The Democrats “Support” You. Why Protest Them?

Image by Mika Baumeister.

Why would people of the left protest the Democrats’ convention, especially regarding issues where they say they support us, such as on abortion and LGBTQ+ rights? I was asked that question by Neil Steinberg, a page-two columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times, regarding our Sunday, August 18th march on the eve of this year’s Democratic Convention in Chicago.

Later he mockingly wrote that “Dems plan to crash Dem party in Chicago this summer to accuse fellow Dems of not being Dem enough.” Memo to Neil: I’m not a Democrat. And guess what? “The largest, and growing, share” of US adults aren’t Democrats or Republicans either. They’re either registered voters who consider themselves “independent,” or people who have so little faith in the US political system that they don’t bother registering.

While we didn’t talk about Israel’s ongoing ethnic cleansing of Gaza, I would have told him that if, like a majority of Americans, you’re appalled by President Biden shipping arms to Israel as it obliterates Gaza, then plenty of registered Democrats will probably be protesting at the DNC on that account as well.

But marching for abortion and LGBTQ+ rights at the DNC? Aren’t the Democrats already on board for that?

They are…if you’re naïve enough to believe that politicians’ actions match their words. Politicians say they’re in favor of many popular things, but rarely put the kind of political capital into passing civil rights the way they’ll do, say, for war funding or gifts to wealthy contributors.

That was our experience here in Illinois when pushing to pass equal marriage rights legislation in 2013. The Democrats held the governor’s mansion and super majorities in both the state senate and house. But it wasn’t until we starting calling out [2] then-House Speaker Mike Madigan and his allies by name, repeatedly publicly protesting “our” Democrats, that Madigan finally whipped his caucus into passing our bill the way he’d repeated done to give sweetheart deals for the state’s biggest electric utility (something he’s currently facing criminal charges for).

Today Biden and his party can say their hands are tied by the Supreme Court and gerrymandered election districts. However, they’ve said they supported abortion rights for most of the half century following the passage of Roe v. Wade, but allowed it to be eviscerated through an avalanche of restrictive laws that effectively denied that right to millions of people. The anti-abortion Hyde Amendment found decades of overwhelming support from both parties, including one Senator and then Vice President Joe Biden.

“Preserving the Issue”

As a proud member of Chicago For Abortion Rights, I remember well the few years before the Dobbs decision. We rang the alarm bells as we saw the storm clouds gather on the horizon. Yet all we got out of the Democrats was …. silence. They apparently thought the issue was a loser for them and so didn’t put political capital into defending a right they supposedly supported.

But now that we’ve lost the constitutional right to abortion, Democrats see it as an issue they can milk for electoral gold. It’s a way for them to win power – their real goal. The right to abortion itself is incidental. Their “support” for our rights was always too little too late, and now millions of people, post-Dobbs, endure unnecessary trauma and expense since we lost Roe.

Today they’re happy to leverage the issue in localities to win advantage for local Democratic candidates, or boost Biden’s chances in key states this fall. At a certain point you have to wonder if we can afford to play whack-a-mole in locality after locality? It’s even worse in the case of LGBTQ+ rights. Each year’s legislative sessions now see hundreds of anti-LGBTQ+ bills in the states, which Democrats mostly go through the motions of opposing. Where is the serious, national, multi-year campaign to stop this blizzard of anti-bodily autonomy garbage?

Political operators like James Carvilles and Steve Bannons have a cynical phrase for this process. “Preserving the issue,” they say. Best not to actually solve the issue with sweeping national legislation, or even worse, solving it before it becomes a crisis. Better to keep the issue alive and churning to motivate base voters to show up at the polls for you.

So the Republicans are happy to torpedo even the most reactionary anti-immigration legislation to “preserve the issue,” and Democrats are happy to have the abortion issue churn thru a host of states, picking up congressional and statewide seats along the way, rather than seriously pushing for a national fix.

Yes, it’s that cynical.

“Stealing Their Thunder”: How the Left (& Everyone Else) Caused This Mess

There’s lots of blame to share for why this country’s politics are in their current mess. The yahoo/Q-anon wing of the Republican Party plays their role, as do the “moderate” Republicans who enabled them over the years. But also to blame are the Democrats and even those of us who consider ourselves to their left, the “party of the non-aligned.”

Yes, most of us are to blame.

For the last half century, almost all of the pressure on the Democratic presidents has come from the Right, not from the Left. We on the Left were told, and we often told ourselves, that the crisis is so great that we need to support “our” president, even when he’s transparently betraying his promises. In past presidential elections those of us who objected and pointed to the Democrats’ serial breaking of their promises, were shouted down by the Democrats and others to the left of the party.

It’s unsurprising, then, that Democrats in office invariably have moved rightwards. Moderates like columnist Neil Steinberg who urge us to lay off the Dems perpetuate this cycle. They demand little, and get even less. The Republican right shows no such restraint.

Each presidential electoral cycle starting with Carter has seen the Democrats move rightward as they attempt to steal the Republicans’ thunder. The Republicans’ response? Move even further to the right. The result has been that the Republican rank and file evolved from the almost quaint “Contract With America,” to the more loopy “Tea Party,” to today’s truly bonkers, openly bigoted and violent Q-anon and neo-fascist Proud Boys.

Triangulation on the Right & Left

There’s an old phrase in politics: “Only Nixon could go to China” – i.e., only a recognizably far-right politician can get away with something that is cast as being “too left wing.” Thus, for example, it’s no accident that during the early years of the campaign for equal marriage rights for same-sex couples, we saw mostly Republican-appointed judges in Massachusetts and Iowa who were the first to rule in favor of equal rights, and a Republican-appointed judge who struck down California’s anti-gay Proposition 8.

On the opposite side of the aisle, openly Gay Congressman Barney Frank, in a safe Democratic seat no less, viciously opposed equal marriage rights and any activism promoting it as he saw that activism as an embarrassment to the bigots in his party.

As for presidents, it’s been the Democrats who have done the heavy lifting on some of the most reactionary legislation for the past several decades. Time and again, Democratic presidents accomplished what that their Republican predecessors could only dream of doing.

Take the liberal icon John F. Kennedy. He campaigned to the right of Nixon on foreign policy, claiming a mythical “missile gap” with the Soviet Union, and then brought the world closer to nuclear annihilation than any president before or since. His Democratic successor, Lyndon Johnson, waged the most unpopular war in US history—arguably, something no Republican of that era could have gotten away with doing. Carter, who campaigned as a progressive, deregulated the trucking, airline, and railroad industries and initiated a “war” on inflation that harmed working people and paved the way for Reagan’s full-scale assault on organized labor.

Clinton moved to the right of most Republicans so often that a term was coined for it: “Triangulation.” He set the LGBTQ+ rights movement back many years with his “Defense of Marriage Act” and “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” anti-gay military employment policy. While other Democrats dog-whistled about “super-predators,” his “Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty” law ramped up America’s racist death chambers and ballooned racist imprisonment in a way only dreamed of by “tough-on-crime” Republicans. His “free trade” policies and pledge to “end welfare as we know it” shredded the Democrats’ commitment to the already eroded Roosevelt New Deal policies.

Obama was a master at role-playing a left-wing advocate miraculously transported into the White House. But his signature (and just about only) reform was the “market friendly” Affordable Care Act that better served the private insurance industry than any other proposal on the table at the time. As a result, the richest country in the world is still saddled with a healthcare system more costly and with worse results than any other among the world’s advanced economies. Adding insult to injury, the ACA wasn’t even a Democratic Party proposal! It was a virtual carbon copy of the proposal instituted in Massachusetts by Republican Governor Mitt Romney.

However, history judges the ACA, Obama’s refusal to penalize Wall Street banks for triggering the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression and then embracing neoliberal austerity made unionists’ support of him look foolish. His “rich-people-first” response was particularly devastating to working class homeowners, wiping out the first substantial generation of Black home ownership and their gains in potential generational equity. With his anti-immigrant policies he deported far more people than his Republican predecessor, such that immigrant rights activists dubbed him the “Deporter-in-Chief.” And on LGBTQ+ rights he waffled shamelessly: first being “for” equal marriage rights as a state senator, then against it while running for president (giving credibility to passage of California’s anti-gay Proposition 8 in 2008), only to “evolve” again on the issue later once he apparently saw it as a Democratic vote-getter.

He supported the NAFTA “free trade” agreement after campaigning against it. He escalated the “stupid wars” he denounced as a candidate. As America’s first Black president he dramatically escalated the US military presence in Africa. He escalated the drone bombings across a score of countries. The former University of Chicago constitutional law scholar established weekly “kill lists” – with the White House serving as judge, jury and executioner. The constitutional scholar allowed CIA torturers to evade prosecution and to cover-up these and other war crimes, prosecuted more whistleblowers than all preceding presidential administrations combined.

Arguably these betrayals of his professed principles turned legions of working people against the Democrats and helped fuel the rise of Donald Trump.

Will the Left Give the Democrats a Free Ride Again?

When Republican presidents propose reactionary legislation, there’s a fire-storm of denunciations from the Left, the Democratic Party, and the constellation of non-governmental organizations (NGO’s) aligned with them. When similar proposals come from the Democrats in power, as we’ve seen with the Carter, Clinton, Obama and Biden administrations, most of the left has sat on their hands.

Candidate Obama famously told grassroots activists to hold him to account if he didn’t live up his promises, and then viciously denounced those who bravely did so once he was in office.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned after living in a Democratic city for over four decades, it’s this: If there’s one group that the Democrats hate more than the Republicans, it’s those who challenge them from the left. In 2020 they united around a 4th rate candidate, Biden – as measured in the primaries and the polls vs. Trump – rather than let Sanders get the DNC nomination. In the one instance where the left managed to elevate its choice to become the nominee, George McGovern in 1972, the regular Democrats decamped en masse to the hard-right racist, pro-war Richard Nixon.

The fact that the last two elections have even been close – against someone so obviously odious to huge sections of the population as Donald Trump – is a testament to the demobilizing effect that decades of Democratic broken promises have had on their base supporters.

Speaking of profoundly disappointing base supporters, in the run up to this August’s Democratic convention in Chicago, last week our “progressive” mayor passed anti-protester legislation. In doing so he followed the same script that his notorious neoliberal predecessor, Rahm Emanuel, did in the run up to the 2012 NATO conference in Chicago.

Rahm at least faced a hurriedly organized opposition in the City Council which toned down his horrible legislation a bit. Progressive Mayor Brandon Johnson faced no such opposition and his bill passed unanimously – including with the votes of every member of our City’s Democratic Socialist caucus (the largest such caucus of any major city in the nation).

Mayor Johnson’s police have rejected every single permit application filed by groups wanting to march on the convention. They’ve demanded that protesters get no closer than three miles from the convention site! For students of history, it was Mayor Richard J. Daley’s refusal 56 years ago to grant march permits that set the stage for the infamous police riots of the 1968 Democratic Convention.

Once again, they set up the very chaos that they claim they want to prevent.

With their rejection of every DNC march permit and their new anti-protester law, the Democratic Party is essentially demanding that the Left “shut up” and accept at face value the DNC’s Johnny-come-lately, faux embrace of our demands.

We can either allow ourselves to be hoodwinked once again, or we can take a page from the brave Palestinian activists in Chicago and elsewhere who’ve shown the spine that much of the Left has lacked heretofore.

In contrast to “moderates” who never think the time is right to make demands of “their” politicians, we must say justice concedes nothing without a demand. We must march, permits or no permits, and not let “progressive” politicians dissuade us. Otherwise, we’ll get more of the decades-long betrayals that we and millions others can ill afford.

Andy Thayer has written previously about the then-impending Supreme Court decisions here and here. He is a co-founder of the Gay Liberation Network in Chicago and can be reached at LGBTliberation@aol.com