Faltering at the Crossroads
In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends. — Martin Luther King
Nancy Pelosi’s pretty words about "an opportunity to end discrimination and the violence that goes with it" ring pretty hollow this week, with word emerging from Capitol Hill that House Democrats are in the process of crumbling on passage of the Matthew Shepard Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act.
And while plenty of the blame for this massive failure will undoubtedly (and deservedly) rest on the increasingly common object of progressive despair — namely, spineless congressional Democrats — there in reality is more than enough culpability to go around. The failure, once again, to pass a federal hate-crimes law also reflects on the state of progressive politics generally, especially the balkanization of progressives into discrete interest groups who rarely cross lines to support one another.
Let’s face it: This legislation was tagged as a "gay issue" — mainly because the opposition to it arose almost wholly from the inclusion of sexual preference as a category of bias, fueled by the homophobes of the religious right. And gay-rights groups were certainly in the forefront of pushing the bill. However, other progressives, including those directly affected by hate crimes, neglected to join in the fight to any notable extent. Where were the civil-rights groups, the immigrant-rights groups, the labor unions?
How was it possible, for instance, for thousands of African Americans to march on the Justice Department and demand hate-crimes enforcement, as they did last month, and have no one mention the pending hate-crimes law?
After all, the bill specifically addresses the very issue that lies at the heart of the "Jena 6" controversy — namely, the failures of law enforcement to adequately enforce these laws. The legislation, as I’ve noted previously, is carefully written to emphasize helping local law enforcement do its job — provide training, help identify bias crimes, provide funds for strapped prosecutors — and it specifically defers to local jurisdictions. At the same time it makes it possible for federal authorities to move in when local law enforcement fails to do so, particularly in any of the seven states that have no bias-crime law.
Similarly, it’s been hard to find much in the way of serious support for the Shepard bill from Latinos and immigrant-rights organizations. There have been exceptions: The Latino Coalition made an effort to support the bill, and Latino bloggers like Xicanopwr chimed in as well. Nonetheless, the support was surprisingly muted and not particularly broad, in spite of the fact that Latino immigrants have been among the chief victims of the recent spike in hate-crimes nationally reported by the FBI.
This reflects, I think, the way progressives in general have managed to balkanize themselves in general. We get behind our particular interests and scarcely look over the fences we’ve erected. The civil-rights arena is only one in which this happens: gay rights, civil-rights, and immigrant-rights groups all have common ground that they could and should occupy jointly, but too often don’t. It happens elsewhere, too: antiwar organizations are slow to link up to civil libertarians who are trying to tackle the Bush administration’s abusive power grabs. Environmental groups are slow to recognize that the religious-right extremists who form the footsoldiers of the corporate right’s anti-green backlash are the same frothing wingnuts who are attacking gays and lesbians. And gay-rights organizations manage to similarly focus on "their" issues without realizing that, for instance, they ought to pay attention to the Bush administration’s trampling of civil liberties, because those have a profound long-term impact for their interests as well.
I think this balkanization has a lot to do with the continuing presence of those spineless Democrats on Capitol Hill. Republicans who fail to back the "conservative movement" program to the hilt face discipline from within and hordes of flying right-wing monkeys from without. Democrats, in contrast, find that their interest advocates are so diverse and diluted that they can shuffle and delay and generally "keep their powder dry" for a reckoning that never comes.
As I observed when the Shepard bill first passed, Democrats’ support was always thin, in spite of the glowing rhetoric:
Frankly, they appear to be resigned to defeat. That’s why there’s no push to change some of those Republican votes (what about, f’r instance, those "moderate" Republicans like Chuck Hagel or Mike Crapo or Elizabeth Dole — who all voted against it — or John McCain, who sat out?). There’s no push to make sure that politicians who vote against the bill pay for it at the polls — even though doing so (painting the opponents as callous people who don’t care about minority rights, gay bashings, and are otherwise soft on crime) is a simple no-brainer.
That’s why they seem disinterested in overriding the veto, and making both it and Republicans’ congressional support for it a campaign issue for the 2008 vote. But I think there are other reasons for the disinterest as well.
Too many Beltway consultant types love to depict bias-crimes laws as "special interest" and "politically correct" legislation that only serve a small band of the electorate. They play off the media stereotypes created by folks like Andrew Sullivan and try to discourage their political clients for pushing this kind of law too hard.
Of course, the reality is that bias-crime bills are designed to protect everyone. White people, Christians, males — they’re all victims of bias crimes as well, and the law is intended to step protection for them, too, by stiffening the sentences for perpetrators.
Perhaps more important, bias-crime laws (as this week’s vote suggests) are a natural cause for progressives and moderates alike, because they are not only about defending minority rights, they’re about defending law and order and getting tough on criminals who inflict real harm on us all — especially on our communities in the efforts to heal the ethnic and religious divides within them.
Democrats are frequently accused, with good reason, of taking their minority votes for granted. They know that they can count on minorities to line up behind them in the election, even though when the right-wingers go to the mattresses, they can always be counted on keeping their powder dry and not firing a shot. So they can make grand but ultimately hollow gestures like this week’s hate-crimes vote, but never make the real effort needed to make these bills actually succeed.
But this bill is about all of us, not just minorities. If congressional Democrats are not willing to fight for it, they can just add it to their list of mounting failures in asserting their agenda.
One of the great frustrations that antiwar organizations have with these same Democrats is that their failures reflect an abysmal inability to lead. There’s so much polling, group-testing and triangulation going into their political calculus that there’s never any initiative to seize the issue by the reins and claim it for their own — even when there’s a clear-cut ethical, moral, and political imperative to do so. And this same wishy-washiness is precisely why voters are leery of Democrats: they don’t stand for anything.
The same is true of their long-running history of failure to pass a federal bias-crime law, which is starting increasingly to look like the historical failure of progressives to pass an anti-lynching law — a failure that recently inspired the Senate to pass a retroactive apology of sorts. Probably, in fifty years, we can expect a similar round of self-flagellation for the current failure.
Progressives could change all this, of course. But first, they need to start figuring out how to join hands with the people who are their natural allies, and paying attention to their issues, too — because more often than not, these are our issues.