When The Issue Isn’t Really The Issue

Thanks to the effort by Texas to totally ban abortion, the issue of reproductive choice has once again taken center stage in America’s interminable culture war.  But as Thomas Edsall has recently pointed out, a purported issue isn’t always, or necessarily, the real issue.

I always read Edsall’s essays in the New York Times, because he draws on both the history of whatever issue he is exploring and on a wide range of scholarly research in order to craft his conclusions. This particular piece is no different. As he tells us,

As recently as 1984, abortion was not a deeply partisan issue.

“The difference in support for the pro-choice position was a mere six percentage points,” Alan Abramowitz, a political scientist at Emory University, told me by email. “40 percent of Democratic identifiers were pro-life, while 39 percent were pro-choice. Among Republican identifiers, 33 percent were pro-choice, 45 percent were pro-life and 22 percent were in the middle.”

By 2020, of course, that situation had changed, with 73 percent of Democrats taking the pro-choice position (only 17 percent were “pro-life”–the other 10 percent were in the middle). That year, 60 percent of Republicans claimed to be pro-life; 25 percent were pro-choice, and 15 percent were in the middle.

If Edsall was commenting only on the growth of the partisan divide, that would be interesting but hardly surprising. What was surprising was the association between opposition to abortion and–wait for it–racial attitudes.

Whites who score high on measures of racial resentment and racial grievance are far more likely to support strict limits on abortion than whites who score low on these measures. This is part of a larger picture in which racial attitudes are increasingly linked with opinions on a wide range of disparate issues including social welfare issues, gun control, immigration and even climate change. The fact that opinions on all of these issues are now closely interconnected and connected with racial attitudes is a key factor in the deep polarization within the electorate that contributes to high levels of straight ticket voting and a declining proportion of swing voters.

I have previously posted about the origins of the anti-choice movement. Historians of religion have located those origins in conservative rage over the denial of tax benefits to the Whites-only academies that had been established to avoid integration. They had politicized abortion in order to motivate Christian conservative activism while dodging the less-palatable race issue.

There are other, less surprising associations: according to one scholar cited by Edsall, people who are active in the “pro life” movement are more likely to be committed to a patriarchal worldview in which control of reproduction, and female sexuality in particular, is important to the maintenance of  the gender hierarchy they support.

Women have noticed…

Edsall offers historical evidence that the issue of abortion has “evolved”–lending credibility to the claim that it is a proxy for a worldview that encompasses far more than religious convictions about reproductive choice.

Fifty years ago, the Southern Baptist Convention meeting in St. Louis approved what by the standards of 1971 was a decisively liberal resolution on abortion:

Be it further resolved, that we call upon Southern Baptists to work for legislation that will allow the possibility of abortion under such conditions as rape, incest, clear evidence of severe fetal deformity, and carefully ascertained evidence of the likelihood of damage to the emotional, mental, and physical health of the mother.

Edsall cites historian Randall Balmer for an observation often made by people critical of the anti-abortion movement: “the beauty of defending a fetus is that the fetus demands nothing in return — housing, health care, education — so it’s a fairly low-risk advocacy.” As pro-choice folks frequently point out, what is called a “pro-life position” is often merely “pro-birth,” since so many of the people espousing it are uninterested in feeding, clothing and educating the child once it emerges from the womb.

And of course, there’s the recent spectacle of anti-choice folks claiming “my body my choice”as justification for refusing vaccination. (Not only is that hypocritical inconsistency infuriating,  a woman exercising reproductive choice isn’t infecting her neighbors…a distinction that clearly eludes them…)

Edsall’s essay explains what, for many pro-choice advocates, has been a conundrum: why are opponents of abortion not seeking wide accessibility to birth control? Surely they should want to avoid  the unplanned, unwanted pregnancies that lead to abortion, so why are some of the most fervent “pro-lifers” actually opposed to birth control?

Edsall and the scholars he cites have provided support for the answer many of us have suspected. For far too many of these “warriors for life,” the issue isn’t really the issue.

 

Preparing For Climate Change

A week or so ago, I suggested that it was time–past time, actually–to rethink federalism. Not to dispense with it, but to reconsider which governance tasks should be left to state and local governments and which must be tackled at the federal (or even global) level.

The problem with nationalizing too many issues is that sending authority to Washington effectively demoralizes local activists working on those issues. If the only people who have authority to do X or Y are far removed, the result is likely to be those feelings of powerlessness I’ve been writing about.

The problems with keeping too much local control over issues more properly addressed at the federal level include lack of impact and incentives for all sorts of mischief–see vote suppression..

There are also an increasing number of issues where we need all hands on deck. When it comes to overwhelming problems like climate change, even enlightened national/global efforts will require equally enlightened local measures. And individuals really can affect local decision-making.

A recent report from Inverse highlighted the resilience efforts of five cities, providing an “instruction manual” of sorts–a delineation of local measures that can make a positive difference. As the article noted, despite the grim evidence of impending climate catastrophe,

 there are a few cities whose leaders have taken proactive measures to adapt their cities and protect their residents from the climate crisis. These cities serve as models for how we can modify and strengthen our built environments, reduce human suffering, and protect urban centers from the effects of a warming planet.

Fukuoka, Japan has been adding green spaces, including parks, community gardens and green roofs. It decides where to site those spaces based on surveys of windflow through the city and other measurements to determine the most effective places to plant trees and maintain parks. These green spaces reduce extreme heat and help absorb water runoff during periods of intense rainfall.

Rotterdam, in the Netherlands, is growing plants along railways to absorb flooding and reduce heat, and developing ‘water squares’ that can absorb rainfall and ease the stress on sewage systems.

Ahmedabad, India (a city of 7.2 million that I’d never heard of) was included for its “cool roofs” initiative.

This entails using eco-friendly building materials — such as coconut husk and paper waste — and cheap lime-white paint to deflect sunlight away from buildings. This keeps residents cool. According to Madan, cool roofs reduce indoor temperatures lower by 3.6 – 9° F.

Copenhagen, Denmark has pledged to become the first city to go fully carbon neutral by 2025. It has made substantial progress toward that goal: 49 percent of all trips in the city are by bike, and 98 percent of the city’s heating comes from waste heat from electricity production. Seawater cooling measures have removed an estimated 80,000 tons of carbon dioxide from the city’s atmosphere.

Here in the United States, Chicago, believe it or not, was one of the five cities cited in the report. Chicago made the list because is was an early adopter of green stormwater infrastructure, and a developer of urban vertical farms.

In 2014, under then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the city developed a $50-million, five-year green stormwater infrastructure plan with the aim of reducing basement flooding and water pollution and improving environmental quality and climate resilience.

Some of the key features of Chicago’s plan included capturing, storing, and filtering water through green techniques rather than channeling it into storm drains; investing in permeable, or more water-absorbent, pavement to reduce flooding; compiling rainfall frequency data to better predict flooding; and offering resources on green design to maintain water runoff and reduce flooding through rain gardens and natural landscaping.

The city also plays host to one of the world’s largest urban vertical farms, which grows vegetables in a 90,000-square-foot facility. Chicago made this urban vertical farm possible by changing its zoning laws.

The linked article not only highlights these cities, but includes suggestions for how other urban centers might emulate them.

We are finally, if belatedly, recognizing the threat posed by climate change, and large numbers of citizens–especially but not exclusively young ones–are coming together to combat it. Working at the local level on measures targeted to the specific threats faced by those localities can not only help ameliorate the effects of an over-heating world, it can give citizens an opportunity to work together to effect important changes.

Ultimately, the ability to actually do something–something that clearly matters– to work with our neighbors to ameliorate a threat we all face (and that, increasingly, we all recognize) can help us overcome the extreme polarization that has paralyzed our government.

After all, there’s nothing like a common enemy to bring people together.

 

Religion As Politics

I still remember those college dorm arguments about religion and politics–the debates over where to draw the line between purportedly religious beliefs, on the one hand, and devotion to political ideology, on the other. Back in those days, the focus was usually on Soviet Communism–was it a political identity? Or was commie “true belief” actually akin to religious devotion?

That debate has morphed over the years, especially for the growing number of Americans who tend to be skeptical of organized religion. If we didn’t have so many other, more pressing issues to argue about, I suspect that a recent report from Pew would trigger a new and acrimonious round.

Pew was investigating whether there had been an exodus from far-right Evangelical Protestant churches due to the support for Trump displayed by those denominations. They found no exodus–instead, the research uncovered  “solid evidence” that White American “Trumpers” who weren’t Evangelical before 2016  “were much more likely than White Trump skeptics to begin identifying as born-again or evangelical Protestants by 2020.”

The data also shows that Trump’s electoral performance among White evangelicals was even stronger in 2020 than in 2016, partially due to increased support among White voters who described themselves as evangelicals throughout this period.

The study confirms what many of us have suspected: Americans are sorting ourselves into  tribes, and one such tribe is composed of the “Christian” White Supremicists who identify with Trumpian Republicanism. These are the people who tell pollsters that only (White) Christians can be considered “real Americans.”

According to Christianity Today, they are increasingly likely to call themselves “political Evangelicals.”

The Survey Center on American Life  –a project of the conservative American Enterprise Institute-reports that White Evangelical Republicans are far more inclined to believe in claims about the Deep State, to believe in QAnon, and to believe that antifa was responsible for the January 6th violence at the US Capitol. They also are more likely than other Republicans to accept Trump’s Big Lie:

Given how widely accepted the belief in voter fraud is among white evangelical Republicans, it is not surprising that they express far greater skepticism about the fairness of the 2020 election than their co-partisans. Only 27 percent of white evangelical Republicans say that Joe Biden’s election win was legitimate, compared to more than half (56 percent) of nonevangelical Republicans. Three-quarters (75 percent) of white evangelical Christian Republicans say Biden was not legitimately elected.

As an essay from the New York Times just after the 2020 election put it, White Evangelicals have now

blended so seamlessly into the broader Republican base that adherents and observers say that the label has become more a political than religious one. Electing Republicans has become, for many evangelicals, an end in itself.

Those of us on the outside of this Evangelical/GOP cult have marveled at the contortions required for “family values Christians”–a movement based on Christian principles and presumably devoted to  concerns about character– to support someone like Donald Trump. The Times essay quoted a Pew researcher who cited data showing that” White Evangelical Protestants are not only Republican; they have been and continue to grow more Republican over time.”  In 2018 and 2019, 78 percent of White Evangelical Protestants identified with the Republican Party; in 2000, that number was 56 percent.

Michele Margolis is a political scientist who studies how political affiliation influences religious beliefs and practices, “a cause-and-effect that reverses traditional assumptions.” People may like to believe their faith informs their vote, but her research shows it is often the other way around.

Charles Blow recently quoted another academic, Anthea Butler, for the observation that evangelicals may wrap themselves in religious rhetoric, but that what the movement has really been since the 1970s is “a political arm of the Republican Party.” Evangelicals now “use moral issues as a wedge to get political power.”

Butler concluded, “We need to quit coddling evangelicals and allowing them to use these moral issues to hide behind, because it’s very clear that that’s not what the issue is. The issue is that they believe in anti-vaxxing, they believe in racism, they believe in anti-immigration, they believe that only Republicans should run the country and they believe in white supremacy.”

Whether we consider these Evangelical denominations genuinely “religious” or see them as pseudo-religious political cults frantic to protect America’s longstanding White Christian dominance depends upon just how capacious our understanding of “politics” is, and how we define the difference between religious and  secular commitments.

We might also think about the difference a label makes when these folks go to court to protect what they insist is their “religious liberty.”

For Goodness Sake, Indiana!

Remember that much-hyped slogan, developed by (undoubtedly overpaid) consultants–the one that was going to bring gobs of tourists to our state? “Honest to goodness, Indiana!” didn’t do much for me, and as best I can tell, it didn’t prompt many people to think “well, that’s a state I simply have to visit!”

I wonder if we’d do better with a teaser like, “come see one of the most gerrymandered states in the whole of the USA!”

The results of the 2020 census have been issued and the states–including Indiana–are in the midst of the redistricting that takes place every ten years. In Indiana, a coalition of citizens headed by the League of Women Voters, Common Cause and other nonpartisan, “good government” organizations has been strenuously lobbying for fair maps for at least the last five years; clearly, as the IBJ recently reported, the hundreds of Hoosiers who’ve called and written their legislators and descended on the Statehouse could have saved themselves the trouble.

Republicans will keep greater control of Indiana’s Legislature than merited by the number of votes they receive, according to a political analyst who on Thursday called the state’s proposed new election districts among the most skewed in the country.

The analysis came as a legislative committee held a second day of public hearings on the Republican-drawn maps, with several people criticizing the fact that the new election district maps were released less than 48 hours earlier.

The redistricting plan review conducted for the left-leaning political group Women4Change found Republicans would likely win 69 of the 100 Indiana House seats while typically receiving 56% of the vote. Republicans now hold a 71-29 majority in the Indiana House.

Christopher Warshaw, a political scientist at George Washington University who analyzes election data, said the proposed maps that will be used for the next 10 years boost Republicans by creating overwhelmingly Democratic districts to limit the impact of those voters.

“I think that while geography or other factors could explain part of these biases, these are so extreme that really nothing but politically intentional gerrymander could really explain the extent of the bias in these maps,” Warshaw said.

Calling Women4Change “left-leaning” is only possible in a state where opposing race and sex discrimination and favoring civic education and “one person, one vote” are considered extremely liberal positions. The organization includes a number of prominent Republicans (granted, of the sane variety) and bends over backward to be nonpartisan. But I digress.

A friend who shall remain nameless had a meeting a couple of months ago with the current Speaker of the House, and raised the issue of maps. Let’s just say the response was not along the lines of “oh, yeah, we’re working hard to make them fair…”

The only hopeful data I’ve come across was an observation from a friend who is a political science professor. He’d looked at the census numbers, and noted that this particular round of partisan redistricting was considerably more difficult than in the past, because rural areas of the state are less populated than they previously were. Those areas are continuing to empty out. Indiana Republicans are dependent upon those thinly populated parts of the state, so unless there is a significant change in Hoosiers’ population trends, the GOP’s carefully constructed advantage will disappear–probably not in 2022 or even 2024, but soon thereafter.

I sure hope his reading of the population tea leaves is correct….

Meanwhile, the voices in the heads of the far right Trumpers continue to harp on “voter fraud” and the Big Lie. Since there is exactly zero evidence supporting these attacks on the legitimacy of those who won election, I was initially puzzled. On what, exactly, do they base these hysterical, manufactured claims?

Then I figured it out.  As Jamelle Bouie noted in the New York Times, 

“Voter fraud” is not a factual claim subject to testing and objective analysis as much as it’s a statement of ideology, a belief about the way the world works. In practice, to accuse Democrats of voter fraud is to say that Democratic voters are not legitimate political actors, that their votes do not count the same as those of “the people” (that is, the Republican electorate) and that Democratic officials, elected with those illegitimate votes, have no rightful claim to power.

Yep. Members of the GOP’s super-majority in our legislature firmly believe that “those people”–city dwellers, Democrats, people of color–aren’t really entitled to cast ballots that count the same as the ballots cast by “real” Americans…so the gerrymandering that disenfranchises them is perfectly appropriate.

For goodness sake, Indiana!

 

Etcetera

When I was younger, I was incredibly–embarrassingly–patriotic. I regularly got goosebumps when I heard the national anthem. Granted, my understanding of the nation’s history was very incomplete–but I think it’s fair to say that the nation itself was stronger. it was certainly less polarized–most Americans shared a belief in both the country’s essential goodness and in a “can do” American spirit. 

Yesterday, I posted about what I now fear is our national disintegration–a multitude of thorny problems, most of which appear to defy that “can do” ethic. 

Remember this rant from the first episode of Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom?  When anchor Will McAvoy responds to a question about what makes the U.S. the “greatest country in the world?

And you—sorority girl—yeah—just in case you accidentally wander into a voting booth one day, there are some things you should know, and one of them is that there is absolutely no evidence to support the statement that we’re the greatest country in the world. We’re seventh in literacy, twenty-seventh in math, twenty-second in science, forty-ninth in life expectancy, 178th in infant mortality, third in median household income, number four in labor force, and number four in exports. We lead the world in only three categories: number of incarcerated citizens per capita, number of adults who believe angels are real, and defense spending, where we spend more than the next twenty-six countries combined, twenty-five of whom are allies. 

Every issue McAvoy addresses in that now-famous rant could be ameliorated by sensible public policies. As I regularly note on this platform, we haven’t enacted those policies. The reason we haven’t is the same reason I am increasingly depressed–significant aspects of the Constitution–the Constitution that I have celebrated, defended and taught– are obsolete.

Max Boot recently made that point in a column for the Washington Post.

Sounding a lot like Will McAvoy, Boot began with a recitation of America’s dreadful vaccination performance, and the deaths of more than 660,000 Americans thanks to the some 80 million eligible Americans who “stubbornly, stupidly refuse to get vaccinated — and there is almost no way to force them to do the right thing.”

With just 63 percent of the U.S. population having received at least one dose, we now lag behind every Group of Seven country in vaccination rates. We have even fallen behind countries such as Brazil, Mongolia and Cambodia, which are nowhere near as wealthy.

As he says, this isn’t a problem with democracy.

Other developed democracies work just fine. It’s not a question of democracy vs. autocracy. It’s more a question of the United States vs. the rest of the democratic world. Look at Canada: Its covid-19 death rate is one-third of ours and its vaccination rate is 12 percentage points higher. We have a uniquely dysfunctional political system — and it’s not clear that it can be fixed.

Our failure to manage the pandemic is of a piece with our failures to manage many other endemic ills. We have the weakest gun regulations among wealthy democracies and the highest level of gun violence. We are the only advanced democracy without universal health care — and our infant mortality rate is higher than in comparable countries. We have the weakest welfare state and the highest income inequality and poverty among G-7 countries. No wonder Europeans’ life expectancy is increasing while ours is declining.

Boot attributes our problems to a political system that he notes “was brilliantly designed for 1787 but has failed in 2021.”

In 1790, the largest state, Pennsylvania, had six times the population of the smallest, Rhode Island. Today, the largest state, California, has 68 times the population of the smallest, Wyoming. Yet California and Wyoming have the same number of U.S. senators…The overrepresentation of rural, conservative interests in the Senate is stunning: The 50 Republican senators represent nearly 40 million fewer voters than the 50 Democrats. Ending the filibuster can ameliorate this inequity, but there is no way to end it when just 13 states can block any constitutional amendment.

There is more, and you really need to click through and read Boot’s indictment in its entirety. It is particularly pertinent as we watch efforts by Democrats in the Senate to enact what ought to be considered minimal safeguards of the right to vote–and the adamant refusal of the minority White Supremacy Party to even consider them.

We can’t solve our multiple problems, or unleash the energies we need to confront global realities like pandemics and climate change, until we reform our creaky, undemocratic and increasingly counterproductive framework–and those reforms will be resisted by the minority of Americans that they privilege until the bitter end.

The question is: will the “bitter end” be the passage of democratic reforms? Or the final passage of America’s claim to national greatness?