Revised from a piece first posted on olvlzl Sunday, May 14, 2006
Note: When this was written last May I used “the left” as a term to indicate the stereotype of the left. I hope you will understand the point of using this as you read it. At that time the right of lesbians and gay men to marry seemed somewhat more secure in Massachusetts than it does today. In early July the same high court that forced the issue in Massachusetts approved a ballot measure to deny future same sex marriages. Other than those two points I’ll let it speak for itself.
Look at it from the position of a liberal to moderately liberal politician. They've done the hard work of winning an election. For liberals in most places just winning the office is proof of an enormous commitment to social change. I’d include leftists but, sadly, there aren’t too many of us elected and almost always only from the safest districts.
A politician has a lot of different constituents, supporters, the indifferent, and those who would like to turn them out of office. In a district without a truly safe majority the office holder has to consider all potential supporters and opponents, trying to figure out how to please supporters and not anger the others sufficiently for the office to be lost. No politician out of office can make good political change. Even a moderately wishy-washy politician can sometimes do good in office. Even if that good is only by preventing someone worse from holding the office. There are few Democratic politicians who do not believe that they are in it for the general good. It would be unwise for anyone who has fought a hard campaign to win office to act in ways they know will lose it to someone who is reliably worse. Few of ours are so stupid.
Given these facts, what can the left do to make itself a stronger factor, what can we do to change the situation? First, we can face the truth about the left's political weakness and its causes. Here are just two examples.
Nader took on the mantle of the left in the last three presidential elections, two times with the support of the Green Party, explicitly a party to the left of the Democratic Party. He openly played spoiler and helped put the worst president in our history into office in 2000.
In his typically modest fashion Nader claimed credit for electing Democrats lower down on the ballot while accepting no responsibility for the disaster he brought about. The exercise was an attempt to "move the agenda". Then he tried to do the same thing in 2004, well after any sane person could see how well that had "moved the agenda". Rational Greens had had enough of him by then but some Nader cultists formed a rump effort. Though less of a problem, they were certainly no help. In other races similar actions of "the left" have been less than helpful in the effort to prevent right wing hacks from taking office. I believe it was Ronnie Dugger who once commented on the folly of the race that had put John Tower into office*. Given this personification of "the left" as back-stabbing spoiler, is it any wonder that Democrats who hold office might be somewhat ambivalent about working with "the left"?
Politics contain an agreement between the candidates and the people who support them. They promise to promote issues in the agenda of the people who put them into office. A politician has to hold office to do that, out of office they are powerless to make real change. Any politician knows that the entire agenda of their supporters won't be put into effect. And their supporters have to accept that as a given. Sometimes there are conflicts in what supporters want. Choices have to be made on the basis of possibility and practicality.
Democrats in office have a good excuse to be skeptical of the support of "the left" even as they try to do what is impossible in the present situation of total Republican control, hold the gains of the past. The frankly bratty response of many “leftists” to just about anything Democrats do, even as they hopelessly support bills and amendments closer to what "the left" wants, must give our politicians pause. Given our recent history and the present situation "the left's" insisting, beyond any connection with reality, on having it all does nothing to help the situation. Anyone who doesn't start off realizing that we are not going to get more than a part of what we want should consider it now.
Any thinking leftist supports the right of gay people to marry**. It is a personal right and a matter of equality and basic decency. But there isn't a single right people have the exercise of which isn't conditioned by the situation they find themselves in. Many rights are impossible to exercise due to societal attitudes that take years or longer to change. That is a sad but plain truth. When the state court in Massachusetts forced the implementation of that right a lot of us knew it was a disaster for real progress on all issues, despite our agreeing with the decision.
By that time it was clear that John Kerry was going to be the nominee and that this issue would be used by religio-fascists to defeat him, making it impossible to remove the worst president in our history. The rights of lesbians and gay men, not only to marry but in all areas, would be hurt around the country by this decision. And Bush staying in office would also hurt the rights of countless others. Even the decision of the court seemed to be a temporary victory and could be overturned by the voters, something that for the president seems to be less of a danger than it did then. Our fears about every other issue involved have turned out to be entirely true.
Short of the most drastic emergency, no politician in their right mind will attempt to do the impossible and end their career in the process. A few leftists in safe seats, almost all who happen to be in the congress, are able to push items that would spell political death for more moderate politicians. They provide a service to the truth but their ability to do more that raise the issues is limited by the Peoples’ acceptance of them. Unlike the Supreme Court, or at least the long gone Warren court, the legislative branch can't go beyond the electorate's acceptance to do the right thing.
The supreme example, the Warren court's civil rights decisions, were obviously not that far ahead of the possible. Truman's integration of the army and the fact that it hadn't been destroyed by it must have given them the confidence to do what they knew was right. But even those decisions contained language that made the process much more gradual than it should have been.
Black children always had the right to attend any school but it was not possible for them to exercise that right before conditions in the entire country allowed them to do so with some safety. Lesbians and gay men have had the right to marry for just as long but the conditions which will allow the exercise of that right are not here. If you need evidence, look at the crowing of the far right in their great success in “protecting marriage” based on the Massachusetts ruling, one of the few times they aren’t lying. In some of those states rights gained in the past are in danger as people could lose benefits already won.
The short history and appalling political success of "marriage protection" laws around the country demonstrate that we are not going to be able to exercise that right any time soon. It is worse than a waste of time to insist on our politicians falling on their swords over the issue. It prevents them from winning elections, doing part of what we want and so really "moving the agenda". The self-defeating attempt to force them to do the impossible deflects us from the hard work of laying the essential groundwork in the general public.
* You’re thinking about Lieberman, aren’t you. Well, Lieberman stands a good chance of being replaced by a liberal Democrat, the possibility of the Republican winning in that race was so weak that the Republicans are supporting Lieberman. In replacing him a defacto Republican was kept from running under the guise of a Democrat. The situation doesn’t match the assertion, every race is different.
** I regret that recent experience has pointed out the need to identify myself as a gay supporter of the right of marriage before someone can ignore the point and misidentify me as something else. I am also the supporter of the full range of other gay rights, some of which can be gotten now but only if the Republicans are defeated. Insisting on pushing a right we have no chance of winning and which is being used as a horribly effective tool by our enemies endangers rights we might possibly secure now and could even push back gains we have made. Gay people and lesbians might disagree with me on that but I don’t think the point I’m making is invalid. Straight people should ask themselves if they would give up their rights to employment and access to housing to insist on a right which they aren’t going to have for years if not decades. I don’t oppose working towards gay rights, I oppose not doing so realistically.