Bernie Sanders and the Democrats must fight for reproductive rights

Despite the semi-apocalyptic times we live in, I try to be an optimist, because it’s really the only way I can function. How else could I get through the day knowing a giant fascist baby is in power? How could I sleep without having nightmares about the psychotic Randians who control the legislative branch, all salivating and tumescent at the thought of destroying Medicare? But it’s hard to maintain a positive attitude when the Democratic Party, the closest thing to a resistance we have in this country, is deeply committed to fucking up.

This month, a local election and internecine debate among the left laid bare another example of the deep mediocrity of the Democrats as a political organization. The controversy started when Senator Bernie Sanders endorsed a candidate named Heath Mello for a mayoral race in Omaha, Nebraska, despite Mello’s fairly awful record on reproductive rights. Liberals critical of Sanders were quick to call him out on this, but virtually every mainstream Democrat ended up siding with him, including Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. The internal debate in the party over whether there should be such a thing as pro-life Democrats was quickly silenced.

But now more than ever, the Democrats have to be an organization that is willing to stand up for reproductive rights, both because it’s an inherent moral good and because it’s a political issue that can help them win elections. In a time when people don’t know what the Democratic party stands for, this is something they shouldn’t demure about.

What irked people about Sanders’ endorsement of Mello is that he’s a progressive who frequently criticizes other Democrats for being too moderate on issues like healthcare, finance and foreign policy. Yet he made an exception for reproductive rights. Critics of Sanders say he practices “purity politics,” yet he was willing to be impure about this specific issue. People have a right to be upset at Bernie, but the problem doesn’t stop with him. Anyone concerned with these issues should be just as mad at the rest of the party.

After all, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton was no better. Her running mate Tim Kaine, a Senator from Virgina, was in favor of the Hyde Amendment, which limited federal funding for abortion. He also supported abstinence-centric sexual education and Virginia’s anti-choice policies during his run for governor of that state in 2005. As I mentioned before, Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer also made statements supporting pro-life candidates. Only DNC chair Tom Perez has adamantly said that Democrats must support pro-choice policies, but even he waffled on the issue in at least one statement.

This is ridiculous. These people are leaders of a party in crisis, facing historically low levels of support. Republicans are one state legislature away from being able to amend the Constitution. And Pelosi, Schumer, et al seem to want to double down on the same moderate policies and triangulation that got them here in the first place. The problem with Democrats is that no one knows what they stand for. It’s not that they are too strident, it’s that they are not reliable enough.

When you think about it, can you think of a single issue that unites the party? Healthcare? Education? Gun control? The only thing I can think of that would be completely disqualifying for a national Democratic candidate would be opposition to same-sex marriage. But other than that, there’s waffling on everything. What the party needs are more “litmus tests” for candidates, not fewer. People need to know what the Democratic brand means, and right now, all it stands for is “not Trump.” As we’ve seen, it’s not enough to win elections.

The main argument against pushing Democrats on reproductive rights is that it will hurt them in more socially conservative parts of the country like the South and Midwest. The problem with this logic is that radical pro-lifers were probably never going to vote Democratic in the first place. So rather than chasing mythical moderates, the Democrats need to fire up their own base with bold policy initiatives. And more moderate pro-life voters who want economically liberal policies might be willing to vote for pro-choice candidates even if they don’t necessarily agree with them on that particular issue.

If you’re still want a tent so big anyone can be in it, just think about this: there are plenty of pro-life Democrats, but can you name one pro-choice Republican? And which party is currently in power throughout the country? Voters like knowing what they get from candidates and political organizations.

The Democrats aren’t ever going to push themselves in the right direction. So what progressive activists must do is primary pro-lifers and other centrists in the party and push the organization to the left by force. The DNC hates primaries; they prevented any serious Democrat from running against Hillary Clinton in an attempt to hand her the nomination. But primaries are good. Let’s say a pro-choice Democrat primaried an incumbent pro-lifer. The pro-lifer would either A) beat them by adopting some of their stances and moving in a more progressive direction or B) lose, in which case he/she was clearly unpopular anyway. Primaries sharpen candidates and give the public more options; they’re an inherent positive. I think every Senator and Representative in Congress should face primaries from multiple candidates across the political spectrum every single term. Call it idealistic, but I think if you’re opposed to such a thing, you’d be happier in a monarchy.

I also think the party should move left on other issues, not just reproductive rights. As Donald Trump seeks to pass his horrific healthcare bill, Democrats must demand Medicare-for-All. They must be willing to fight our country’s repressive system of mass incarceration and end the War on Drugs, a racist tool of social control. I’d argue Democrats must reject militarism and foreign intervention, though they’re unlikely to do so. And, as with reproductive rights, I think politicians reluctant to change on these and other issues should face stiff opposition.

I supported Senator Sanders in the Democratic primary and agree with him on a lot, and I was disappointed that he uncritically endorsed Mello. After all, Bernie ran largely on promoting economic justice, but failed to see that abortion is an economic issue. It’s about women’s right to make their own decisions about not just their body, but their financial future. Republicans love to defend the unborn, but hate giving any assistance to mothers once they’re caring for a dependent child. Republicans love forcing women to carry babies to term but viciously oppose the idea of giving paid time off to pregnant women. This is exploitative. Reproductive rights for women are a non-negotiable part of any socialist or liberal vision for the country.

But we should keep in mind Sanders’ misstep is only symptomatic of a larger problem. The closest thing to a left wing political party we have in this country would rather stick to the center on social issues than adopt policies that could create a multiracial working class coalition capable of rejecting Trump and the Republican Party. So the work needs to be done by voters and activists. Keep in mind the values of the left: racial and social justice, economic equality and peace. And challenge anyone who opposes these things, no matter what party they belong to.