Culture of Lies: 2008 Politics

Scott Swenson

Social conservatives cannot complain that their issues have not been heard in the 2008 campaign, in exactly the fashion they wanted.

Editors Note: This is the first part of the four part Culture of Lies series; read the entire series here

Social conservatives cannot complain that their issues have not been heard in the 2008 campaign, in exactly the fashion they wanted.

John McCain selected the far-right’s hand-picked candidate as his running mate, Sarah Palin, instead of either of his preferred choices, Joe Lieberman or Tom Ridge. McCain used one of the far-right’s most egregious and most thoroughly debunked attacks, that Barack Obama supports infanticide, in the final presidential debate. The Republican Party platform is recognized as the most extreme platform in history on cultural issues. Palin has talked up "Culture of Life" issues in her very few interviews, and John McCain has as well, going on record saying he believes life begins at conception. The Republican National Committee, several pro-life lobbying groups, at least two independent expenditure campaigns and the McCain campaign have used television, radio, mail, internet and robo-calls to deliver what appears to be a coordinated message on the "Born Alive" infanticide charge.

The McCain-Palin campaign attacked comprehensive sexuality education, supported bans on gay marriage, and several fundamentalist Christian churches openly defied tax and election law by endorsing the ticket from their pulpits to further energize their base. Everyone is talking about the importance of the Supreme Court and attacks from the far-right have intensified as the campaign progressed.  In every possible way, the Republican Party and the McCain-Palin campaign embraced the far-right’s "Culture of Life."

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Social conservatives could not possibly ask for more.

If McCain and Palin win, the appeal to the far-right base will be heralded as the reason, and he will owe them far more than just the Supreme Court justices he has promised.  If they lose, the recriminations, which have already started, will be fierce and the Culture War will likely turn into an un-Civil War within the Grand Old Party. Already the Palinistas on the far-right are suggesting she was "mishandled" by the campaign. Others will say with the economic crisis, there was just no way for McCain to win, even with a more experienced vice-president that appealed to independents.  

You can bet that none of the Culture Warriors on the far-right will take even one moment to consider that they have moved too far outside the mainstream of American culture. Either they are heroes for having delivered victory to McCain-Palin, or
if they lose, they’ll argue that McCain wasn’t strong enough on social
issues from the beginning. Will any brave and clear-sighted Republicans realize that rather than
throwing McCain a lifeline in this election, far-right extremism has
further isolated McCain, and the party, from mainstream Americans?

It is hard to imagine how much meaner and nastier a campaign can get than distorting someone’s record and accusing them of infanticide, but I have faith that the far-right could. That is what they will argue if they face defeat.

Yet there are actual facts that tell a different story from the one social-cons will believe, and argues against crediting them with victory should that come.

Since 2004, when equal numbers (37 percent) of Americans identified with each of the two major political parties, Democrats have held steady while the Republicans have dropped to 29 percent. New registrations, especially in swing states, have dramatically favored the Democrats. Across the board, polling has indicated that the Culture War issues of abortion and gay rights matter to a very small percentage of the electorate, usually less than five percent, often less than three.  Similarly, polling consistently indicates Americans reject far-right social conservative policies like abstinence-only-until-marriage, banning abortion and stem cell research, and discriminating against homosexuals.

VIDEO: Comprehensive Sex Ed vs. Abstinence-OnlyVIDEO: Comprehensive Sex Ed vs. Abstinence-Only
Barack Obama and Joe Biden have unflinchingly discussed their pro-education, pro-prevention and pro-choice values, from a position of public policy as well as personal morality. Obama put together a platform that has been praised by pro-choice and pro-life Democrats, and openly talks about working to reduce unintended pregnancies while respecting different opinions on abortion. The ticket supports stem cell research and does not believe in discrimination.

The far-right cannot complain that the Obama campaign has somehow "hidden" its agenda.

Could it be that Americans are rejecting the far-right Culture War? Could it be that they see through the tactical misinformation and manipulation of the "Culture of Life" and recognize it instead as a Culture of Lies? Even with a McCain victory the trend lines are obvious, the Culture War issues no longer resonate, especially with younger voters. 

Let’s be clear. I don’t know anyone who would take away the right for a person to believe what they choose, to follow their faith, however they interpret it.  The Culture of Lies is not about what the far-right believes or their right to believe it. The lies are about how they distort facts trying to impose what they believe on everyone else, taking away other Americans’ rights in the process.

If you want to believe dinosaurs and man walked the Earth together 6,000 years ago, when the Earth allegedly began, go right ahead — but let’s not teach that in public schools. If you hold, as a matter of faith, that pregnancy begins at an unknowable moment of conception, most people I know will fight for your right to believe that, but will oppose any effort to impose that ideology over basic medical facts in public policy. If you believe that teens really will remain abstinent and thus need no knowledge of prevention methods, that may work for you, but to continue wasting $1.5 billion dollars on programs that don’t achieve that goal, and actually put teens at risk, seems odd to many taxpayers. You believe that gay people "choose" to live a "lifestyle" that subjects them to discrimination, fine. You believe that women should not be allowed to make their own personal life decisions — that’s your choice — no one is forcing you to use contraception, plan your family, have an abortion, or work outside the home. And at death, should you suffer from a terminal illness and want every possible technology and treatment to keep you alive, no one — other than your insurance company — would deny you your belief that only God can end life, no matter how much science you use to keep yourself alive. The question on the table is whether your personal, individual beliefs should apply to everyone else, regardless of their personal, individual and deeply held beliefs.

For a generation, the far-right has promoted the biggest lie of all — that they are the ones fighting for individual rights, the ones whose values are threatened.

But the far-right has made a raison d’etre of opposing countless rights
critical to individuals’ freedom and self-determination, including stimatizing women who have abortions and making them more difficult to obtain; even banning procedures necessary to protect a women’s health — rather that work with common sense proposals like Prevention First promoted by progressives.

The far-right has attempted to equate contraception with abortion, which the Bush Administration will likely move toward by issuing a new ruling this week allowing trained medical professionals to deny you access to contraception. They demonized gay people and their families promoting ex-gay ministries instead of embracing God’s gay children and damned them by suggesting AIDS was God’s curse. The far-right continues to support policies that do more to promote the spread of AIDS than stop it, like increasing the abstinencce-only earmark in US global AIDS policy.

The far-right stood in the way of equal pay for women, denied family planning funding, imposed global gag rules denying free speech to doctors and medically accurate information to women, established Crisis Pregnancy Centers that promote propaganda over health, launched a war on science that delayed the approval of emergency contraception, spread misinformation about the efficacy of condoms, and so much more.

They have been unable to win these battles by arguing the truth as represented in medical facts, provable public health strategies, and science, so they lied. By manipulating genuine belief among people of faith with misinformation, they became a reliable power base within the Republican Party and as a result have had disproportionate influence on the political process, and the McCain-Palin campaign.

After eight years of being able to control the levers of power within the Bush Administration, the far-right was able to persuade John McCain to play his one shot at the White House their way. Having been beaten by their machine in 2000, he chose to follow instead of lead.

Americans have a full understanding of the Culture War the far-right has waged against their fellow Americans for a generation. We have seen their policies when they controlled Congress, we have watched the Bush Administration implement them, their judicial appointments put ideology over law, and the McCain-Palin team campaign on them.

Next week we will see if America embraces the values presented as a "Culture of Life" or sees them instead as a Culture of Lies.

Continue to Part 2, Culture of Lies: Values.

Analysis Law and Policy

Federal Court Says Trans Worker Can Be Fired Based on Owner’s Religious Beliefs

Jessica Mason Pieklo

“Plain and simple, this is just discrimination against a person because of who she is,” said John Knight, the director of the LGBT and HIV Project of the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, in an interview with Rewire.

When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2014 in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby that the owners of secular for-profit businesses could challenge laws they believed infringed on their religious liberties, civil rights advocates warned that the decision was just the start of a new wave of litigation. On Thursday, those predictions came true: A federal district judge in Michigan ruled that a funeral home owner could fire a transgender worker simply for being transgender.

The language of the opinion is sweeping, even if the immediate effect of the decision is limited to the worker, Aimee Stephens, and her boss. And that has some court-watchers concerned.

“Plain and simple, this is just discrimination against a person because of who she is,” said John Knight, the director of the LGBT and HIV Project of the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, in an interview with Rewire.

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According to court documents, Stephens, an employee at Detroit’s R.G. & G.R. Funeral Homes, gave her boss—the business’ owner—a letter in 2013 explaining she was undergoing a gender transition. As part of her transition, she told her employer that she would soon start to present as a woman, including dressing in appropriate business attire at work that was consistent both with her identity and the company’s sex-segregated dress code policy.

Two weeks later, Stephens was fired after being told by her boss that what she was “proposing to do” was unacceptable and offensive to his religious beliefs.

In September 2014, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) filed a lawsuit on behalf of Stephens, arguing the funeral home had violated Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act, which prohibits employment discrimination. According to the EEOC, Stephens was unlawfully fired in violation of Title VII “because she is transgender, because she was transitioning from male to female, and/or because she did not conform to the employer’s gender-based expectations, preferences, or stereotypes.”

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act allows those employees who have been discriminated against in the workplace to collect money, known as civil damages. Those damages usually come in the form of lost wages, back pay, and funds to make up for—to some degree—the abuse the employee faced on the job. They are also designed to make employers more vigilant about their workplace culture. Losing an employment discrimination case for an employer can be expensive.

But attorneys representing Stephens’ employer argued that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) protected their client from legal liability for firing Stephens. On Thursday, a federal court agreed. It said that paying such damages for unlawfully discriminating against an employee could amount to a substantial burden on an employer’s religious beliefs. 

According to the court, despite the fact that Stephens’ boss admitted he fired her for transitioning, and despite the fact that the court found this admission to be direct evidence of employment discrimination, RFRA can be a defense against that direct discrimination. To use that defense, the court concluded, all the funeral home owner had to do was assert that his religious beliefs embraced LGBTQ discrimination. The funeral home had “met its initial burden of showing that enforcement of Title VII, and the body of sex-stereotyping case law that has developed under it, would impose a substantial burden on its ability to conduct business in accordance with its sincerely-held religious beliefs,” the court wrote.

In other words, Hobby Lobby provides employers a defense to discriminating against LGBTQ people on the basis of religious beliefs.

“The RFRA analysis is extremely troubling, and the implications of it [are] as well,” said Knight. “I believe this is the first case applying RFRA to a Title VII claim with respect to nonministerial employees.”

If the scope of the opinion were broader, Knight continued, “this would allow [employers in general] to evade and refuse to comply with uniform nondiscrimination law because of their religious views.”

This, Knight said, is what advocates were afraid of in the wake of Hobby Lobby: “It is the concern raised by all of the liberal justices in the dissent in Hobby Lobby, and it is what the majority in Hobby Lobby said the decision did not mean. [That majority] said it did not mean the end of enforcement of nondiscrimination laws.”

And yet that is exactly what we are seeing in this decision, Knight said.

According to court documents, Stephens’ boss has been a Christian for more than 65 years and testified that he believes “the Bible teaches that God creates people male or female,” that “the Bible teaches that a person’s sex is an immutable God-given gift, and that people should not deny or attempt to change their sex.” For Stephens’ former boss, Stephens’ transition to a woman was “denying” her sex. Stephens had to be fired, her boss testified, so that he would not be directly complicit in supporting the idea that “sex is a changeable social construct rather than an immutable God-given gift.”

If the “complicit in denying God’s will” sounds familiar, it should. It has been the exact argument used by businesses challenging the birth control benefit of the Affordable Care Act. Those business owners believe contraception is contrary to God’s will and that complying with federal law, which says birth control should be treated in insurance policies as any other preventive service, makes them complicit in sin. Thursday’s decision cites Hobby Lobby directly to support the court’s conclusion that complying with federal nondiscrimination law can be avoided by asserting a religious objection.

Think of the implications, should other courts follow this lead. Conservatives have, in the past, launched religious objections to child labor laws, the minimum wage, interracial marriage, and renting housing to single parents—to name a few. Those early legal challenges were unsuccessful, in part because they were based on constitutional claims. Hobby Lobby changed all that, opening the door for religious conservatives to launch all kinds of protests against laws they disagree with.

And though the complaint may be framed as religious objections to birth control, to LGBTQ people generally, and whatever other social issue that rankles conservatives, these cases are so much more than that. They are about corporate interests trying to evade regulations that both advance social equity and punish financially those businesses that refuse to follow the law. Thursday’s opinion represents the next, troubling evolution of that litigation.

CORRECTION: This article has been updated to clarify John Knight’s position with the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois.

Analysis Politics

Anti-Choice Democrats Employ ‘Dangerous,’ Contradictory Strategies

Ally Boguhn & Christine Grimaldi

Democrats for Life of America leaders, politicians, and rank-and-file supporters often contradict each other, and sometimes themselves, exposing a lack of coherent strategy at a time when the Democratic Party's platform is newly committed to increasing abortion access for all.

The national organization for anti-choice Democrats last month brought a litany of arguments against abortion to the party’s convention. As a few dozen supporters gathered for an event honoring anti-choice Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards (D), the group ran into a consistent problem.

Democrats for Life of America (DFLA) leaders, politicians, and rank-and-file supporters often contradicted each other, and sometimes themselves, exposing a lack of coherent strategy at a time when the Democratic Party’s platform is newly committed to increasing access to abortion care for all.

DFLA leaders and politicians attempted to distance themselves from the traditionally Republican anti-choice movement, but repeatedly invoked conservative falsehoods and medically unsupported science to make their arguments against abortion. One state-level lawmaker said she routinely sought guidance from the National Right to Life, while another claimed the Republican-allied group left anti-choice Democrats in his state to fend for themselves.

Over the course of multiple interviews, Rewire discovered that while the organization demanded that Democrats “open the big tent” for anti-choice party members in order to win political office, especially in the South, it lacked a coordinated strategy for making that happen and accomplishing its policy goals.

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Take, for example, 20-week abortion bans, which the organization’s website lists as a key legislative issue. When asked about why the group backed cutting off abortion care at that point in a pregnancy, DFLA Executive Director Kristen Day admitted that she didn’t “know what the rationale was.”

Janet Robert, the president of the group’s executive board, was considerably more forthcoming.

“Well, the group of pro-life people who came up with the 20-week ban felt that at 20 weeks, it’s pretty well established that a child can feel pain,” Robert claimed during an interview with Rewire. Pointing to the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Roe v. Wade, which protected the right to legal abortion care before the point of fetal viability, Rogers suggested that “more and more we’re seeing that children, prenatal children, are viable around 20 to 22 weeks” of pregnancy.

Medical consensus, however, has found it “unlikely” that a fetus can feel pain until the third trimester, which begins around the 28th week of pregnancy. The doctors who testify otherwise in an effort to push through abortion restrictions are often discredited anti-choice activists. A 20-week fetus is “in no way shape or form” viable, according to Dr. Hal Lawrence, executive vice president of the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

When asked about scientific findings that fetuses do not feel pain at 20 weeks of pregnancy, Robert steadfastly claimed that “medical scientists do not agree on that issue.”

“There is clearly disagreement, and unfortunately, science has been manipulated by a lot of people to say one thing or another,” she continued.

While Robert parroted the very same medically unsupported fetal pain and viability lines often pushed by Republicans and anti-choice activists, she seemingly acknowledged that such restrictions were a way to work around the Supreme Court’s decision to make abortion legal.

“Now other legislatures are looking at 24 weeks—anything to get past the Supreme Court cut-off—because everybody know’s it’s a child … it’s all an arbitrary line,” she said, adding that “people use different rationales just to get around the stupid Supreme Court decision.”

Charles C. Camosy, a member of DFLA’s board, wrote in a May op-ed for the LA Times that a federal 20-week ban was “common-sense legislation.” Camosy encouraged Democratic lawmakers to help pass the abortion ban as “a carrot to get moderate Republicans on board” with paid family leave policies.

Robert also relied upon conservative talking points about fake clinics, also known as crisis pregnancy centers, which routinely lie to patients to persuade them not to have an abortion. Robert said DFLA doesn’t often interact with women facing unplanned pregnancies, but the group nonetheless views such organizations as “absolutely fabulous [be]cause they help the women.”

Those who say such fake clinics provide patients with misinformation and falsehoods about abortion care are relying on “propaganda by Planned Parenthood,” Robert claimed, adding that the reproductive health-care provider simply doesn’t want patients seeking care at fake clinics and wants to take away those clinics’ funding.

Politicians echoed similar themes at DFLA’s convention event. Edwards’ award acceptance speech revealed his approach to governing, which, to date, includes support for restrictive abortion laws that disproportionately hurt people with low incomes, even as he has expanded Medicaid in Louisiana.

Also present at the event was Louisiana state Rep. Katrina Jackson (D), responsible for a restrictive admitting privileges law that former Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) signed into law in 2014. Jackson readily admitted to Rewire that she takes her legislative cues from the National Right to Life. She also name-checked Dorinda Bordlee, senior counsel of the Bioethics Defense Fund, an allied organization of the Alliance Defending Freedom.

“They don’t just draft bills for me,” Jackson told Rewire in an interview. “What we do is sit down and talk before every session and see what the pressing issues are in the area of supporting life.”

Despite what Jackson described as a commitment to the constitutionality of her laws, the Supreme Court in March blocked admitting privileges from taking effect in Louisiana. Louisiana’s law is also nearly identical to the Texas version that the Court struck down in June’s Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt decision.

Jackson did not acknowledge the setback, speaking instead about how such measures protect the health of pregnant people and fetuses. She did not mention any legal strategy—only that she’s “very prayerful” that admitting privileges will remain law in her state.

Jackson said her “rewarding” work with National Right to Life encompasses issues beyond abortion care—in her words, “how you’re going to care for the baby from the time you choose life.”

She claimed she’s not the only Democrat to seek out the group’s guidance.

“I have a lot of Democratic colleagues in my state, in other states, who work closely with [National] Right to Life,” Jackson said. “I think the common misconception is, you see a lot of party leaders saying they’re pro-abortion, pro-choice, and you just generally assume that a lot of the state legislators are. And that’s not true. An overwhelming majority of the Democrat state legislators in our state and others are pro-life. But, we say it like this: We care about them from the womb to the tomb.”

The relationship between anti-choice Democrats and anti-choice groups couldn’t be more different in South Dakota, said state house Rep. Ray Ring (D), a Hillary Clinton supporter at DFLA’s convention event.

Ring said South Dakota is home to a “small, not terribly active” chapter of DFLA. The “very Republican, very conservative” South Dakota Right to Life drives most of the state’s anti-choice activity and doesn’t collaborate with anti-choice Democrats in the legislature, regardless of their voting records on abortion.

Democrats hold a dozen of the 70 seats in South Dakota’s house and eight of the 35 in the state senate. Five of the Democratic legislators had a mixed record on choice and ten had a pro-choice record in the most recent legislative session, according to NARAL Pro-Choice South Dakota Executive Director Samantha Spawn.

As a result, Ring and other anti-choice Democrats devote more of their legislative efforts toward policies such as Medicaid expansion, which they believe will reduce the number of pregnant people who seek abortion care. Ring acknowledged that restrictions on the procedure, such as a 20-week ban, “at best, make a very marginal difference”—a far cry not only from Republicans’ anti-choice playbook, but also DFLA’s position.

Ring and other anti-choice Democrats nevertheless tend to vote for Republican-sponsored abortion restrictions, falling in line with DFLA’s best practices. The group’s report, which it released at the event, implied that Democratic losses since 2008 are somehow tied to their party’s support for abortion rights, even though the turnover in state legislatures and the U.S. Congress can be attributed to a variety of factors, including gerrymandering to favor GOP victories.

Anecdotal evidence provides measured support for the inference.

Republican-leaning anti-choice groups targeted one of their own—Rep. Renee Ellmers (R-NC)—in her June primary for merely expressing concern that a congressional 20-week abortion ban would have required rape victims to formally report their assaults to the police in order to receive exemptions. Ellmers eventually voted last year for the U.S. House of Representatives’ “disgustingly cruel” ban, similarly onerous rape and incest exceptions included.

If anti-choice groups could prevail against such a consistent opponent of abortion rights, they could easily do the same against even vocal “Democrats for Life.”

Former Rep. Kathy Dalhkemper (D-PA) contends that’s what happened to her and other anti-choice Democrats in the 2010 midterm elections, which resulted in Republicans wresting control of the House.

“I believe that pro-life Democrats are the biggest threat to the Republicans, and that’s why we were targeted—and I’ll say harshly targeted—in 2010,” Dahlkemper said in an interview.

She alleged that anti-choice groups, often funded by Republicans, attacked her for supporting the Affordable Care Act. A 2010 Politico story describes how the Susan B. Anthony List funneled millions of dollars into equating the vote with support for abortion access, even though President Obama signed an executive order in the vein of the Hyde Amendment’s prohibition on federal funds for abortion care.

Dalhkemper advocated for perhaps the clearest strategy to counter the narrative that anti-choice Democrats somehow aren’t really opposed to abortion.

“What we need is support from our party at large, and we also need to band together, and we also need to continue to talk about that consistent life message that I think the vast majority of us believe in,” she said.

Self-described pro-choice Georgia House Minority Leader Rep. Stacey Abrams (D) rejected the narratives spun by DFLA to supporters. In an interview with Rewire at the convention, Abrams called the organization’s claim that Democrats should work to elect anti-choice politicians from within their ranks in order to win in places like the South a “dangerous” strategy that assumes “that the South is the same static place it was 50 or 100 years ago.”

“I think what they’re reacting to is … a very strong religious current that runs throughout the South,” that pushes people to discuss their values when it comes to abortion, Abrams said. “But we are capable of complexity. And that’s the problem I have. [Its strategy] assumes and reduces Democrats to a single issue, but more importantly, it reduces the decision to one that is a binary decision—yes or no.”

That strategy also doesn’t take into account the intersectional identities of Southern voters and instead only focuses on appealing to the sensibilities of white men, noted Abrams.

“We are only successful when we acknowledge that I can be a Black woman who may be raised religiously pro-life but believe that other women have the right to make a choice,” she continued. “And the extent to which we think about ourselves only in terms of white men and trying to convince that very and increasingly narrow population to be our saviors in elections, that’s when we face the likelihood of being obsolete.”

Understanding that nuances exist among Southern voters—even those who are opposed to abortion personally—is instead the key to reaching them, Abrams said.

“Most of the women and most of the voters, we are used to having complex conversations about what happens,” she said. “And I do believe that it is both reductive and it’s self-defeating for us to say that you can only win if you’re a pro-life Democrat.”

To Abrams, being pro-choice means allowing people to “decide their path.”

“The use of reproductive choice is endemic to how we as women can be involved in society: how we can go to work, how we can raise families, make choices about who we are. And so while I am sympathetic to the concern that you have to … cut against the national narrative, being pro-choice means exactly that,” Abrams continued. “If their path is pro-life, fine. If their path is to decide to make other choices, to have an abortion, they can do so.”

“I’m a pro-choice woman who has strongly embraced the conversation and the option for women to choose whatever they want to choose,” Abrams said. “That is the best and, I think, most profound path we can take as legislators and as elected officials.”

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