Social Democrats?

For the Democratic Party, social issues are economic issues

In the history of the Democratic Party that Michael Lind laid out Friday in Salon, Democrats abandoned economic liberalism for social libertarianism sometime in the late 1960s and early ’70s. Arguing that the “Roosevelt Party” evolved into the “McGovern Party,” Lind writes: “The Roosevelt Party ran on economic issues, and didn’t care whether voters were in favor of sex or against it on principle as long as they supported the New Deal. The McGovern Party, by contrast, has made social issues its litmus test.”

Lind is right that Democrats have paid dearly in national elections since 1968 for their championing of what have come to be known as “social issues.” But Lind is wrong that Democrats made “social issues” central in American politics. Indeed, the very fact that Lind sees so-called “social issues” as separable from “economic issues” demonstrates how successful conservatives have been in framing politics in a way that hurts their opponents.

Although Lind derides Democrats’ embrace of a laundry list of social issues from pornography to illegal immigration, the ones he considers most foolhardy are reproductive rights and affirmative action. “Economic conservatives have had a home in the McGovern Party,” he writes, “as long as they support abortion rights and affirmative action, but social democrats and populists who are pro-life or anti-affirmative action are not made nearly as welcome.”

Once again, it’s time for a visit from the history patrol. White men may have the luxury of seeing reproductive and civil rights as symbolic issues with no economic components. But to the women and people of color who, together, make up the majority of Americans, those issues are economic to the core.

Before the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision made abortion a defining political issue, the birth control pill—introduced in the early 1960s—was controversial in its own right. Together, they gave women greater control of their reproductive lives, contributing to the dramatic workplace gains women have made over the last fifty years. Even critics who consider abortion and contraception immoral would have a hard time disputing their role in revolutionizing the labor force.

Let’s talk about civil rights, particularly affirmative action. Though southern whites opposed civil rights laws from the start, whites outside the region supported them in large enough numbers that the federal government made a priority of rooting out segregation. Non-southern working- and middle-class whites began supporting reactionary politicians like George Wallace and Richard Nixon in the late 1960s, as they saw their standards of living stagnate, while African Americans—who had been barred from many economic opportunities for centuries—began gaining ground thanks to new laws. The resentment of white workers, who were in fact being squeezed in much the same way the middle class has been under the Bush administration, towards initiatives like affirmative action is understandable. And real questions can be raised about whether it is consistent with the ideal of laws that are racially neutral. But there can be no question that affirmative action and other civil rights initiatives were substantially about reversing centuries of African-American economic disadvantage.

Even gay rights, which many Democrats decry as a distraction from a more broadly popular economic agenda, have a substantial economic component. Don’t believe me? Ask a gay person whose been fired from a job because of his sexual orientation, or a lesbian who’s been denied the right to rent a house. The economic stakes of gay marriage, including access to health insurance and retirement benefits, are especially high, though seldom discussed.

Lind might have had a point, had he argued it more subtly: Democrats have done a poor job managing tensions within their coalition, and too often they have failed to talk about these issues in economic terms. But, as it stands, he’s fundamentally wrong: The Democratic Party’s focus on these so-called “social issues” is not a departure from its tradition of using government to intervene on behalf of the economically disadvantaged—it is an extension of that tradition.

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Lester Feder is a freelance reporter based in Washington, D.C., and a research scientist at George Washington University School of Public Health.