncture of the two, you’ll appreciate what Stricherz has done here.
Here’s the website for the book.
Here’s Mark’s blog.
He’s also blogging at America magazine’s election blog.
And here’s the text of a talk he gave last month for the Archdiocese of Denver’s “Bob Casey Lecture:””Three Catholic Democrats Against Secularism (and for Christian Humanism)”
So there’s the past. What about the future?