The Dishonesty of the Abortion Debate
Story by Caitlin Flanagan
The Dishonesty of the Abortion Debate
The Dishonesty of the Abortion Debate
Story by Caitlin Flanagan
By Wade Lee Hudson
The impeachment has been both necessary and diversionary. The battle may help defeat Trump in November. And it’s exposed the growing power of the Imperial Presidency. But the impeachment battle has also obscured that trend. The centralization of power preceded Trump. He’s merely a symptom.
Both Democrats and Republicans have contributed to the centralization of power, and most Americans embrace it. Like Stanley in A Streetcar Named Desire, we would like to be able to say “I’m King here.” We worship celebrities, the rich and famous, the powerful. We believe some one person must always be in charge. We climb one social ladder or another, look down on those below, and envy or resent those above.
When we learn how to be democratic with each other, we’ll be better able to use people power to establish democracy in Washington.
Leadership is commonly defined as the ability to mobilize followers. This definition prevails throughout society — with grassroots activism, private businesses, foreign policy, and elsewhere. But President Franklin Roosevelt adopted a different perspective. He told activists, “I agree with you, I want to do it, now make me do it.”
Many activists want a revolutionary President, Bernie Sanders, though most Americans don’t support many of the policies he advocates. These revolutionaries envision President Sanders using the “bully pulpit” to change hearts and minds.
But if radicals move too quickly, without popular support, they can provoke a counter-revolutionary backlash that sets back the revolution indefinitely — as we Sixties radicals, with our arrogance, contributed to the emergence of Reaganism.
The tone of the Sanders’ campaign, set by Sanders himself, inflames anger, amplifies rage, and contributes to his supporters harassing opponents, even fellow progressives. His campaign echoes the Sixties, when he formed his unchanging political dogma.
Elected officials don’t lead lasting revolutions. The people lead. Leaders follow. The President’s role is to help the majority realize its will — if it’s compassionate and consistent with America’s highest ideals.
If Sanders wins the nomination, it will be a gift to Republicans. If Sanders wins the Presidency, it will likely be with a small margin and the backlash will be overwhelming. The grassroots foundation to counter that reaction has not been built.
Rather than focus on top-down, temporary, electoral campaigns, Sanders could help organize democratic, sustainable, grassroots organizations. He might, for example, join the Democratic Party and encourage its transformation into a precinct-based force engaged in face-to-face organizing year-round.
The revolutionary’s role is to build grassroots support for concrete reforms that prepare the soil for the never-ending process of evolutionary revolution — holistic, systemic transformation. How to move in this direction is complicated. The Systemopedia collects and constantly updates ideas and information that can contribute to this effort. You’re invited to help develop this “encyclopedia with a point of view.”
The article that had the biggest impact on me last year was “The Philosopher Redefining Equality” in The New Yorker. The subtitle reads: “Elizabeth Anderson thinks we’ve misunderstood the basis of a free and fair society.” That profile of Anderson begins: [play audio]
She ended up studying political and moral philosophy at Harvard under John Rawls and teaching at the University of Michigan, where she stayed, despite being heavily recruited by other universities.
In 1999 the esteemed journal Ethics published her path-breaking, widely reprinted article “What is the Point of Equality?” She’s also written three books, including Value in Ethics and Economics, which argues that some goods like love and respect should not be sold on the market or otherwise treated as commodities, and The Imperative of Integration, which examines how racial integration can lead to a more robust democracy. Her many podcast interviews include a great one with Vox.com founder Ezra Klein.
Last year Anderson received the no-strings-attached $625,000 MacArthur “Genius” award. Included in their announcement was this [play video].
Anderson’s primary concern is social equality — equality not just in politics and economics but also equality in social relations throughout society — how to treat each other as equals, without trying to dominate, or being willing to submit. She calls this democratic equality.
Growing interest in a federally funded public-service job guarantee — as reflected in the Job Guarantee Manifesto — challenges the assumption that avoiding poverty is primarily an individual responsibility. In fact, a personal deficiency is not the main reason workers can’t find a living-wage job.
According to conventional wisdom, the cause for poverty is lack of skill, lack of discipline, or emotional instability. The solution therefore is assumed to be more education and training, better habits, or mental health treatment — so poor people can get a job, gain experience, and find jobs that pay a non-poverty wage.
Based on these assumptions, society only provides minor, stigmatizing relief, claims its apparent lack of compassion is justifiable tough love, and denies any responsibility to prevent poverty. People say to the poor, Get your act together. Climb the ladder.
If you focus only on the individual, there can be some logic to this argument. Any one individual may be able to do more to improve their situation. But if you look at society as a whole, the flaw in the argument is clear. There aren’t enough living-wage jobs for everyone. If one individual finds a living-wage job, countless others can’t get that job. It’s a game of musical chairs.
Our primary problem is not “conservatism” or Donald Trump. Our most pressing problem is the Republican Party: an anti-government cult based on racist, populist resentment that serves the interests of would-be plutocrats. This cult scorns compromise, ignores fact, demonizes the opposition, and will accept virtually any abuse of power by the President. This dereliction of duty will open the door to untold abuses in the future unless Trump loses in November. Even then, the dogmatic, irrational Republican cult will remain intact and more effective leaders could be more dangerous.
Republicans frame this conflict as “liberalism” vs “conservatism,” and hurl “liberal” as a label to rile up their base. But this frame is false. Trying to place all political opinions on the left-right spectrum creates confusion. No one spectrum can capture the full range of political beliefs. Multiple spectrums intersect.
The conflict is actually between autocracy and democracy. If Democrats accept the left-right frame and attack Republicans for being “conservative,” they reinforce the Republican strategy. In so doing, they undermine the potential for gaining support from people who embrace a “conservatism” that includes (at least some) positive values.
Weaponizing left-right labels inflames destructive polarization. Not all polarization is destructive, but the polarization we witness today is asymmetrical—only the Republicans are cultish. Alternative frames that are more accurate could counter the Republican strategy.
The Democratic platform is labelled “left,” or “liberal,” and the Republican “right,” or “conservative.” Partisans use these labels to tarnish the opposition and motivate supporters. Aggravated by winner-take-all elections and single-member districts, “liberals” want to crush “conservatism,” and vice versa. But there’s no clear agreement on the meaning of the terms “liberalism” and “conservatism.”
The Democratic and Republican platforms are cobbled together for tactical reasons—to form diverse coalitions of interest groups large enough to win a bare majority in the next election. The planks in their platforms are not tied together with a coherent abstract philosophy rooted in concrete beliefs.
Rather than talk about certain candidates wanting to “move the Democratic Party to the left,” it would be more accurate to say those candidates are more transformational, expansionary, ambitious, aspirational, idealistic, radical, revolutionary, extremist, utopian, or some other similar term. Given the distinctiveness and stability of Republican Party policies, Democrats can simply call objectionable proposals Republican, radical, dogmatic, doctrinaire, ideological, or some similar term. There’s no need to rely on the left-right spectrum.
Issues can be placed on one of many spectrums with polar opposites at each extreme. When issues are considered concretely, positions often do not correspond to the traditional left-right spectrum. When they do so correspond, there’s no need to use left-right terms. Regardless, the assumption that “liberals” or “conservatives” must defeat the other side due to irreconcilable differences is incorrect. Consider these examples.
Income equality/Concentrated wealth. On one end of this spectrum, unrestrained capitalism allows wealth to accumulate with no governmental intervention, even if the rich get richer and the poor get poorer forever, and corporations form monopolies and set prices at whatever level the market will bear. On the other end of the spectrum, everyone would hold the same amount of wealth and receive the same income. At various points on this spectrum, economic egalitarians advocate more or less progressive taxation and enlightened capitalists accept more or less income redistribution.
Hierarchy/Equality. At the ends of this spectrum are totalitarianism and anarchy. Authoritarianism and egalitarianism are near the ends. Their position on the spectrum is determined by the degree to which established power is unquestioned. Authoritarians nurture domination and submission. Egalitarians nurture co-equal partnerships and cooperation, want to delegate power democratically, hold representatives and administrators accountable democratically, and develop collaborative leadership as an alternative to traditional leadership, which defines leadership as the ability to mobilize followers. “Liberals” are said to favor equality, but in fact they rarely talk about social equality and often favor policies that are paternalistic, meritocratic, and elitist—and some “leftists” have been very authoritarian. “Conservatives” are said to favor hierarchy, but they agree that all people are created equal and should be equal under the law. Almost everyone accepts that some hierarchy, or power inequality, is essential.
Permissiveness/Cruelty. On one end: an emphasis on compassion, lax discipline, and few boundaries. On the other: strict, harsh punishment and torture. Toward the cruel end: policies like separating migrant children and cancelling Native American treaties. Near the middle: private charity, tough love, and the “success sequence.”
Small government/Big government. “Conservatives” are said to oppose “big government,” but many support “strongman leaders,” the “imperial Presidency,” military spending, and massive programs such as Social Security. “Liberals” are said to favor big government, but oppose governmental powers on many issues and want to limit government to needed functions. Arguments about small government versus big government tend to be disputes about abstract ideologies disconnected from opinions about concrete realities.
Individualism/Communitarianism. On one end: isolated, selfish individuals. On the other: tight-knit, oppressive communities. Both “liberals” and “conservatives” affirm both individualism and strong communities. Supportive communities that affirm mutual responsibility.can nurture self-determination and avoid being oppressive. Strong individuals can build strong communities, and strong communities can build strong individuals.
Unconditional welfare/Personal responsibility. On one end: unconditional cash. On the other: oppressive work requirements. Many “conservatives” who are said to oppose government spending for poor people support the Earned Income Tax Credit, Medicaid, childcare subsidies, and Social Security. Many “liberals” who are said to favor welfare prefer assuring good, living-wage job opportunities and argue that traditional welfare has often been a debilitating tool of social control.
Free Speech/Censorship. Absolutely no limits vs very tight control. With regard to the government, private institutions, and informal social interactions, there’s no clear distinction between “liberals” and “conservatives” that predicts what stance an individual or group will take on specific issues. Both affirm individual rights and free speech.
War/peace. “Liberals” are said to be anti-war, but many supported the Vietnam War for years and more recently have supported the War Against Yugoslavia and the War Against Terror. “Conservatives” are said to be pro-war, but many are isolationist.
Local/Federal. What position “liberals” and “conservatives” take on specific questions about the relative powers of different levels of government depends more on the concrete issue than it does on abstract notions. Almost everyone agrees that a balance of powers within “federalism” is viable, federal revenue sharing can minimize wasteful bureaucracies, and only the federal government has available the resources to fund many valuable programs.
Socialism/Capitalism. On one end: government ownership and control of major businesses. On the other: totally free markets. In fact, almost everyone accepts a mixed economy with some government intervention, regulation, and ownership, as with water supplies. The differences derive from various opinions about the degree and nature of government intervention. On this spectrum, there’s no clear dividing line between “liberalism” and “conservatism,” as reflected by “left-wingers” who want to strengthen free markets by busting up monopolies, and “right-wingers” who want the government to weaken free markets by imposing tariffs on China.
Materialism/Quality of life. “Conservatives” are said to support the accumulation of wealth, while “liberals” are supposed to be less materialistic. But most “liberals” strongly affirm economic growth and social mobility, accept an extreme concentration of wealth, and merely seek to equalize opportunity at the starting gate. Almost all Americans are very materialistic.
Many other similar spectrums could be addressed with the same result: No one spectrum can capture the full range of political beliefs and left-right terms are not necessary. The rational position seems to affirm multiple identities. Nevertheless, a coherent political program needs to “market” a single identity. At the moment, my option is to affirm libertarian-communitarianism — supportive communities that affirm individual rights and nurture self-development.
Originally posted here.
Increasing authoritarianism calls for deep commitment to democratic dialog. Winning elections is not sufficient. Popular movements with supermajority support are needed to sustain meaningful change. Face-to-face, democratic communities active year-round can counter disinformation, save the planet, and transform our nation.
Democratic dialog involves equal respect — respect for everyone’s equal value as a human being, respect for equality under the law, respect for minority opinions, respect for the right of everyone to have a voice in affairs that affect them, respect for freedom — freedom from oppression and freedom to the means required for a good life. Private institutions such as businesses provide some of those means; the government provides others. How to mix private and public means is the focus of constant debate, but if society respects its members, it must assure they have what they need to be free.
Equal respect involves humility. There are many sides to most questions. When people respect others, they’re open-minded and appreciate the “wisdom of crowds.” No one assumes they have the complete answer. The separation of powers protects democracy by promoting consensus. Pluralism and diversity improve decisions. Democratic leaders help people formulate their own solutions to problems. Spirited, nonviolent activists bring attention to issues and build pressure for corrective actions, but most issues are not black-and-white. Decision-makers must engage in deliberation, negotiation, compromise, and, ideally, reconciliation.
Humility involves compassion — compassion for self and compassion for all humanity, the environment, and life itself. When people are humble, they seek to understand those who hold different opinions. They accept how others identify themselves. They love themselves as they love others. They avoid both selfishness and self-sacrifice. They channel anger and face fear. If they work to increase their income, they don’t do so in order to look down and dominate others. If they’re satisfied with their income, they enjoy life, their family, and their communities — and concern themselves with the needs of others.
Democratic dialog rooted in equal respect, humility and compassion stands in opposition to authoritarianism. Dominating others is justified only when necessary to stop people from denying freedom to others. “Win-win” solutions can work. Our gain usually does not depend on others losing. Mutually beneficial partnerships are preferred — in families, communities, nations, and between nations. When others benefit, we can benefit.
Judgmental arrogance undermines the potential for unity, which is essential for real progress. No individual or tribe holds a monopoly on wisdom, and they should not try to monopolize power. Enlightened leadership does not consist of leaders mobilizing followers to do what the leader wants. Dogmatism is deadly and assumptions of moral superiority are risky. Demonizing opponents as “enemies” is wrong morally and counterproductive politically. We can hold individuals accountable for specific actions without scapegoating and placing total blame on them. Inflaming anger and fear breeds anger and fear. Ending friendships due to differences of opinion, labelling people disrespectfully, and hurling generalizations about others’ character rather than discussing specific actions weakens community.
With methods such as the following — informally (alone and with others) and formally (by establishing new social structures) — step by step, person by person, we can nurture equal respect, humility and compassion and promote democratic dialog.
Self-development. Most individuals want to be a better person, to grow, to be more fully human, to better serve others, to help improve the world. This growth requires acknowledging mistakes, resolving not to repeat them, and forgiving oneself. Deciding how to do so is each individual’s responsibility. With a strong commitment to self-development, we can help democratize our society.
Mutual Support. Human beings are social creatures. Society is a cooperative venture. We help each other. We rely on and learn from each other. We need others to listen to us, especially when we speak from the heart; when we listen to others, we benefit. Especially when requested, advice from peers and mentors can be useful. With a strong commitment to mutual support, we can nurture democratic dialog.
Holistic Check-ins. When group members “check-in” at the beginning of meetings, they can briefly report on their efforts with regard to what they’ve been doing, or thinking about doing, with regard to: 1) self-development; 2) building community, and; 3) political action. These check-ins can help hold members accountable to their commitment to promote democratic dialog throughout society. Verbalizing feelings enhances self-understanding, and hearing others’ report on their feelings can be a learning experience.
Support Groups. Leaderless groups can help members support each other with their self-development. These groups might meet monthly or more frequently. Their focus might be broad, like “spiritual development” or “political activism,” or even broader, like “holistic transformation.” They might be a women’s group or a men’s group, or consist of people from a particular race or ethnic group to support each other with issues associated with their social identity. They might take turns presenting readings to focus their discussions, or they might simply share extended check-ins followed by reflections.
Open Topic Dialogs. Horizontal, self-regulating, self-perpetuating, peer-to-peer conversations. Talk, listen, learn, brainstorm. Speak from the heart. Gather 8-15 people in a circle. Focus on: How can we help improve the world? Participants speak only if they’re holding the “mic,” which may be an object. The Facilitator sets a timer when each person begins speaking. Speakers talk for no more than 90 seconds. If the timer goes off, the speaker finishes the sentence. When speakers finish, they recognize the next speaker by handing them the mic. Speakers respond to the previous speaker, and then shift the topic if they wish. Speakers are encouraged to: 1) be respectful and avoid personal attacks or name-calling; 2) avoid going back and forth repeatedly with the same person, and; 3) call on people who haven’t spoken. People with mobility difficulties can select the next speaker and ask someone to give the mic to that person. The Facilitator convenes the dialog, explains the guidelines, selects the first speaker randomly, and adjourns the dialog.
Transform the Democratic Party. The Democrtic Party is already a multi-issue, inclusive, relatively democratic, national coalition vaguely committed to democratic equality. With sustained effort, Party activists can make it more democratic and transform it into an activist organization more clearly dedicated to democratic equality. The Party, however, is geared to elections – supporting Democratic candidates and backing or opposing ballot measures. In between elections, the Party forgets about its platform. The Democratic National Committee (DNC) could regularly recommend to all Americans that they communicate a specific message to their Congresspersons, Senators, and President on a top-priority, timely issue. At the local level, the Party could engage in year-round precinct organizing, build face-to-face community among its members with methods such as Open Topic Dialogs, and ask members to address the DNC’s monthly recommendation.
Community Dialogs with Elected Officials. On the second Saturday at 10 am, Congresspersons, Senators, and the President could participate in two hour Community Dialogs, whether in person or via video calls. The moderator would be a neutral, well-respected journalist. Speakers would be selected randomly and have 90 seconds to comment or ask a question on any topic. Speakers could ask the audience to indicate support on an issue by raising their hand. The elected representative would then have 90 seconds to respond. Community organizations could distribute literature to participants, who could stay after the Dialog to discuss issues informally. The officials would be responsible for recruiting the moderator, arranging logistics, publicizing the event, and arranging to have it streamed live on the Internet and cable TV. Federal legislation could require all elected federal officials to participate.
Citizen Assemblies. As described by the wikipedia: A citizens’ assembly is a body formed from the citizens of a state to deliberate on an issue or issues of national importance. The membership of a citizens’ assembly is randomly selected. The purpose is to employ a cross-section of the public to study the options available to the state on certain questions and to propose answers to these questions through rational and reasoned discussion and the use of various methods of inquiry such as directly questioning experts. The use of citizens’ assemblies to reach decisions in this way is related to the traditions of deliberative democracy and popular sovereignty in political theory. While these traditions stretch back to origins in ancient Athenian democracy, they have become newly relevant both to theorists and politicians as part of a deliberative turn in democratic theory. Citizens’ assemblies have been used in countries such as Canada and the Netherlands to deliberate on reform of the system used to elect politicians in those countries. There are also examples of independent citizens’ assemblies, such as the 2011 We the Citizens assembly in Ireland that became a template for the Irish Constitutional Convention, which led to a referendum that amended the Constitution to legalize same-sex marriage in 2015.
A Purple Alliance. A Purple Alliance could advance democracy by pushing for new compassionate national policies supported by a majority of Republicans, Democrats, and Independents. Periodically the Alliance would urge its members and the general public to support a specific bill. Supporters would communicate with their Congressperson with phone calls, emails, text messages, letters, office visits, or by going to a public forum with the Congressperson. In addition, at least once a month, many Alliance members would meet in small Alliance Teams in members’ homes to discuss how to advance the Alliance’s mission and support the monthly action. Many would share a meal and build supportive friendships by socializing informally prior to and after the meeting. So long as they operate in harmony with national policies, each team would be free to design its own activities.
Promoting democracy in these ways could steadily grow the number of individuals who participate in democratic communities. Members of these communities could frequently unite to push for major changes in national public policy dedicated to humanity, the environment, and life itself. This growth could lead to the eventual transformation of our self-perpetuating social system (which we reinforce with our daily actions) into a compassionate community of communities.
NOTES: Originally posted here. I posted a slightly different, earlier version on Daily Kos here. A comment there prompted me to change the title from “Promote Democratic Equality” to “Promoting Democratic Dialog” and somewhat edit the content as well. The comment was: Great ideas. It looks to me that their central focus isn’t equality, but dialog — yes, dialog depends on equality, but equality doesn’t assure dialog.
Books and articles often show me new angles, offer new information, or deepen my perspective. Rarely do they change my thinking in a major way. Elizabeth S. Anderson’s 1999 tour de force “What is the Point of Equality?” is an exception. I’m still absorbing the impact of her passionate manifesto. No wonder colleagues have called that 50-page article “path breaking” and The New Yorker described her as “The Philosopher Redefining Equality.”
Anderson wants to end oppression by creating communities “in which people stand in relations of equality” to one another. Her thinking is rooted in numerous grassroots egalitarian movements, such as the civil rights, womens’, and disability rights movements.
Unfortunately, however, most grassroots political movements today don’t clearly reflect those social values. Rather, they focus on material reality. And, as indicated by what they said at the September 2019 debate, neither have the Democratic candidates for President absorbed her insights.
In the following review, which includes extensive excerpts, I place in bold her language that prompted new insights for me, and place in italics points that strengthened my convictions.
As Anderson sees it:
Recent egalitarian writing has come to be dominated by the view that the fundamental aim of equality is to compensate people for undeserved bad luck—being born with poor native endowments, bad parents, and disagreeable personalities, suffering from accidents and illness, and so forth…. This “equality of fortune” perspective [or “luck egalitarianism”] is essentially a “starting-gate theory”: as long as people enjoy fair shares at the start of life, it does not much concern itself with the suffering and subjection generated by people’s voluntary agreements in free markets….
[Their] writing…seems strangely detached from existing egalitarian political movements…[that have fought for] the freedom to appear in public as who they are, without shame, [and] campaigned against demeaning stereotypes.
Recent research shows that a crucial bloc of Democrats is at once more moderate and more radical than its counterparts.
By Thomas B. Edsall
The winner-take-all presidential system is unconstitutional. We’re taking it to court.
Let’s fix Electoral College. It’ll be easy compared to gerrymandering
Lawrence Lessig and Richard Painter