Performative moralism is just bawling upon paper, not political strategy

A small but influential faction of the Democratic left seems to be committed to the idea that the way out of our political difficulties is to persuade Democratic voters that they should be very angry at Democratic politicians.  This is insane on every level. 

For example, Ben Burgis in Jacobin argues (as far as I can tell) that the fact that Democrats are not “waging war” against the filibuster shows that they are “hypocrites” and do not “give a shit” about abortion rights.  Let’s take a look.

Now that we know what the court is planning, the next question is what the Democrats will do with this information. So far, all that seems to be in the works is a symbolic vote intended to put everyone on the record and lay the groundwork for making abortion rights an issue in the midterms.

That’s pathetic. Democrats want to posture as the defenders of democracy and gender equality. But as long as they continue to coddle the anti-choice reactionaries within their party, this rhetoric is a bad joke. A party that actually cared about those things would be waging all-out war to end the filibuster and codify Roe into law.

. . .

But their failure to act meaningfully to stop abortion from being outright criminalized in vast swaths of the United States takes their hypocrisy to another level. This is the stuff they’re supposed to care about.

Democrats have plenty of excuses for not making a serious effort to codify Roe into law. Their Senate majority is paper-thin with fifty Democrats, fifty Republicans, and Vice President Kamala Harris as the tiebreaker. And only forty-eight of the fifty Democrats are even nominally pro-choice. Joe Machin is flatly antiabortion, and Bob Casey seems to hold a slightly more ambiguous version of the same position. Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema is pro-choice but too pro-filibuster for that to matter.

These are not “excuses”, they are the actual reasons Democrats are unable to codify Roe.

But here are a few things to keep in mind before giving them a pass for their failure to protect basic rights:

First, the Democratic majority in the Senate fluctuated between fifty-eight and sixty during the first two years of Barack Obama’s presidency. At no point in this period did Democrats even try to codify Roe into law.

Were they unaware that the Supreme Court might eventually issue the sort of ruling that just leaked? Hardly. They’ve yelled themselves hoarse about precisely that danger during every presidential election cycle of my lifetime. It’s a great way to get the Democratic base to come out and vote.

Burgis may not have noticed, but the capacity of Congress to legislate is . . . limited.  In addition to multiple veto points, “Congress”, in the words of political scientist John Kingdon, “is easily fatigued”.  The Democrats had lots of problems to deal with during Obama’s first two years in office, and it’s far from clear that an effort to codify Roe should have been at the top of their priority list.  Remember, they were working on major health care reform and climate change legislation, it was far from obvious at the time that the efforts of right-wingers to pack the Court would succeed, and an effort to codify Roe would almost certainly have failed and might have hurt them politically.  Of course, with the benefit of hindsight and unrealistic assumptions about what the Democrats could have done it’s easy to make the failure to codify Roe in 2009 or 2010 appear to be an outrage.  But what does that do, other than demoralize Democratic voters?

Second, the current effort barely even qualifies as “half-hearted.” Two pro-choice Republicans, Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins, won’t support the current bill but would support a weaker version that adds in some exceptions (mostly codifying abortion restrictions already in place). Why doesn’t the Democratic leadership bring that version to the floor?

They can claim the reason is that they’re too damn principled to brook any compromise whatsoever on an issue this important, but that doesn’t pass the laugh test. This is the Democrats we’re talking about. They compromise three times before breakfast. The simple truth is that they don’t want to muddy the waters with a weaker bipartisan bill because they aren’t even thinking in terms of strategy for pressuring pro-filibuster Democrats and getting something passed. The point of the exercise is just to get everyone on record so they can run on the issue in the midterms.

You can quibble about which bill the Democratic leadership should bring to the floor, but the fact is that no bill will pass.  I enjoy second-guessing Congressional leadership as much as the next guy, but this hardly justifies Burgis’ attack on the integrity of the entire Democratic caucus.

Actually, Burgis agrees that there is no hope of any legislation passing, sort of:

Perhaps nothing they could do to apply pressure would work anyway. Joe Manchin swatted away his last primary challenger without breaking a sweat, and Kyrsten Sinema may already be looking ahead to her probable post-Senate career as a lobbyist. For all we know there could be a dozen more Democrats in the Senate as committed to keeping the hideously antidemocratic filibuster, and they’re all happy to keep their heads down and let Manchin and Sinema take the heat.

But the reason we don’t know whether any of that’s true is that Democrats haven’t even pretended to play hardball with these people. Is Joe Biden crisscrossing the country campaigning for primary challengers to unseat anti-choice or pro-filibuster Democrats? Have any publicly visible levers of political pressure been used against these holdouts?

Of course not.

So Burgis agrees it’s very likely nothing can pass, but we can’t be absolutely sure, because Joe Biden isn’t crisscrossing the country or using “any publicly visible levers of political pressure” against Manchin and Sinema.  What levers is he even talking about?  What would an effort to shame Manchin accomplish, other than pissing him off, raising his approval ratings in West Virginia, and making it more likely he becomes a Republican?  What Burgis wants is a pointless display of performative progressivism.

If the Democratic leadership went to war against the reactionaries standing in the way of legislatively codifying the will of the public on abortion rights, it might end badly. Maybe they’d lose their majority. Maybe Joe Manchin, for example, would switch parties and be reelected as a Republican.

But if you call something an “abomination” and you mean it, you should be willing to take real political risks to stop it. We’re not talking about some bill to adjust the top marginal tax rate by a percentage point or two. We’re talking about states around the country legally forcing pregnant women to stay pregnant and putting people in prison for making the “wrong” personal medical decisions.

I sense that Burgis is struggling with the basics of rational decision making.  The fact that something is an “abomination” doesn’t mean we should do things that are likely to make the problem worse and that we have no reason whatsoever to believe will make things better. 

This is put-up-or-shut-up time. If you care about something exactly enough to fundraise about it and issue strongly worded statements about it and use it to get out the vote in the midterm elections, but you don’t care quite enough to take the kind of stand that would risk defeat, fair-minded observers can’t be blamed for wondering if you actually give a shit. So, the way to help women retain their reproductive autonomy is to tell progressive readers of Jacobin that it’s reasonable to wonder if Democrats really “give a shit” about abortion rights. 

Sorry, but I for one am tired of childish, self-defeating performative moralism from people like Burgis.  It’s the fundamental attribution error mixed with Green Lanternism, or, as Bentham might put it, bawling upon paper.