WASHINGTON — On the evidence of an October 2017 vote — concerning legislation that would have restricted abortions after 20 weeks’ gestation — there are three pro-life Democrats in the House. On the evidence of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s decision not to endorse one of those representatives — Dan Lipinski of Illinois — many Democrats wish the count was zero.
This is not, of course, the official Democratic position. When Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez declared last April that support for abortion rights was a litmus test for Democrats, some elected members of the party pushed back, forcing the head of the DCCC to say, “there is not a litmus test for Democratic candidates.”
But this is done with a theatrical wink and nod. According to a January count by Vice News, there isn’t a single, serious pro-life Democrat running in the 91 House districts that Democrats hope to flip to their column this year. The 2016 Democratic platform called for the repeal of the Hyde Amendment, which prevents federal funds from paying for most abortions. And there are only three Democratic senators — Indiana’s Joe Donnelly, West Virginia’s Joe Manchin and Pennsylvania’s Bob Casey — who have less than a 100 percent lifetime score from the Planned Parenthood Action Fund.
Does this pro-choice orthodoxy hurt Democrats politically? In some places, surely. It is a safe bet that a pro-life Democrat running in the recent Alabama Senate election would have beaten the epically tainted Roy Moore by a healthier margin.
But Amy Walter of the Cook Political Report points out two complicating factors:
First, the heterodoxies of local candidates seem to matter less and less in the way Americans make political choices. Increasingly, Walter says, “all politics is national.” Voters believe that support for any Democrat — even a more conservative Democrat — is actually support for the Nancy Pelosi-Chuck Schumer team. “Somewhere along the way,” argues Walter, “the idea that each district is different went by the wayside.” She calls this the “Starbucksization” of American politics. Voters are choosing a national brand instead of a local variant.
Lipinski’s primary challenger, activist Marie Newman, is particularly explicit on this point. “No matter how you feel personally [on abortion],” she says, “you have to vote to support the Democratic Party values.” Think on that a moment. Newman is contending that Democrats, whatever their deepest moral beliefs on a matter of life and death, have an obligation to toe the party line. It is the complete triumph of political tribalism.
Second, Walter points out that the political battlegrounds in American politics have shifted. The Democratic targets of opportunity in the 2018 midterms are generally not, for example, in the rural House districts of Georgia; they are in the upscale suburbs of Atlanta. As they are in Charlotte, Richmond, Orlando, Philadelphia, Phoenix and Orange County. “The action is among suburban Republicans,” says Walter, which makes outreach to social conservatives less urgent than it might otherwise be.
The Democrats’ solidification as a pro-choice party is, in the end, a function of the ideological polarization of both parties. At one point, the GOP and the Democratic Party both had liberal and conservative wings. Now they generally flap wildly with one. The geographic sorting of the parties also figures heavily. President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore, who learned to win elections in relatively conservative border states, wanted abortion to be “safe, legal and rare.” With the effective collapse of the Democratic Party in such places, fewer rising Democratic officials gain office through moderation on cultural issues.
The end of two-wing parties encourages a certain attitude toward politics, which Walter summarizes as: “We shouldn’t have to sacrifice anything to win.” In this ideologically unforgiving environment, it is difficult to imagine, say, abortion-reduction measures — conceding the likely continued legality of the procedure while encouraging (and funding) practical help for women who wish to keep a child — gaining much legislative traction.
This trend also narrows the ideological range of American politics. The absence of a pro-life option in the Democratic Party leaves some compassionate and reform conservatives utterly homeless as they wait on the recovery of GOP sanity. And it leaves no place for many Catholics wishing to be consistently faithful to their church’s social teaching — pro-life and pro-poor, against euthanasia and against the dehumanization of migrants. It is not a small thing that neither party cares to accommodate the social agenda of Pope John Paul II and Pope Francis.
Meanwhile, the partisans count another achievement: Making American politics more generic and bitter. Enjoy your political Starbucks.
Michael Gerson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.