Politicians like to talk about values. People want to vote for leaders who "share my values." Social conservatives coined a term "values voters" which, like the American flag, patriotism, and Christianity, they alone want to define. If you don’t agree with them you have no values, are immoral.
Sophomoric? Absolutely, but unfortunately for too many voters it has worked, playing upon fear of anyone "different" and oversimplifying the complex life decisions people make. In politics, it’s often a race to the lowest common denominator, and the far-right increasingly seems to confuse "values" with "tactics." According to two recent polls, most Americans don’t fit with the far-right’s definitions of narrow values, and one assumes, cannot be impressed by their extremist tactics.
So what can we learn about progressive values as opposed to the narrowly defined social conservative values/tactics, as Democrats gather in Denver, and Republicans prepare for St. Paul next week?
In a great piece in Slate, entitled Pro-Choices — Plural, Michael Sean Winters discusses the Democrats more inclusive approach to the most divisive social issue of our time, abortion:
Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.
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The trend among Catholic Democrats is not toward a doctrinaire
pro-life or pro-choice position but instead toward what could be called
"pro-choices," plural. They defend the legality of Roe, but
they want to make sure that programs are in place to help women make
the choice to carry the child to term, such as adequate and affordable
pre- and postnatal care and a less-cumbersome adoption system. They
also favor programs to reduce the need for abortions in the first place
through better age-appropriate sex education and family-planning
services. These proposals were part of a legislative effort
to reduce the number of abortions led by Democrats in Congress,
including pro-life Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio and pro-choice Rep. Rosa
DeLauro of Connecticut.
Barack Obama has warmed to this approach, altering the abortion plank in the Democratic Party platform. After affirming the party’s unequivocal commitment to Roe,
the platform asserts: "We also recognize that such health care and
education help reduce the number of unintended pregnancies and thereby
also reduce the need for abortions. The Democratic Party also strongly
supports a woman’s decision to have a child by ensuring access to and
availability of programs for pre and post natal health care, parenting
skills, income support, and caring adoption programs." This language
does not please some hard-core pro-choice activists because it implies
a stigmatization of abortion, but it is difficult to portray oneself as
championing women’s reproductive freedom if you oppose such measures.
It should be noted that many "hard-core pro-choice activitists" have been working for this broad woman-focused reproductive health care agenda for decades, it is the far-right that has kept the focus in the media on abortion only. By contrast, the Associated Press reports that the Republican Party, influneced by its far-right flank, adopted even more extremist language in its 2008 platform;
Republicans went on record Tuesday with a reaffirmation of their
hard line on abortion …
In its platform debate, the party stuck to its
call for a constitutional amendment banning abortion despite McCain’s
opposition, and toughened already uncompromising language on the issue.
succeeded in removing a line from a platform draft that merely urged a
reduction in abortions — underscoring their point that abortion should
McCain may have "opposed" the plank as he tries to move back to the center after his hard-right turn in the primaries, but that doesn’t square with his own long record of opposing abortion rights, apparent opposition to contraception, and perhaps old-fashioned, generational, and mistaken attitudes toward women.
While Democrats in Denver welcomed people of diverse faith and views on a variety of issues, extremist "pro-life" protesters, numbering only in the dozens, managed to scream loud enough, make enough of a scene, and get arrested to grab headlines.
In the last decade American workers have consistently given us rising productivity. That means year after year they work harder and give us more in return. Now what did they get in return? Declining wages, less than one-fourth the new jobs as in the previous eight years, smaller pension and health care benefits, rising poverty, and the biggest increase in income inequality since the 1920’s. American families by the millions are struggling with soaring health care costs, and declining coverage. I will never forget, the parents of children with autism and other serious diseases, who told me on the campaign trail, that they couldn’t afford health care and couldn’t qualify their children for Medicaid, unless they quit work or starved, or got a divorce. Are these the family values that the Republicans are so proud of?
Extreme tactics and narrowly defined values have defined the anti-choice movement for a generation, and they just continue to get more extreme, and further removed from the reality of the vast majority of American families.
While Democrats demonstrate their values in Denver, in contrast these same far-right extremists continue to push the absurd notion that Democrats in the Illinois Legislature from 2001-2005, including then State Senator Barack Obama, supported "infanticide," rather than acknowledging the fact that they opposed bills that threatened the state’s law protecting the right to a safe and legal abortion. The extremists flogging this story pushed it hard in 2004, when Alan Keyes lost the U.S. Senate seat to Obama in a landslide. Does this mean that Illinois voters support infanticide? Or were they just smart enough to see through the smoke and mirrors of the far-right?
The anti-choicers can’t quite bring themselves to tell the full story of the Illinois votes, selectively quoting from news sources and a FactCheck.org analysis to make it appear that only they are right. The truncated stories and misinfomration flood the anti-choice blogosphere. Read the full analysis from FactCheck, particularly the sections below where we include acknowledgment of confusion on both sides:
Even with the same wording as the federal law, the Obama
camp says, the state bill would have a different effect than the BAIPA
would have at the federal level. It’s state law, not federal law, that
actually regulates the practice of abortion. So a bill defining a
pre-viable fetus born as the result of abortion as a human could
directly affect the practice of abortion at the state level, but not at
the federal level, the campaign argues. And in fact, the 2005 version of the Illinois bill, which passed
the Senate 52 to 0 (with four voting "present") after Obama had gone on
to Washington, included an additional protective clause not included in
the federal legislation: "Nothing in this Section shall be construed to
affect existing federal or State law regarding abortion." Obama
campaign spokesman Tommy Vietor says that Obama would have voted for
that bill if he had been in state office at the time. But whether or not one accepts those arguments, it is not the reason
Obama had been giving for his 2003 opposition. He told Brody that the
federal bill "was not the bill that was presented at the state level."
That’s technically true; though the "neutrality clause" was identical
in the federal and state bills, there were other minor wording
differences elsewhere. But the Obama campaign statement
says that "Illinois And Federal Born Alive Infant Protection Acts Did
Not Include Exactly The Same Language." That’s true for the earlier
versions that Obama voted against. In the case of SB 1082, as it was
amended just before being killed, it’s false. The documents from the NRLC support the group’s claims
that Obama is misrepresenting the contents of SB 1082. But does this
mean – as some, like anti-abortion crusader Jill Stanek, have claimed – that he supports infanticide? In discussions of abortion rights, definitions are critically
important. The main bills under discussion, SB 1082 and the federal
BAIPA, are both definition bills. They are not about what can and
should be done to babies; they are about how one defines "baby" in the
first place. Those who believe that human life begins at conception or
soon after can argue that even a fetus with no chance of surviving
outside the womb is an "infant." We won’t try to settle that one. What we can say is that many other people – perhaps most – think of
"infanticide" as the killing of an infant that would otherwise live.
And there are already laws in Illinois, which Obama has said he
supports, that protect these children even when they are born as the
result of an abortion. Illinois compiled statute 720 ILCS 510/6
states that physicians performing abortions when the fetus is viable
must use the procedure most likely to preserve the fetus’ life; must be
attended by another physician who can care for a born-alive infant; and
must "exercise the same degree of professional skill, care and
diligence to preserve the life and health of the child as would be
required of a physician providing immediate medical care to a child
born alive in the course of a pregnancy termination which was not an
abortion." Failure to do any of the above is considered a felony. NRLC
calls this law "loophole-ridden."
This bill was not designed to reduce abortion, but to create fringe arguments and potentially a law that would undermine the medical rights of women in Illinois. As FactCheck points out, laws already existed that covered these concerns. This fringe argument is designed only to distract, and to keep the conversation focused on extremist issues instead of seeking common ground. Voters understand that legislative language is arcane, nuanced, technical and subject to manipulations and confusion — and this is an apt example. But fear, confusion and manipulation are the values and tactics of the far-right — and why we’ve made no progress on improving sexual and reproductive health care policies for 30 years.
What matters to the vast majority of Americans is what politicians are doing to solve problems, not arguing the same arguments generation after generation. With regard to sexual and reproductive health, that means finding ways to resolve divisions over abortion, by repsecting differing beliefs, so we can progress toward common sense education and prevention policies, not exacerbating divisions.
In rhetoric, platform and protest, social conservative values and tactics seem to be getting more extreme, not less. By contrast the mood of the country is more about finding common ground, like education and prevention policies, coupled with preserving rights of individuals to make their own private health care decisions.
Most importantly, Americans are ready to put social issues in proper context, focusing the government’s attention on issues the government should handle, rather than having the government dictate one group’s idea of morality, one belief, one set of values to citizens in the most culturally and religiously diverse nation on earth.
So far in Denver we see leaders of the Democratic Party demonstrating inclusion and talking about issues that matter to middle class families. This Friday, we’ll learn if Sen. John McCain will choose a pro-choice Republican running mate, which would further solidify the fact that the vast majority of Americans share pro-choice values. If he does, expect the radical "pro-life" values and protests we’ve seen recently, to spill over into the GOP convention hall as those who just passed the most extreme anti-choice platform ever, wrestle with a pro-choice keynote speaker in Rudy Giuliani, a (possibly) pro-choice Veep nominee, and in McCain, someone they’ve never really trusted.