Progressive Catholics Can Avoid the Dixiecrats’ Fate

In protest of the impending federal contraception mandate, Michael Sean Winters declared that he will not vote for President Obama’s reelection this fall:

Catholics built their colleges and universities and hospitals. They did so out of religious conviction and, as often as not, because mainstream institutions did not welcome Catholics. It is one thing to support a policy with which the Catholic Church disagrees but it is quite another to start telling Catholics how to run their own institutions.

I accuse you, Mr. President, of treating shamefully those Catholics who went out on a limb to support you. Do tell, Mr. President, how many bullets have the people at Planned Parenthood taken for you? Sr. Carol Keehan, Father Larry Snyder, Father John Jenkins, these people have scars to show for their willingness to work with you, to support you on your tough political fights. Is this the way you treat people who went to the mat for you?

Zola, of course, wrote his famous essay in response to the Dreyfuss affair. Then, the source of injustice was anti-Semitic bigotry. Today, while I cannot believe that the President himself is an anti-Catholic bigot, he has caved to those who are. In politics, as in life, we are often known by the company we keep. Hmmmm. Sr. Carol Keehan, a woman who has dedicated her life and her ministry to help the ill and the aged or the fundraisers and the lobbyists at NARAL? Is that really a tough call?

Winters is a Catholic Democrat who continues to identify with his ancestral party; he says his interest in joining the GOP is zero. Certainly, Winters deserves credit for his cri de couer. Not only did he call out his own party, but he also declared that he will withhold his vote for his party’s presidential nominee. That takes guts. Would it were that more Catholic Republicans called out their party when it strayed too far from Church teaching on issues such as torture.

Declaring that you are withholding your vote may be brave, but it is not necessarily the wisest strategy to change a political party. White Catholics such as Winters have been withholding their votes from the Democratic Party’s presidential nominees for the last 40 years (and giving them to the GOP’s), and the results have not been pretty. The Democratic Party used to be a political vehicle for Planned Parenthood and NARAL; now it’s the vehicle. If more and more progressive pro-life Democrats simply withhold their votes from the party’s presidential nominee, they are likely to suffer the steady erosion of power that Southern Democrats did after 1948. Remember, the Dixiecrats of 1952, 1956, and 1960 didn’t bolt from the national party; they withheld their votes from its presidential nominee.

A wiser course of strategy for progressive Catholics would be to democratize the party’s presidential nominating system. Social liberals are powerful in the Democratic Party for many reasons, but their control of the party’s presidential nominating system is a key reason. It helps prevent socially moderate and conservative Democrats from speaking at Democratic conventions and mounting presidential campaigns, which attract young activists and idealists. If progressive Catholic Democrats could democratize the party’s presidential nominating rules, they could empower social moderates and conservatives and future generations of prolife Democrats.

The basic problem with the party’s nominating system is that affluent voters and socially liberal activists are overrepresented. While these voters and activists don’t hold all that much sway in the general election, they do in Democratic primaries and caucuses. In Why the Democrats are Blue, I called for diluting their influence by empowering ordinary Democratic voters. I proposed five reforms: Outlaw caucuses and replace them with primaries; allow independents to vote in primaries; permit swing states such as Pennsylvania and Ohio to jump ahead of Iowa and New Hampshire; end the super delegate rule; and eliminate all quotas for delegates.

I’m not holding my breath for these reforms to see the light of day. But if Winters’ post is any sign, and it might be, the relationship between many progressive Catholics and socially liberal Catholics has been ruptured. It can’t stay 1972 in the Democratic Party forever.



  • Peter

    As someone who was for several years active in Democrats for Life, and who grew up in a Democratic Party activist household, I would like to agree with what you say here, but I can’t. Your focus on the nominating process leaves out the sheer overwhelming force of money in contemporary U.S. politics. At the national and state levels, the donations of the various constituancies of the Democratic party are effectively organized to go to pro-choice candidates. With the exception of a few congressional or legislative districts, and one or two Senate seats, that the D’s know they can’t win without at least a nominally pro-life candidate, the party will make sure that any pro-life primary challenger will have access to little or no money, and outside organizations, such as Planned Parenthood will dedicate their resources to attack ads against the pro-life primary candidate.

    For me, a candidate’s position on abortion has become a negative, but not positive factor in voting. That is to say that I will not vote for a candidate who is strictly pro-choice, but at the same time I will not vote for a candidate simply because he or she is, or claims to be pro-life on the issue of abortion. I find myself writing in my own whimsical choices for a variety of offices. I have made my uneasy peace with this on the grounds that there is nothing mandatory about the two party system, nor for that matter are political parties in any way required by our constitution. I realize this may fly in the face of practical reality, I am not naive, but we have to be able to step back from the assumption that our particular two party system is writ in stone, and that one must vote for one or the other. We need to do this in order to come up with possible solutions to the kind of dilemmas the system poses to pro-life people who would otherwise be inclined to vote for Democrats.

  • Pingback: First Links — 1.25.12 » First Thoughts | A First Things Blog

  • Consistency

    Thank you for this post. I really admire that you have the courage to criticize the shortcomings of both parties. As voters we can have a far greater impact on this nation if we remember that we are Catholics first and Americans (Democrat or Republican) second. Don’t let them dismiss us and be coerced into compromising our values in the name of the lesser of two evils.



Receive our updates via email.