Could Progressive Wins Mean Democratic Losses in Midterms?

Recent victories from New York to Arizona won’t mean a thing if they fire up conservatives and get them to turn out in November.

The last few months will likely be remembered as one of the most successful in recent history for progressive causes, candidates, and the people who love them.

In November, New Yorkers elected a bona-fide liberal to take charge of a city that hasn’t had a Democratic mayor in 20 years. Last month, Bill Nye, known forever to a generation of millenials as “the Science Guy” seemed to put a final nail in the coffin of creationists by debating its staunchest defenders and seeming to crush them with a combination of common sense and scientific fact. In February, Michael Sam managed to kick open America’s most durable closet door by becoming the first openly gay man to acknowledge his sexuality before embarking on what is arguably viewed as America’s most macho career: professional football. Just last week one of the country’s most conservative governors, Jan Brewer of Arizona, vetoed a bill widely deemed to be “anti-gay” that would have allowed businesses to decline service based on religious beliefs. With victories like these, shouldn’t liberals nationwide be celebrating the dawn of the United Progressive States of America?

Not so fast, because if history is any indication, things are about to get much worse for progressives before they get better.

Progressives have previously enjoyed eras of sweeping social change. The successes of the civil rights movement and the second-wave feminist movement are two recent examples. While both movements resulted in significant legal victories for oppressed groups, they resulted in significant political losses for their supporters. After signing the Voting Rights Act of 1965 into law President Lyndon Johnson is reported to have said, “We have lost the South for a generation.”

By “we” he meant his fellow Democrats and of course his prediction proved right. The GOP employed what became known as the “Southern Strategy,” which involved capitalizing on southern resentment over civil rights gains made by blacks thanks to the government and Democratic politicians, in order to help elect Republican candidates. The strategy proved so effective, and divisive, that former Republican National Committee Chair Ken Mehlman apologized for the party’s implementation of the Southern Strategy during a speech before the NAACP in 2005.

Similarly, it was only after the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, which decriminalized abortion, that the pro-life movement became a major force in American politics.

Though it had been active since the 1960s, it was only after the Roe decision that the National Right to Life Committee became officially incorporated and immersed its members in political organizing. Along with the Moral Majority, Family Research Council and other conservative and decidedly pro-life groups, the National Right to Life Committee would play a key role in helping to turn the Christian Right into a major political power that would give America the Reagan era.

Today, Roe v. Wade remains the law of the land but laws protecting reproductive rights at the state level have been weakened so much in recent years that in some states, like Texas, whether or not Roe is still the law seems virtually moot.

Drawing parallels between the abortion rights movement and the gay rights movement, legal expert Michael Klarman said the impact of the Roe decision on national politics: "When the court intervenes to defend a minority position or even to resolve an issue that divides the country down the middle, its decisions can generate political backlash, especially when the losers are intensely committed, politically organized and geographically concentrated."

Despite all of this it seems progressives are unwilling to learn the lessons of history.

Was the Voting Rights Act was wrong because it is still causing political fallout for Democrats years later? Of course not.

But as Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. watched supporters of civil rights rack up victories, he never paused to take victory laps ridiculing the fact that those who opposed him were losing their way of life. Instead, he tried to let the grace he and other members of the movement demonstrated speak for itself. Progressives these days could use a lot more grace.

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In fact while I can only imagine how much easier social media would have made organizing during the civil rights movement (as well as potentially saving lives) there are times I shudder to think how much worse it could have made the tone of political discourse back then. I can only imagine the impact of snarky tweets sent from well-meaning progressives across the country ridiculing the intellect of Southerners in some misguided effort to apply political pressure.

Today while it may be amusing to ridicule the intellect of those who believe the Bible is an accurate text, the fact that religious activists have been able to raise so much money in the aftermath of the evolution debate with Bill Nye should worry progressives, not embolden them.

Similarly, instead of gloating about the defeat of SB 1062 in Arizona, progressives should already be preparing for the next such challenges, including from those conservatives who will be inspired by the bill’s defeat and other progressive wins to run for office.

Progressives would be wise to tone down the triumphalism—at least in the run up to midterms. Right now they are winning the culture wars—at least in the courts, but that’s only half the battle. As one of my friends (who understands football far better than I) recently said, “Progressives don’t want to spike the ball too soon.”

The game is far from over. After all, to win in the courts, liberals need their judges to be confirmed and that can’t be done without a cooperative Congress. If conservatives are inspired to mobilize during midterm elections, a lot of the recent gains made by progressives won’t matter much.

And all of the snarky jokes in the world won’t make a difference.

Correction: John Barrow is not the only white Southern Democrat left in Congress.