Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Democrats and Abortion

John T. McGreevy had an excellent article in Commonweal magazine, detailing the shifting patterns of Catholic support between the two major parties, focusing mainly on the enduring power of the abortion issue.

To begin, he makes the now-standard point that the Democrats are hemorrhaging Catholic votes owing to their ill-conceived fealty to the "fundamental right" to abortion laid down by Roe v. Wade. It was not always this way. Catholics once formed part of the core Democratic constituency, jump-started by Al Smith's failed 1928 presidential campaign, sealed by Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal (especially when he invoked an encyclical by Pope Pius XI on the economy), and completed by John Kennedy victory (when he received 78 percent of the Catholic vote). At that time, the Democratic party was more reliably anti-abortion than the Republicans, and even Ted Kennedy would exclaim in 1971 that "abortion on demand is not in accordance with the value which our civilization places on human life." Serious Catholics, including Bobby Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy, dominated the party.

Roe v. Wade changed everything. Given the power of incumbency, it took a while for this earthquake to finally shake through the system, rupturing the Democratic party. After the Democrats adopted a platform describing described abortion as a "fundamental human right" in 1984, leading luminaries like Geraldine Ferraro and Mario Cuomo were denounced from the pulpit by the plain-spoken Cardinal Archbishop of New York, John O'Connor. The nadir came when Governor Bob Casey of Pennsylvania was not allowed to speak at the Democratic Convention in 1992, owing to his staunch pro-life views. This was the turning point, and people still talk about this today.

This is where the Republicans stepped in. Along the line, something very interesting occurred, something that McGreevy regrettably brushes over in his essay. The evangelicals jumped on board with the pro-life cause. Until this point, abortion was essentially a Catholic issue and was seen as such. Evangelicals were more angry with forced racial integration, especially in the south. But Jerry Falwell and others seized the anti-abortion mantle, and used it to campaign for Ronald Reagan. McGreevy does not make this point, it is seems reasonable to conclude that the evangelical right (who would shortly become the backbone of the Republican party) used the abortion issue as a veil to garner Catholic support, and to hide their real agenda-- which included a retrograde approach to the role of women and race, a strong military in support of an American exceptionalist mission in the world, and a staunchly individualist economic policy lacking in social safety nets. In other words, they would play the seductive pro-life tune to seduce Catholics into becoming Calvinists.

This was a serious game, because Catholics were becoming the ultimate swing voters, and were increasingly inclined to embrace the Republican party. While Clinton won white Catholics by seven percentage points in 1996, Gore lost them by seven points in 2000, and Kerry (a Catholic himself!) by fourteen points in 2004. Sure, a lot of the latter was Bush scaring them hell out of people for cheap electoral gain, but the abortion issue also loomed large. It is certainly no accident that the last election boiled down to a state like Ohio, a state with a large Catholic population with a tendency to be queasy about abortion on demand. Kerry's equivocation did not help. William Galston believes that refusing to sign the partial birth abortion ban was Clinton's single biggest mistake in eight years, and I'm inclined to agree with him.

So there has been a Catholic shift toward the Republicans, but at what cost? Under Bush, this party has become synonymous with legalized torture, the death penalty, war as a first resort, rising poverty rates, rampant corruption, massive government debt, and disdain for the environment. But still, Republicans use abortion to trump these failures, a tried and tested tactic. In the process, McGreevy notes the emergence of a more shrill partisan divide, and what others have referred to as the "Coulterization of conservatism". Karl Rove in particular took this to a whole new dimension, adding gay marriage and an assortment of other "moral" issues to the toxic mix with which to poison Democrats.

Just look what happened in recent years. Many Catholics jumped on the band wagon, and stood side by side with the evangelicals, adopting the Republican rhetoric in its entirety. In fact, this marriage of convenience was partly a strategy developed by people like convert Fr. Richard John Neuhaus and Watergate criminal Charles Colson in the early 1990s (again, McGreevy doesn't get into this history). This explains the genesis of the adopting highly-partisan "voter guides" (apeing evangelical tactics), and the association of people like Neuhaus and William Donohue with the Republican right. As McGreevy notes:
"Trolling much of the Catholic press now means drowning in screeds... In retrospect, the 1996 imbroglio at Neuhaus's First Things over the judicial usurpation of politics marked a sectarian warning shot. (The magazine's editors warned that recent Supreme Court decisions on abortion, especially, meant that matters have reached or are reaching the point where conscientious citizens can no longer give moral assent to the existing regime.) More recent attacks by the neocons on the Jesuits, on those Catholics, including some bishops, who upheld traditional end-of-life teaching during the Terri Schiavo melodrama, and on the new archbishop of San Francisco as overly sympathetic to gays are only the most recent volleys."
Meanwhile, a tiny handful of bishops, and a not so tiny handful of loud and obnoxious lay commentators, demanded that John Kerry be banned from receiving communion. Rick Santorum blames "Boston liberals" rather than the actions of Cardinal Law for the sex abuse scandal. Worse still is the giddy embrace of Bush's Iraq war by many of the newly-empowered Catholic intellectuals (including Neuhaus, Michael Novak, and George Weigel), and their strange and eerie silence as Bush legitimizes torture based on consequentialist reasoning. But this is exactly the problem, given the evident disconnect between key aspects of the Republican agenda and Catholic teaching. This is what happens when you are seduced by the power of the One Ring...

But there is hope. The Democrats are finally waking up to reality, and trying to unshackle the chains of Roe v. Wade. Pro-life Catholic politicians like Bob Casey Jr, Harry Reid, and Tim Kaine are once more coming to the fore. Democrats for Life counts Democratic congressional representatives as pro-life, with a lot of support for the 95-10 initiative (the plan to reduce abortions by 95 percent in 10 years). And they have an advantage over Republicans if they want to seriously engage on this issue, as they can point to the dominance of socio-economic factors that lead to abortions. McGreevy asks:

"How should we actually decrease the abortion rate, given that federal policies on access to abortion matter less than the socio-economic plight of women seeking abortions? How should we understand low abortion rates in Western Europe (where abortion is legal) and high rates in putatively Catholic Latin America (where it is not)?"
It should not be too hard to counter Republican gains on this issue, as I've blogged about before., especially since the largest decline in abortion rates took place under Bill Clinton. What's more, Democrats can appeal to the seamless garment of life issues. But continuing to swear fealty to Roe v. Wade and the "fundamental right" therein is a problem. After all, if something is a fundamental right, why would it be important to reduce it by 95 percent?


Anonymous said...

I think Morning Minion needs to make his point in 2 or 3 brief paragraphs. Who has the time to read never-ending prose!!??

Todd said...

Still, it's a refreshing change from the usual St Blog's banter, "You're an idiot because EWTN says so."