The Roe v. Wade problem

The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, which had blocked states from denying abortion rights to women, is no doubt a 50-year setback for women’s rights. No way around it. But besides the problem that millions of women will now face in their personal lives (many of whom will have to carry unwanted pregnancies to term), there is also the immediate political problem. Republicans/conservatives had held a very large advantage going into the 2022 midterm elections. Because about 2/3 of Americans favored keeping Roe v. Wade, there will no doubt be some swing against Republicans in favor of women’s rights. But beware of overconfidence. The Republican advantage has gone from large to small but they are still likely to gain some seats in Congress. And Democrats/liberals are famous for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. The 2016 presidential election is a case in point. The Republican nominee (Trump) was probably the most spectacularly unqualified candidate in U.S. history, both in terms of competence and temperament, and the Dems found a way to lose. And after the election? Did Dems look in the mirror to see how they may have alienated so many voters that they were thrashed by the worst candidate in history? No, they doubled down and wrote off everyone who disagreed with them as racist. Perhaps a harmless strategy if you are preaching to the choir, but hardly a way to win back some of those you have alienated.

So what’s the problem today? Just looking at the electoral side for now, the problem is stopping the Dems from self-destructing. A large majority is on your side on abortion rights. Don’t give away the electoral advantage this gives you. Two pitfalls in particular are easy to avoid, and yet I fear they are exactly the kind of pitfalls Dems generally dive into.

  1. Don’t frame this as women against men. Nothing the right-wingers would like better than to split us along gender lines. If it’s the pro-choice camp (most men and women, most moderates and liberals) against them, they are far outnumbered. (A Pew poll last week found 58% of men and 63% of women think abortion should be legal in “all or most cases.”) It’s really the men and women who are pro-reproductive rights against the men and women who are against reproductive rights. The problem is that right-wingers get a lot of help from progressives on this point – progressives whom I already see on social media framing it as men v. women, drawing a battle line that gives far too much to the other side.
  2. Don’t let this get twisted into the far less popular views associated with progressives these days – a fear of using the word “women” because it may somehow be offensive to some trans activists (activists who are fighting a noble fight, but as with broader justice movements in race and gender, have to deal with factions within that are counterproductive if not downright destructive). Don’t let it be broadened into the amorphous idea that Americans are generally a bunch of racist, sexist, xenophobic, homophobic idiots. Yes, some Americans are like that, and yes, that is a branding of liberals and Dems largely initiated by their opponents, but please don’t help them to do it. “You’re a bunch of racist, sexist idiots who should vote for me” is not a winning electoral slogan. Don’t forget that there are a lot of Americans out there who are fighting the good fight in their small ways, if not on the front lines.

Now I understand that I may get some pushback on #1 and #2 from my younger progressive friends – fair enough, we can haggle out how to hone the ideology and prioritize strategies as we go forward. But if there is pushback, remember that I’m actually on your side. Multiple and diverse points of view is good, not bad, in the same way that genetic diversity moves the species forward. Mainly, though, just be careful how you frame your case. It could be the difference between having 2/3 of the country at your back or having things go as they did in 2016.

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The most forgotten phrase in US politics

“Love thy neighbor as thyself” (Matthew 22:39)

There was a time when both my Christian and non-Christian friends appreciated the value in this principle. But (trigger warning: equivalence coming) now if you are on the left, you can be kicked out of the club for being insufficiently hateful toward Trump and the right. (I myself have been exiled from the club for this very reason.) Not to be outdone, those on the right are kicked out for being insufficiently hateful toward liberals.* I don’t find the platforms of the two sides equivalent, as I definitely favor one of them in terms of policy. But sufficient hate is now the measure of allegiance on both sides. I am fed up. Remarkably, through these semi-private blogs, I find that LOTS of other people are fed up with “split-screen America,” fed up with all the hate-shaming (i.e., guilt-tripping people for not being hateful enough toward the other side), fed up with the zero-sum partisan death spiral. These people have no voice in the media or halls of government, but they are there in large numbers. So let’s go. It’s time to break the back of the whole left-right spectrum. Throw it away and start over. Where to start? Matthew 22:39 — if you truly, mindfully practice it as a daily habit — is as good a place as any.

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*Apologies to my neo-Marxist friends in the David Harvey line, but I use “left” and “right” as they are commonly used in the US, as quasi-synonymous (in most cases) with “liberal” and “conservative,” albeit with a stronger ideological accent. E.g., calling Reagan neoliberal may make sense in Europe or in the parlance of a particular political theory, but ask anyone on the US streets and they would say, “Reagan was the conservative and his Democratic opponents — Carter and Mondale — were the liberals. Reagan was supported mainly by those on the right half of the spectrum, and Carter and was supported mainly by those on the left half.” I am not discrediting Harvey and friends — the theory is internally consistent and probably makes good sense in the UK and in the larger sweep of history — but it is an awkward metric for common usage of the terms in the US. (“Libertarian,” as distinct from “liberal” and “conservative,” might better fit everyday US usage — at least in some contexts — to describe what Harvey and others call neoliberal.)

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The real problem in the body politic

(Trigger warning: equivalence alert!)

No, I don’t think the Democratic and Republican platforms are equivalent. Ideologically, I’m with the Dems maybe 50% of the time and the Repubs maybe 10%. No equivalence there. But the partisan tone has become equivalent on both sides. If a Dem or Repub leader says anything at all, the other side must consider it a priori wrong (and indeed evil) or risk being kicked out of the club. Perhaps social media is the worst for trapping people into such silos, but with many friends posting political comments daily, I can’t remember the last time any of them on either side deviated from the preset party line when an oppostion leader spoke.

So yes, I favor the Dem platform (or at least find it less bad), but there are three beasts in the cage, and the Republicans are not the most destructive of the three. There are the two major parties, and then there is the “us vs. them” paradigm of politics and social relations, shared equally by denizens of both parties. With my old hippie vision of moving toward a more ideal union, where people still disagree but with the understanding that we are all on spaceship Earth together, it is the paradigm itself that is the most destructive beast of the three. As long as we are locked into the zero-sum, “us vs. them” paradigm, we can move laterally to fix this or that local issue, but there can be no forward movement. We can get short-term ideological gains from our party – e.g., as I favor the Dem platform, I can hope the Dems seize the reins from Trump for at least the short-term benefits I think they would bring. But I cannot hope that Dems any more than Repubs will fix the long-term, and possible fatal, disease in the body politic. Neither party has the slightest motivation to correct the “us vs. them” model that is killing us.

Our only long-term hope is for someone to emerge outside the current political spectrum, an MLK-type voice. Politics per se is dead, killed by the two parties and the army of idiot activists on both sides. I don’t mean the government won’t continue its administrative function, but I mean something more along the lines of Nietzsche’s “God is dead” proclamation. Nietzsche knew that religious structures were not about to disappear, but he also could see that God was no longer a credible anchor of human belief structures. In the same way, for those who would step back from the everyday administration of government and re-envision a better society, politics is no longer a credible tool.  Best to throw it away.

The good news is that underneath the veneer of us vs. them activism, I find that many people are quietly hungry for a unifying voice. I thought Obama was potentially such voice, but his failure to unify the country was pre-ordained by the fact that he emerged within one of the two major parties. Half the country will never listen to any unifying voice that emerges from the opposition party. Thus, my statement that the voice must come from outside the current political structure is a kind of logical tautology. Logic permits no other way. Of course, such a voice, on such terms, may never come, and we may disintegrate slowly or quickly, depending on which of the two parties is in power. But those people I meet hungering for some voice to restore a sense of shared humanness, those people still give me hope. We just need to take all this activist energy invested in one side or the other of the us vs. them paradigm and turn it against the paradigm itself. I would especially ask my friends on the left who consider themselves radical: How radical can you be if you are still hauling around the old albatross of the “left vs right” paradigm? If you want to be radical, break the paradigm.

Can we really get a critical mass of people to shed the dead snakeskin of politics as we know it and start over with a blank slate, a social vision stripped of politics with nowhere to turn but to heart and imagination? Probably not, but it’s worth a try.

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How to lose elections to a lunatic*

Election 1: Tell majorities across the country (between New York and California) that they are a bunch of racist misogynists who are overloaded with unearned privileges and who stupidly vote against their own interest. Repeat daily. Then run your candidate against the lunatic and see who wins.

Election 2: Consider loss of Election 1 as proof positive that everyone between New York and California is a racist misogynist overloaded with unearned privileges who stupidly votes against their own interest. With your confirmation bias now reaffirmed, repeat same messaging from Election 1, only louder. Then run your candidate against the lunatic and see who wins.

* I hope that this small instruction manual will be of special value to my friends abroad, who have expressed some consternation about how Trump could win and possibly win again.

Related: Buckling and Curling in the U.S. Political Spectrum

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