The Stakes II

A couple of days ago, I considered the stakes of this year’s election choices, and speculated about whether and to what extent the abortion issue will drive both turnout and results. What I failed to explain ( thanks to the word limit I have self-imposed for these daily rants) is why the debate about reproductive choice is in reality about far more than a woman’s right to control her own reproduction, important as that is.

The deeply dishonest Dobbs decision struck at a fundamental premise of America’s Constitution, as we have come to rely upon it– the belief in limited government.

When politicians talk about “limited government,” they generally focus on the size of government, but the U.S. Constitution defines those limits in terms of authority, not size. What is to be limited is the power of government to prescribe certain decisions that should be left to the individual. In the original Bill of Rights, the federal government was forbidden to censor speech, prescribe religious or political beliefs, and take other actions that were invasions of fundamental rights–rights for which early Americans demanded recognition.

Over the years, those limitations on federal government power were imposed on state and local government units, and evolving cultural and social norms prompted a fuller understanding of what sorts of decisions individuals are entitled to make without government interference. I frequently cite what has been called the Libertarian Principle, because that principle undergirds America’s particular approach to government. The principle is simple: Individuals should be free to pursue their own ends–their own life goals–so long as they do not thereby harm the person or property of someone else, and so long as they are willing to accord an equal liberty to their fellow citizens.

The gender of your chosen mate, your adherence to a non-Christian religion (or your utter rejection of the notion of divinity), your choice to reproduce or not, and a number of other life choices are simply none of government’s business. (As Jefferson is often quoted, such decisions “neither break my leg nor pick my pocket.”)

The Libertarian Principle was central to the original Bill of Rights, and its application has  extended as “facts on the ground”–scientific and cultural–have changed. Ever since 1965, when the Supreme Court handed down its decision in Griswold v. Connecticut– informing the Connecticut legislature that a couple’s decision to use contraceptives was none of government’s business–the belief that there are areas of our lives where government simply doesn’t belong has been absolutely central to Americans’ understanding of liberty.

When I was much younger, the importance of limiting government to areas where collective action was appropriate and/or necessary—keeping the state out of the decisions that individuals and families have the right to make for themselves– was a Republican article of faith. It was basic conservative doctrine. Ironically, the MAGA folks who inaccurately call themselves conservative today insist that government has the right—indeed, the duty– to invade that zone of privacy in order to impose rules reflecting their own particular beliefs and prejudices.

It’s critically important to understand that what is really at stake in what we shorthand as the “abortion issue” is that fundamental Constitutional premise. Forcing women to give birth, denying medical care to defenseless trans children or forbidding school children to read certain books are not “stand-alone” positions. They are part and parcel of an entire worldview that is autocratic and profoundly anti-American.

I used to point out that a government with the power to prohibit abortion is a government with the power to require abortion. (As an ACLU friend used to say, poison gas is a great weapon until the wind shifts.)

The issue at the heart of the Bill of Rights–as I interminably repeated to my students–isn’t what decision is made. The issue is who gets to make it. In the government system devised by our Founders, certain decisions are simply off-limits to government. I may disagree with your religious beliefs or political opinions; I may disapprove of your choice of marriage partner or your selection of reading material–but I cannot use the government to countermand your choices and require behaviors more to my liking.

It is that fundamental premise that is at stake in this year’s elections, which will pit the MAGA theocrats and autocrats against those of us who want to preserve America’s hard-won civil liberties and individual rights.

The abortion issue is about so much more than abortion, and I have to believe that, at least at some level, most Americans realize that.


A No-Win Choice

The Washington Post recently ran a story about the 91-year old Republican woman who is a plaintiff in the Colorado case that removed Donald Trump from that state’s ballot.

In one way, the piece was just one more reminder of how very far today’s GOP is from the political party it used to be. The woman being profiled, Norma Anderson, was described as a trailblazing former GOP legislator, and she joins people like Liz Cheney and other “Never Trumpers” in reminding us that what is on display these days is a very far cry from both conservatism and what the Grand Old Party used to be.

But that article is only one commentary on a critically-important and unprecedented issue: should Trump be barred from the ballot under the very clear language of Section 3 of the 14th Amendment?

That Section reads as follows:

No person shall be a Senator or Representative in Congress, or elector of President and Vice-President, or hold any office, civil or military, under the United States, or under any State, who, having previously taken an oath, as a member of Congress, or as an officer of the United States, or as a member of any State legislature, or as an executive or judicial officer of any State, to support the Constitution of the United States, shall have engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the same, or given aid or comfort to the enemies thereof. But Congress may by a vote of two-thirds of each House, remove such disability.

The Guardian was among several media outlets that have reported on an amicus brief filed with the Supreme Court by some of this nation’s most eminent historians. Twenty-five historians of the civil war and Reconstruction argued in support of the Colorado decision to remove Trump from the ballot.

“For historians,” the group wrote, “contemporary evidence from the decision-makers who sponsored, backed, and voted for the 14th amendment [ratified in 1868] is most probative. Analysis of this evidence demonstrates that decision-makers crafted section three to cover the president and to create an enduring check on insurrection, requiring no additional action from Congress.”

Sean Wilentz of Princeton is a well-regarded historian who did not participate in the Supreme Court brief, but he too has dismissed arguments for allowing Trump to remain on the ballot.

“By their reasoning,” Wilentz writes, “Trump’s misdeeds aside, enforcement of the 14th amendment poses a greater threat to our wounded democracy than Trump’s candidacy. In the name of defending democracy, they would speciously enable the man who did the wounding and now promises to do much more.”…

 “Whether motivated by … fear of Trump’s base, a perverted sense of democratic evenhandedness, a reflexive hostility toward liberals, or something else, [commentators who say Trump should stay on the ballot] betray a basic ignorance of the relevant history and thus a misconception of what the 14th amendment actually meant and means. That history, meanwhile, has placed the conservative members of the Supreme Court in a very tight spot.”

No kidding. And they’re ducking and weaving…

“Textualists” and “original intent” devotees on the Court are faced with unambiguous language buttressed by reams of contemporaneous evidence submitted by the historians. The hearing Thursday telegraphed the Court’s reluctance to give the Fourteenth Amendment language its obviously intended effect. The decision is likely to be another nail in the coffin of this Court’s eroding legitimacy.

It’s true that a decision following the clear Constitutional language would run the risk of unleashing a violent reaction from the populists and neo-Nazis who support Trump.  Recognition of that probability has led some pundits to argue that the Court should punt–that it should “save democracy” by leaving Trump’s fate to the tender mercies of the voting public.

I understand that desire, which the Court clearly shares.

I truly believe that the likely match-up between Biden and Trump will result in a massive repudiation of Trump and his cult–that Trump’s intensifying and increasingly obvious mental decline, on top of his ignorance, narcissism and generally repulsive persona will lead to a massive rejection of the GOP at the polls. (Discount the polling averages that seem to show Trump even with or defeating Biden; as several scholars have noted, those averages include a large number of low-quality, partisan polls with which GOP propagandists have “flooded the zone.”)

It would be far more satisfying to defeat Trump at the polls, but America is facing a crucial test of our commitment to the rule of law. Are we, as John Adams famously proclaimed, a “nation of laws, not men”? Or are we a nation of scofflaws, ready to abandon rules when we find them inconvenient or unpopular?

The Court appears ready to place us among the scofflaws.


The Stakes

Bret Stephens is a regular opinion writer for the New York Times. He is a self-described conservative who shares a Monday column with liberal Gail Collins. Stephens is a “never Trumper”–and very clear-eyed about the threat posed not just by Trump, but by the current GOP, and he has a wicked way with words. A few days ago, when Collins asked him what the remaining sane Republicans would do about the immigration bill, his response was dead-on perfect:

So-called sane House Republicans are basically passengers in a car being driven at high speed by a drunk. There’s no getting out of the car. And they don’t dare tell the driver to slow down because who knows what he’ll do then.

As Hoosiers are being inundated with advertisements from the candidates vying for the GOP nomination for Governor, the accuracy of Stephens’ description is evident. 

On the one hand, we have the MAGAs. Mike Braun is promising to fix problems that are matters of federal jurisdiction (why not stay in the Senate, Mike, if those are your issues?) and repeatedly reminding voters that he is Trump’s choice. Creepy Eric Doden is quoting the bible,  promising to “protect life” and “always back the Blue.” And we have Brad Chambers– the least scary of the lot (which isn’t saying much)–trying to avoid climbing into the drunk driver’s speeding car by focusing on job creation and his “outsider” claims.

I’ve missed ads from Lt. Governor Susanne Crouch and disgraced former Attorney General Curtis Hill–I assume we’ve been (mercifully) spared those due to the lack of zillionaire status that allows the others to spend lots of their own and their families’ money.

All of them support Indiana’s abortion ban. And that raises a question: how much weight will Hoosier voters place on the abortion issue when it is one issue among others on the candidates’ agendas?

Every state that has voted on the issue of reproductive rights in a stand-alone vote has upheld those rights, even deep-red states. Pundits argue, however, that voters will be less likely to vote against candidates whose anti-choice positions are only one position among many. When  the issue is separated from a campaign for public office, presumably, it is simpler for voters to understand what’s at stake and to register an “up or down” preference.

That belief may have been what  has convinced pro-Trump groups to formulate an “Anti-Abortion Plan for Day One.”

In emerging plans that involve everything from the EPA to the Federal Trade Commission to the Postal Service, nearly 100 anti-abortion and conservative groups are mapping out ways the next president can use the sprawling federal bureaucracy to curb abortion access.
Many of the policies they advocate are ones Trump implemented in his first term and President Joe Biden rescinded — rules that would have a far greater impact in a post-Roe landscape. Other items on the wish list are new, ranging from efforts to undo state and federal programs promoting access to abortion to a de facto national ban. But all have one thing in common: They don’t require congressional approval.

“The conversations we’re having with the presidential candidates and their campaigns have been very clear: We expect them to act swiftly,” Kristan Hawkins, the president of Students for Life, told POLITICO. “Due to not having 60 votes in the Senate and not having a firm pro-life majority in the House, I think administrative action is where we’re going to see the most action after 2024 if President Trump or another pro-life president is elected.”

The Heritage Foundation’s 2025 Presidential Transition Project — a coalition that includes Students for Life, Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America and other anti-abortion organizations — is drafting executive orders to roll back Biden-era policies that have expanded abortion access, such as making abortions available in some circumstances at VA hospitals. They are also collecting resumes from conservative activists interested in becoming political appointees or career civil servants and training them to use overlooked levers of agency power to curb abortion access.

The linked article details the plans, and makes it very clear that the the right of a woman to choose to terminate a pregnancy will be at the very center of the 2024 federal election.  It will also be at the center of Indiana’s election for U.S. Senate–a contest that will likely pit “anti-woke” culture warrior Jim Banks, who supports a national ban with zero  exemptions, against Marc Carmichael, who wants to codify Roe v. Wade.

In November’s election, we’ll see whether voters understand that they are choosing between “forced birth” candidates and those who will protect women’s health and equality.

I’m pretty sure they will.


Where It All Began

A friend recently recommended Robert P. Jones’ most recent book, “The Hidden Roots of White Supremacy: and the Path to a Shared American Future,” and as I’ve gotten through it, I’ve become aware of just how misleading my history classes were and why White Christian Nationalists are so determined to eliminate accurate history (which they inaccurately call CRT) from the nation’s classrooms.

Jones is an ordained pastor and the director of the Public Religion Research Institute. (He also wrote “The End of White Christian America,” exploring the political and social responses by White Christians to their dwindling majority.) In this book, he has probed the Christian roots of White supremacy, which–he persuasively argues–goes back much further than American slavery and is responsible for the horrific treatment of both Native Americans and Blacks.

Jones locates the institutional source of White supremacy in a document I’d never previously heard of: The Doctrine of Discovery, issued as a Papal Bull in 1493–the year after Columbus’ “discovery” of America.

As one academic source describes it:

The Bull stated that any land not inhabited by Christians was available to be “discovered,” claimed, and exploited by Christian rulers and declared that “the Catholic faith and the Christian religion be exalted and be everywhere increased and spread, that the health of souls be cared for and that barbarous nations be overthrown and brought to the faith itself.” This “Doctrine of Discovery” became the basis of all European claims in the Americas as well as the foundation for the United States’ western expansion. In the US Supreme Court in the 1823 case Johnson v. McIntosh, Chief Justice John Marshall’s opinion in the unanimous decision held “that the principle of discovery gave European nations an absolute right to New World lands.” In essence, American Indians had only a right of occupancy, which could be abolished.

That document, which essentially gave European Christians carte blanche to invade and dispossess any non-Christian populations that might be inconveniently in possession of desirable territory, reflected a belief in European (White) Christian supremacy that is still potent.

Jones provides example after example of the U.S. government cheating Native Americans, breaching treaties, and decimating tribes. I thought back to my history classes. Not once in high school or college did that instruction include a description of the ways in which early Americans mistreated Native Americans. Not once was there even a mention of the Trail of Tears, arguably the most famous of these reprehensible events. I only learned about the Trail of Tears as an adult visiting a Cherokee museum.

The book moves between the mistreatment of Native Americans and the history of slavery and Jim Crow–and the way we are still grappling with the remnants and persistence of both– and he provides important background and context for the murder of Emmet Till, the Tulsa massacre and other shameful episodes in our national life. In places, it has been very hard to read; I’ve had to take breaks from time to time as I considered, among other things, what sort of people would actually torture and kill a young teenager over the perceived “assault” of a wolf whistle, and what sorts of government officials intentionally refuse to honor treaties and routinely betray solemn promises.

Thanks to this book, I have a deeper appreciation for the phrase “Black Lives Matter,” because for a considerable part of our nation’s history, in many parts of the country, those lives didn’t matter to significant percentages of the White majority. (And let’s be honest; those lives still don’t matter to more Americans than I care to think about…)

It is coincidental that I am reading about this history during Black History month, but that coincidence emphasizes–at least, to me– the importance of teaching accurate, inclusive history. It has also given me a fuller understanding of the resistance; those who continue to harbor racial animus and view inclusion as a threat are frantic at the prospect of students abandoning a whitewashed (pun intended) version of the American nation as the “City on the Hill,” a virtuous product of White Christianity.

If the Germans can confront the Holocaust, Americans can confront our genocidal treatment of Native Americans and our vicious suppression of Black Americans. In fact, as Jones argues, we absolutely must. The only way to ensure that the past is truly past is to encounter and admit to it, warts and all.

Acknowledging the past and moving to remediate it is, in the end, our only “Path to a Shared American Future.”


What The Good Guys Are Doing

Sometimes I feel like a motorist driving past a spectacular wreck. It’s hard not to rubberneck. And these days, government sure looks like that wreck–here in Indiana, where a gerrymandered legislature focuses on everything but the common good, and in Congress, where the wheels have come off the legislative vehicle, and the entire enterprise looks more like one of those old Keystone Kop movies than a genuine effort to govern.

It really is important to remind ourselves that–while we are craning our necks to look at the destruction–other cars are moving properly down the highway. While the local and national members of government’s lunatic caucuses are attacking democratic institutions and neglecting pressing problems, a wide variety of “good guys” are devoting their time and resources to solving those problems.

Recent headlines have reported the extension of broadband Internet access to millions of people, the eradication or control of several diseases around the globe, multiple acts of charity and philanthropy, and scientific progress on a variety of threats to the environment. You can probably point to many more nuggets of good news.

What triggered this post was a story I came across detailing the work being done by Matt Damon, the movie star, to address the threats posed by lack of access to potable water.

Evidently, when Matt was young, he took multiple trips around the world with his mother, and witnessed what life was like for communities living with the global water crisis. Then, while filming a movie in Sub-Saharan Africa, he spent time with families in a Zambian village who lacked access to water and toilets. Those experiences “inspired a commitment to helping solve the global water crisis. In 2006 he founded H20 Africa Foundation to raise awareness about safe water initiatives on the continent.”

While his foundation brought water to families in need in Africa, the A-list actor realized he needed more expertise to solve the world’s water and sanitation crisis. Fortunately for him, a partner who could help Matt do more, faster, was a meeting away.

In 2008, during an annual Clinton Global Initiative meeting in New York, Matt met Gary White, an engineer from Kansas City who had gained an international reputation as a water and sanitation expert. Realizing the global impact they could have together, Matt and Gary’s organizations came together to create in 2009.

In their book, The Worth of Water, Gary and Matt invite us to become a part of this effort—to match hope with resources, to empower families and communities, and to end the global water crisis for good.

My visit to prompted a google search for other efforts focused on water–especially efforts to clean Earth’s increasingly polluted oceans. There are, it turns out, several: The Ocean Cleanup is a non-profit organization developing and scaling technologies to rid the oceans of plastic. (The organization uses what it calls a “dual strategy”– intercepting plastic in rivers to cut the inflow of pollution, and cleaning up what has already accumulated in the ocean and won’t go away by itself.) The Ocean Conservancy is studying the effects of climate change on the oceans of the world, and working to ensure that the oceans get the government funding and attention they require. The Ocean Rescue Alliance is conserving reefs through restoration, research, eco-Tourism, & education.

There are several others, and that’s just efforts directed toward the planet’s oceans. Scientists are working on a wide variety of technologies intended to ameliorate the worst effects of climate change; multiple non-profit organizations are addressing daunting social ills. In short, there are a lot of very good people doing very good things and ignoring the wreckage that is America’s current, overwhelming political dysfunction.

There are, of course, reasons that this blog focuses on that dysfunction rather than on what the “good guys’ are doing. The most obvious is that–as a former professor of public policy–governance and policy are my areas of interest.

That said, it is also the case that government remains the pre-eminent mechanism through which people and communities can act; a non-functioning government negates or hobbles the efforts of those good guys. The lunatic caucus in the U.S. House threatens everything from citizens’ civil liberties to world peace; the chokehold of the GOP supermajority in the Indiana Statehouse prevents urban Hoosiers from exercising local control and undermines  public schools in rural areas, among many other travesties.

I will continue to focus on the wreckage that is America’s current political environment, but every so often,  I do want to recognize that there are a lot of “good guys” out there, and that many of them are making a real difference.

If only we had a government that was helping, rather than hindering….