Abortion Politics

Analyses of the midterm elections, and the failure of the anticipated “Red wave” have uniformly attributed that result to the potency of the abortion issue.  FiveThirtyEight has reported that in the 38 special elections that followed the midterms, Democrats have over-performed the relevant partisan lean — the relative liberal or conservative history of the area– by an average of 10%. Experts attribute that over-performance to the abortion issue.

A year after Dobbs, a Gallup poll found the issue had lost none of its potency.

A year after U.S. voters attached record-high importance to abortion as an election issue, a new Gallup poll finds it retaining its potency, particularly for the pro-choice side of the debate.

Currently, 28% of registered voters say they will only vote for candidates for major offices who share their position on abortion, one percentage point higher than the previous high of 27% recorded in 2022 and 2019.

A record-low 14% now say abortion is not a major issue in their vote. While similar to last year’s 16%, it is down nine points from the prior low of 23% recorded in 2007.

Results from referenda where voters are faced with a single issue are one thing, but what about the strength of the issue when it is only one element of a candidate’s agenda? Gallup polled that question, too.

Currently, 33% of registered voters who identify as pro-choice versus 23% of pro-life voters say they will only vote for a candidate who agrees with them on abortion. This advantage for the pro-choice side is new since last year.

What accounts for the continued salience of this issue?

For one thing, it’s easy to understand. Republicans and Democrats can argue about the causes and/or levels of inflation, they can debate the effects of “woke-ness,” or the size of the national debt. But debate over who should decide whether a given woman gives birth is straightforward–and it potentially affects every family.

The position of a candidate for public office on the issue is also a recognizable marker for that candidate’s positions on the use or misuse of government power generally.

Back when I was a Republican, the GOP argued for the importance of limiting government interventions to those areas of our common lives that clearly required government action. That position was consistent with the libertarian premise that underlies America’s Bill of Rights: the principle that individuals should be free to make their own life choices, unless and until those choices harm others, and so long as they are willing to accord an equal right to others.

Today’s GOP has utterly abandoned that commitment to individual liberty–it has morphed into a party intent upon using the power of government to impose its views on everyone else. (Actually, if the current ideological battle weren’t so serious, the hypocrisies and inconsistencies would be funny. As a current Facebook meme puts it, today’s Republicans believe a ten-year-old is old enough to give birth, but not old enough to choose a library book.)

As Morton and I wrote in our recent book, the assault on reproductive choice–the belief that government has the right to force women to give birth–is only one element of an overall illiberal, statist and dangerous philosophy. The fundamental right of persons to determine for themselves the course of their own lives and the well-being of their families is the central issue of our time–and it isn’t an issue that affects only women. (According to several reports, even the audience at Republicans’ recent debate failed to show enthusiasm when candidates all supported a federal ban on abortions.)

In the wake of Dobbs, Erwin Chemerinsky wrote:

The central question in the abortion debate is who should decide. Roe v. Wade held that it is for each woman to decide for herself whether to terminate a pregnancy. Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization says it is for the legislatures and the political process. The only thing that is certain is that the implications—for women’s lives and for our society—will be enormous and for a long time to come.

We’ve noticed.

Voters may be unaware of the more technical–and worrisome–medical and legal implications of the Dobbs decision, but they clearly understand the difference between candidates who are willing to use the authority of government to impose their own beliefs on those who differ and those who are not. That clarity is the reason the abortion issue has been so powerful a motivator.

Analyses conducted after the midterms and subsequent special elections determined that abortion had been a major driver of turnout in what had historically been low-turnout contests. Whether those increases in turnout will hold in a Presidential election is the question.

The answer will constrain or enhance government power over individuals in areas well beyond reproductive choice.


What About Whataboutism?

There are two kinds of “whataboutism.”

We’re all familiar with the first, which became fashionable thanks to TFG and is now a repeated response by those defending him. Did he try to overturn the election? Endanger American security by stealing classified and highly sensitive documents? Brag about grabbing women by the you-know-what?

Well, what about Hilary’s emails?

That particular expression of what has come to be called “whataboutism” is considerably less effective as the evidence of Trump’s activities has mounted; rational folks (granted, a smaller part of the population than I used to think) understand the difference between traitorous behavior and inadequate attention to the rules governing electronic devices.

Another form of whataboutism seems to be growing, however, and it is far more destructive of the civic landscape. It is manifested by otherwise reasonable people–many of whom hold progressive political values, but for one reason or another, have given in to cynicism and embraced a “plague on all their houses” viewpoint.

Has Republican A expressed a particularly racist or misogynist worldview? Critics of Republican A are met with “well, what about Democrat C, who once made a Polish joke?”

Is a Republican officeholder accused of criminal behavior? Well, there are undoubtedly Democrats who are just as crooked. Or just as greedy. Often, expression of those sentiments is followed by a pledge to abstain from voting, or an equally counterproductive plan to vote for a doomed third-party candidate.

Here’s the thing: the cynics aren’t wrong when they point out that no party has a monopoly on virtue. Are there dishonest, greedy Democrats? Sure. Does the Democratic Party include officeholders who shade the truth, act in less than honorable ways, harbor prejudices, and (horrors!)fail to prioritize your pet issue? Undoubtedly.

Excuse me, but– except in very rare, very outrageous cases–it shouldn’t affect your vote or your other  political support.

Talk about a double standard: non-insane Republicans who recognize the lunacy of the contemporary MAGA base repeatedly excuse the pandering and lying of the party’s candidates by telling themselves that candidates “have to” feed the prejudices and support the conspiracy theories of the GOP base in order to win elections. They assure themselves that those candidates really do know better, and they obediently march to the polls and cast ballots for anyone sporting an “R” next to the name.

On the other hand, Democrats all too often consider themselves too pure to do likewise.

Those who embrace a “pox on all your houses” view ostentatiously wash their hands of the political process, nursing their offended virtue. The offending candidate doesn’t even need to be dishonest or bigoted–in many cases, the mere fact that he or she once took a position with which the critic disagreed is enough to justify a self-righteous withdrawal of support.

This display of ideological purity isn’t simply immature. Given the agendas of today’s political parties, it’s suicidal.

Today’s Republican Party embraces an agenda that represents a U-turn from the principles that once characterized it. It is now the party of Donald Trump, Ron DeSantis,  Marjorie Taylor Green, Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz. (When even a thoroughly corrupt Mitch McConnell begins to look statesmanlike by comparison, the GOP rot is all too evident.)

The current Democratic Party is all that stands in the way of control by a cult that wants nothing more than a return to the “good old times”– separate drinking fountains for Whites and Blacks,  LGBTQ citizens consigned to the closet, and women dying  from back-alley abortions.

Some wise person coined the a phrase that’s appropriate to the choice Americans face in upcoming elections: Never let the perfect become the enemy of the good.

We got Donald Trump because a lot of Americans didn’t like Hillary Clinton. They didn’t agree with positions Bill had taken, or they found her personality unpalatable, or they just couldn’t bring themselves to vote for a woman…So they stayed away or voted for Jill Stein in states where those decisions made a difference.

And America got Donald Trump and an alternate reality that continues to appeal to a  number of  Americans whose lives aren’t going the way they wanted and who desperately need someone or something to blame for their problems.

Joe Biden has been an impressive and consequential President. It is a travesty that more Americans don’t recognize the significant achievements of his administration. It hasn’t been perfect, but it has been considerably better than good.

I’m confident that more Americans will vote for Biden than for whatever mean-spirited candidate emerges from the chaos of today’s GOP, but–given the Electoral College–Biden could be defeated by the “whatabouters” who consider themselves too pure to cast a ballot for an old guy who’s less than perfect.


Who Should Vote?

I have an old, ratty t-shirt that says “Corporations are not people.” It dates back to the (in)famous exchange between a heckler and Mitt Romney, in which Romney–then the Republican candidate for President–proclaimed that “Corporations are people, my friend.” Needless to say, that declaration didn’t win him many votes. After all, corporations don’t vote.

At least, not in most places. Yet.

A reader of this blog recently sent me a CBS News article about a Delaware town planning to extend the franchise to “corporate citizens.”

Seaford, a town of about 8,000 on the Nanticoke River, amended its charter in April to allow businesses — including LLCs, corporations, trusts or partnerships — the right to vote in local elections. The law would go into effect once both houses of Delaware’s state legislature approve it.

The proposal has rekindled a debate over how much power corporations should have in local government, with fierce opposition from civic interest groups who say businesses already wield too much influence over politics.

“It was very shocking to see this attempt to have artificial entities have voting rights,” said Claire Snyder-Hall, executive director of Common Cause Delaware, a watchdog group.

Delaware is probably the most “corporate-friendly” state in the U.S., with business laws so favorable to the corporate form that the state boasts more than 1.8 million entities registered there. According to the linked article, companies outnumber human residents by nearly two-to-one.

This effort would seem to be the flip side of the widespread efforts to suppress the votes of human citizens. Whatever the merits  of the proposal (admittedly, I’m at a loss to identify those), allowing artificial persons to cast ballots would dilute the votes of actual people. I assume that’s the goal–giving the ballot to corporations would certainly tilt the playing field further in the direction of the communities’ business interests.

In all fairness, when human voters fail to show up at the polls, they bear considerable responsibility for their subsequent loss of voice. What’s that phrase? Use it or lose it…

Legislators have cast the change as a fix for low turnout in municipal elections and a way to attract business owners to the community.

“These are folks that have fully invested in their community with their money, with their time, with their sweat. We want them to have a voice if they choose to take it,” Seaford mayor David Genshaw told local station WRDE. Genshaw cast the deciding vote in a split City Council decision on the charter amendment in April, according to The Lever.

According to Delaware Online, there are 234 entities, including LLCs, trusts and corporations, headquartered in Seaford — a significant number for a town where an April election only garnered 340 votes.

It appears that other Delaware towns already allow corporations to vote, with results that might have been predicted:

In 2019, it was revealed that a single property manager who controlled multiple LLCs voted 31 times in a Newark, Delaware, town referendum, an incident that led Newark to amend its rules. And residents in Rehoboth Beach in 2017 beat back a proposal to allow LLCs to vote.

Delaware has long been noted for being “corporation friendly,” but until I read this particular news item, I didn’t realize just how friendly. The state allows owners of LLCs to stay anonymous. It relieves businesses of the “burden” of paying corporate income taxes. And as every business lawyer knows, the vast majority of corporations headquartered in Delaware– including two-thirds of Fortune 500 companies– don’t have a physical presence there.

American laws do consider corporations “people” for certain very specific purposes–doing business in the corporate form encourages economic activity that benefits us all. If you start a business and it goes broke, your personal assets can be protected from the business’ creditors. Without that protection, many fewer businesses would be formed. And–giving Romney credit for what he evidently meant in that infamous exchange–corporations are indeed formed, managed and owned by real people.

But in a society where the economic gap between the haves and the have-nots is uncomfortably large and continuing to grow–a country where legal structures already favor those with money and status– giving the already-privileged an extra tool to cement and augment their already significant advantages doesn’t seem like a particularly good idea.

The preamble to the Constitution of the United States begins with “We the People.” I’m pretty sure the Founders didn’t intend that “people” reference to include corporations.


Rights And Obligations

 A few months ago,  Bret Stephens wrote an essay in New York Times that included the following paragraph about what he–accurately– called the  “classically liberal core of intelligent conservatism,” defined as:

 The idea that immigrants are an asset, not a liability; that the freedoms of speech and conscience must extend to those whose ideas we loathe; that American power ought to be harnessed to protect the world’s democracies from aggressive dictators; that we are richer at home by freely trading goods abroad; that nothing is more sacred than democracy and the rule of law; that patriotism is about preserving the capacity to criticize a country we love while loving the country we criticize.

Well, how extremely “woke” of the Times’ conservative columnist…

I continue to be amazed–gobsmacked, really–by the complete 180-degree turn of a Republican Party that used to be serious about such old-fashioned ideas, along with “duty” and “responsibility.” 

In January, Richard Haass published The Bill of Obligations: The Ten Habits of Good Citizens. While it once might have been seen as an exercise in “preaching to the choir,” these days, a depressing number of Americans are no longer members of that choir.

As the linked review begins,

It’s an idea as old as Rousseau: With rights come responsibilities toward the social contract. To this, Haass adds the admonition that “American democracy will work and reform will prove possible only if obligations join rights at center stage.” Those rights are constitutionally enumerated even if “the struggle over rights…continues to this day.” The obligations are less well enshrined, though the 10 Haass offers are unobjectionable. The first, echoing the right of freedom of speech and thought, asks that citizens be informed about how the government works and be prepared to participate in civic duties. On that second point, the fundamental obligation is to vote (and to insist on it when that right is impeded). “Voting is the most basic act of citizenship,” writes the author. “It creates a bond between the individual and government and between the individual and country.” Given a largely uninformed citizenry, that bond would seem tenuous, and it’s also conditioned by a lack of civility, which asks of each citizen a reasoned willingness to set aside ideology in order to deal with matters of shared concern or interest “on their merits, not on motives you may ascribe to those making the arguments.” Civility bespeaks a willingness to accept another obligation, which is to reject and repudiate violence of the kind we saw on Jan. 6, 2021. Civility also feeds into the obligation to respect norms and the lessons of civics, such as the idea that the common good often overrules one’s selfish demands—e.g., being allowed to smoke in a crowded restaurant or walk around unvaccinated and unmasked in a pandemic. Sadly, of course, those who most need to read this agreeably thoughtful book likely won’t, but that’s the way of the world.

I am hardly the only observer of today’s rancid and decidedly uncivil politics to endorse the importance of re-emphasizing these obligations. 

Rights–as Haass points out–imply duties. Your right to exercise freedom of speech, for example, imposes a duty on me (and especially on government) not to engage in behavior making that speech impossible. I don’t have to listen or agree; I am free to respond critically–but neither individual citizens nor government is free to censor you. (A/K/A “pulling a DeSantis.” ) When an individual citizen does so, it is unbecoming and, I’d argue, unAmerican; when government does so, it’s unconstitutional.

Haass does not limit the obligations of citizenship to the duties implied by our constitutional rights. He quite properly includes duties/obligations of  democratic participation–especially informed voting. 

The approaching national elections are very likely to be a turning point for this country. What is at stake is nothing less than our national commitment to America’s longtime–albeit still unrealized– aspirations to democratic self-rule, liberty and equality.

In 2024, the electorate will be faced with a deceptively simple question: will we continue to work toward realizing those aspirations? Or will we make a philosophical U-turn into White Christian Nationalism? 

It really is as simple–and profound–as that.

I have absolute faith in the good will of most Americans. I remain convinced that–no matter how loud they are– the racists, anti-Semites and misogynists are a minority. What I worry about is the willingness of the majority of Americans to take their civic obligations seriously–to inform themselves, to ignore the incessant messaging that tells them their votes won’t count, and to turn out at the polls.

Good people need to vote like America depends on their ballots, because the version we and they want to inhabit really, truly does.


Identity Politics

Typically, diatribes against so-called identity politics are aimed at “woke” folks advocating for the civic equality of marginalized groups, presumably to the detriment of  the common good. I want to argue for a different–and infinitely more troubling–definition, one that helps explain America’s current divisions.

Several recent events and observations have prompted this reflection. A few days ago, I attended a meeting of a group of Hoosiers concerned about Indiana’s lopsided support of Republican candidates, even when those candidates were obviously and dramatically flawed. What several of us implicitly recognized was the changed nature of political choice.

These days, Hoosiers and other American voters are not engaged in debates over policy. The policy preferences and beliefs that used to determine whether people identified with Republicans or Democrats–free trade, welfare policy, foreign policy–no longer drive that choice, and a frighteningly large number of Americans haven’t the faintest idea what positions the parties or candidates embrace–or even know enough about the issues to form a coherent opinion.

Worse still, most don’t care.

I previously noted that the very welcome result in Georgia’s Senate run-off was an uncomfortably close one–that 1,700,000+ voters cast ballots for a manifestly unqualified and arguably mentally-ill candidate.

A couple of days ago, in his daily Newsletter, Robert Hubbell noted the durability of GOP base support for Trump, despite behaviors most Americans would once have seen as immediately disqualifying:

In the three weeks since he announced his 2024 presidential bid, Trump has met with antisemites, Nazi supporters, white nationalists, and QANON members at Mar-a-Lago and called for the “termination of the Constitution.”That is the worst “roll-out” of a presidential campaign in history. And yet, Trump has a 40% favorability rating while President Biden has a 42%favorability rating. We dismiss Trump at our peril.

I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that America is now experiencing a tribal war. Our differences are not based upon contending positions on matters of policy or candidate quality; they are based upon the irreconcilable world-views of the “tribes” of which we consider ourselves part.

Policy differences can be compromised; irreconcilable world-views cannot.

Over the past few decades, we Americans have sorted ourselves into a Red tribe and a Blue tribe. The Republican Party has never been a “big tent” in the same way the Democratic Party was and still is, but it was far more capacious than it is today. There were liberal Republicans, and a significant number of Republicans for Choice (a group to which I once belonged). Foreign policy positions ranged from isolationist to interventionist.

Today, the GOP has purged virtually all “outliers.” The MAGA party has largely morphed into the White Christian Nationalist Party, with internal differences narrowed to degrees of racism, anti-Semitism and hatred of “the libs.” A “moderate” Republican today is one who limits his public pronouncements of such sentiments because he still recognizes how ugly they sound. (I use the male pronoun because most of these culture warriors are men, but not all; loony-tune shrews like Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert are full-fledged members of the cult.)

Everyone who doesn’t fall within the GOP’s ambit–everyone who isn’t prepared to join the cult–is either a Democratic-leaning Independent or a Democrat, with the result that what was once that party’s “big tent'” is now a huge one, stretching from never-Trump Republicans to middle-of-the-road voters to self-identified democratic socialists. (That makes achievement of consensus the equivalent of herding cats, but that’s an issue for a different post.)

People now go to the polls to vote for their tribe, their team. America has always had an unfortunate tendency to view political contests like team sports; these days, “my team” has hardened into “my tribe, my people,” and voting has become a contest between “real Americans” and “woke liberals.” The attributes of the candidates, their positions on or evasions of the issues have largely faded into irrelevancy.

So…what now?

I fervently hope that we are simply on the cusp of permanent, largely positive social change, and that it is resistance to that change that has engendered the outpouring of fury, bile and hysteria from what Steve Schmidt calls “the belligerent minority.”  I hope that the inclusive, so-called “woke”  culture these folks so detest has become too embedded to be overturned.

I actually do believe that to be the case. But in the meantime, those of us who aren’t part of the cult need to understand what is motivating the legions who vote for people like Herschel Walker and Marjorie Taylor Greene, and who continue to support Donald Trump–and we need to actively oppose them.

Whoever said “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty” wasn’t kidding.