“Turning Tables, Democrats Use Cultural Issues as a Cudgel,” blares the New York Times today. Amid all the gloomy news for Democrats across the country in 2014, this may be the single article that has brought the most joy to me, featuring one race after another where the Democrat is running strongly on — not away from — social issues, on the progressive side.
This is a clear sign to me that, although we’re still facing huge challenges on these issues, the tide has finally turned — not just among voters but among Democratic candidates. For example, in just a few years we’ve gone from Democratic senators being terrified to endorse repealing DOMA to them gleefully beating their opponents over the head with that. It’s a similar story for reproductive freedom issues. While the policy tide on the latter is still running hard in the wrong direction in dozens of states, the campaign trail story is encouraging. And best of all, there’s been no sudden uprising by Christian conservative voters in response.
When I flash back to the dark days of November 2009, as the anti-choice Stupak Amendment suddenly appeared on the U.S. House version of the health insurance reform bill and looked like it might be mirrored in the Senate bill, despite a Democratic majority in both chambers, and I recall my angst over whether socially progressive Democrats should be doing more to purge socially conservative Democrats like Bart Stupak from the party so they would stop hurting the Democratic base (women, gays, et al), I feel a lot better today.
In no small part, that’s probably because the 2010 midterm voters did most of the heavy lifting on purging many of those rotten Democrats out of office. In the short run, it meant that even more hardline socially conservative Republicans often took their seats, unfortunately. But the broader result was that those hardcore socially conservative Democrats were no longer in an authoritative place inside the party over the past three and a half years to shout down the lefty Democrats as they persuaded the moderates to switch positions or take stronger positions, in line with the rapidly shifting electoral landscape. Extremist Republicans in winnable districts will be easier to replace in the general elections of coming years (with socially progressive Democrats) than anti-gay, anti-choice Democratic incumbents would have been in primaries. Meanwhile, moderate Democrats in competitive districts will be better able to rally the Democratic base on progressive social values, to remain in office.
This internal transformation has allowed the Democratic Party to define itself much more clearly, which helps motivate activism and turnout among ordinary Democrats. As to the socially conservative voters who will vote exclusively or heavily on these issue, they’ve already become confirmed Republicans at this point and are now out of reach to even the most conservative Democratic candidates.