Tag Archives: Bill of Rights

I Guess Consistency IS The Hobgoblin Of Little Minds…

Surprise! Indiana’s pathetic Attorney General evidently has come around to a view long expressed by civil libertarians and Planned Parenthood.

Rokita has joined members of the General Assembly in defending citizens’ right to control their own bodies. According to multiple media sources, he has issued a (non-binding) opinion in support of that position, which was admirably articulated by Martinsville Representative Peggy Mayfield:

Hoosiers should have the right to make healthcare decisions that best suit their families, their personal medical circumstances, and a broad interpretation of their religious beliefs – a concept that we’re disappointed to see Indiana University has rejected.”

The genesis of this remarkable turnaround–not just by our desperate-for-attention AG, but from a number of firmly anti-choice legislators–was Indiana University’s decision to require students and employees to be vaccinated in order to return to in-person instruction. In an opinion that most lawyers–and several members of the General Assembly–described as “a reach,” Rokita is claiming that a  bill passed during the last legislative session prohibits the University from doing so.

I will leave the legal arguments to practicing lawyers (noting only that IU is advised by some pretty excellent legal experts and that I have never heard Rokita described as a particularly skilled lawyer) , but I can’t restrain myself from focusing on the unbelievable hypocrisy displayed by that quoted position and Rokita’s pious support for the “fundamental liberties” protected by the Bill of Rights.

The statement that Hoosiers should have the right to make healthcare decisions that best suit their families and religious beliefs is, without a doubt, correct. It is precisely the point of the pro-choice position, which I will note is not a “pro-abortion” position. The issue is not what decision is made–it is who has the authority to make it.

In both cases–pregnancy termination and vaccination–the decision should rest with the individual involved.

That does not mean that institutions like IU cannot act to protect the lives and health of their students and employees; it means that individuals who choose not to be vaccinated and who do not fall within permitted exceptions to IU’s policy may choose not to attend–just as women who make a personal medical choice inconsistent with the teachings of a particular religious institution may find themselves unwelcome there.

In neither case should state or federal government agencies or legislative bodies get involved. They certainly may not make those decisions for those individuals.

What is particularly ludicrous about this sudden concern for an individual’s right to control of his or her own body– coming as it does from rabidly “pro life” folks– is that it is so inconsistent with their willingness to trample those same constitutional protections in order to appeal to constituencies displaying absolutely no regard for the protection of personal autonomy.

Ironically, Indiana University’s decision to require vaccinations is self-evidently a “pro life” decision. The University is following the science and acting to protect the life and health of the University community. (Of course, the people they are protecting have already been born, which evidently makes a difference…)

When Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines,” the point he was making was that only small-minded people refuse to rethink their prior beliefs.

Perhaps Indiana’s Attorney General isn’t as small-minded as he has seemed? Perhaps he is re-evaluating and rethinking his belief that government should get to decide what  citizens–including female citizens– can do with their bodies?

Or, on the other hand, perhaps he is simply too dim to recognize the inconsistency of the various positions he chooses to take in the course of his constant political pandering.

 

 

Democracy? Or Liberal Democracy?

Back in the Ice Age, when I was a high-school English teacher, I spent some time in my classes discussing the sometimes subtle differences between the definitions and connotations of words.

America’s political discussions would benefit from a similar focus.

What brought this to mind was a “guest essay” in the New York Times, discussing the importance of distinguishing between actual democracies and states that have edged–albeit through popular vote–into autocracy. Here is the crux of the essay:

In a report published in March, the Swedish research organization V Dem posits that “the level of democracy enjoyed by the average global citizen in 2020 is down to the levels last found around 1990.” In V Dem’s judgment, the elected autocracy — a political regime in which democracy is reduced to the unconstrained power of a majority — is today’s most common regime type. India, Turkey and Hungary are exemplars. These new authoritarians are very different from their Cold War-era relatives, which were often military regimes. They cross the borders between democracy and authoritarianism almost as frequently as smugglers cross state borders.

Many of today’s new non-democracies are in fact former democracies. And in many of these countries, citizens voted for authoritarian populists specifically in the hope of making democracy work for them. The government’s supporters in electoral autocracies like India and Hungary or electoral democracies like Poland, countries that organizations like V Dem and its American counterpart Freedom House countenance as democratic backsliders, will insist that they live in democracies. As of January, the percentage of Indians who trusted Prime Minister Narendra Modi was far higher than the number of Americans or Europeans who trusted their leaders. (To be fair, Mr. Modi’s popularity has taken a serious hit over the past month as Covid-19 has raged across India in large part because of what many describe as the starkest failure of governance since the country’s independence.)

There are a number of implications–and warnings– that might be drawn from this analysis, but what it triggered in my mind was definitional. When we use the term “democracy,” most of us think simply of majority rule. And as the described slide into autocracy illustrates, majorities can endorse very repressive measures and elect very unqualified and/or evil people.

A while back, I read a book by Fareed Zakaria (the title now escapes me) in which he drew a very important–even profound–distinction between “democracy” and “liberal democracy.” A system of flat-out majority rule can be every bit as tyrannical as a system empowering an emperor; what America has (if we can keep it) is majority rule constrained by the Bill of Rights, a liberal democracy which limits the sorts of government actions that a majority of our citizens can endorse.

These constraints–and the reasons for them–are widely misunderstood, but they protect our individual liberties.

The Bill of Rights puts certain matters beyond the regulatory power of the state. Your neighbors cannot vote to make you a Baptist or Unitarian, they cannot send government censors to your local library, and they cannot deny equal civil rights to populations they might wish to marginalize or oppress. In effect, the Bill of Rights is meant to limit the nature of decisions that government can make, even when a majority of citizens would like for government to impose those decisions on everyone.

The dictionary definition of “democracy” is “a system of government by the whole population or all the eligible members of a state, typically through elected representatives.” When most Americans hear “democracy,” however, the connotation is really “liberal democracy”–majority rule with constraints that safeguard individual freedom.

Unfortunately, that assumption elides a very important distinction between “pure” democracy and limited/liberal democracy, and that distinction matters. A lot.

 

 

Federalism On Steroids?

There are many observations we might make about the newest Supreme Court Justice and the travesty of her elevation. Assuming Democratic reluctance to enlarge the Court in a tit-for-tat response to the last 12 years of GOP court packing, one of those observations concerns prospects for federalism and states’ rights.

As Elizabeth Warren noted in a speech opposing Barrett, the nominee carefully refused to answer numerous important questions. She wouldn’t say whether the Supreme Court ruling upholding the right to contraception was correct, or whether the government is entitled to criminalize a same-sex relationship. Despite the applause from Republicans about the size of her family (seven children!), she refused to opine that it’s wrong to separate children from their parents at the border. She called climate change “controversial.” She evaded  many other inquiries, including what should have been considered “softball” questions: whether it’s OK to intimidate voters at the polls, and whether a president has the right to postpone an election.

When she held up that blank notepad she’d brought to the hearing, it was evident that the pristine paper was her reminder to abstain from sharing anything resembling content.

it is likely that Barrett will join Trump’s other regressive Court picks, and rubber-stamp state laws that violate rights we have come to view as American, endorsing a radical federalism allowing the rights of individuals to be defined by the states in which they live.

I’ve previously posted about the demographic shifts we’ve seen and the effects those shifts have had on equal treatment and “one person, one vote.” I’ve previously recommended Bill Bishop’s book The Big Sort, and its analysis of what he called “voting with our feet.” The likelihood of a radical return to “states’ rights” is likely to super-charge that residential apartheid.

States like Indiana already struggle to retain young people–especially educated young people. Red states like ours will rush to take advantage of their new imperviousness to federal constitutional constraints. They won’t just outlaw abortion (and in some states, access to birth control), they’ll expand gun rights, restrict access to health care and eviscerate their already paltry social safety nets. The Court has already declined to interfere with a variety of vote suppression tactics that favor the GOP–everything from gerrymandering, to ballot counting, to poll hours and locations.

The GOP has never gotten over its original resentment over incorporation–the odd word for the doctrine that nationalized the Bill of Rights. That process was premised on the 14th Amendment principle that fundamental liberties protected by the Bill of Rights should be a “floor”–that a citizen in Alabama should enjoy the same basic rights as a citizen of New York. States are able to enlarge on those rights, but–at least until now–they have been forbidden to retract them.

The new approach to federalism–what one might call “federalism on steroids”–will upend that understanding of American citizenship. The extent of your rights will depend upon your state of residence. If the young people with whom I interact are any indication, that’s a situation that threatens to leave a number of red states with a dwindling and aging population.

America has already seen its population shift to urban areas. As the “creative class” (and those who want to employ them) described by Richard Florida increasingly cluster in vibrant municipalities, those urban locations become even more attractive.

Gay families aren’t going to locate in states that refuse to recognize their marriages or parental rights. Women aren’t going to choose locations that allow the government to dictate their most intimate decisions. Few families will want to live in states where gun owners are encouraged to bring firearms everywhere, including schools. (And don’t think this is hyperbole–here in Indiana, we have state representatives who work constantly to legislate that “freedom.’)

States offering universal healthcare (a la Massachusetts) will look awfully good to a lot of Americans.

I wonder: At what point do “states’ rights” and a commitment to expanded “local control” end up creating separate and not-so-equal  parts of what has been one country? At what point will fiscally healthy blue states decide to stop supporting “taker” red states?

When does federalism on steroids translate into secession?

 

Are We Americans?

I recently participated in a session of “Cocktail Judaism”—an activity sponsored by Indianapolis congregation Beth El Zedeck for members interested in exploring current issues in the context of Jewish values. The environment is informal; congregants meet at a local restaurant on a weekday evening, and various “experts” are invited to lead the discussion.

On this particular evening, I shared the microphone with my more knowledgeable cousin, Jeff Smulyan, CEO of Emmis Communication. We were asked to facilitate a discussion revolving around a question posed by Rabbi Dennis Sasso: What does it mean to be an American, and how will the answer to that question matter to the 2020 election?

I argued that–at the very least—being American requires understanding, supporting and protecting two essential elements of our country’s version of liberal democracy–majority rule and its libertarian brake, aka the Bill of Rights.

In order to protect the legitimacy of U.S. government, we need to address the escalating assaults on majority rule: Gerrymandering (the practice whereby legislators choose their voters, rather than the other way around); the growth of vote suppression tactics (everything from voter ID laws to the spread of disinformation); the disproportionate influence of rural voters thanks to the operation of the Electoral College; the current (mis)use of the filibuster, which now requires a Senate supermajority to pass anything; and the enormous influence of money in politics, especially in the wake of Citizens United.

In order to protect individual liberty– i.e., the constraints on majority rule required by the Bill of Rights and the 14th Amendment–we need to reinvigorate and protect the libertarian principle that animated the nation’s Founders: the right of all people to live as they see fit, so long as they do not thereby harm the person or property of others, and so long as they are willing to grant an equal liberty to others. That “live and let live” principle doesn’t just  require us to limit government over-reach; it requires that we combat racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, misogyny, Islamophobia…all of the “isms” that deprive some citizens of equal civic status and that deny them the full expression of their individual liberties.

Understanding and protecting both majority rule and individual rights requires an informed citizenry–and an all-out assault on civic ignorance and apathy.

In response to a question from Jeff, participants indicated their concerns about a wide range of issues: gun control, the environment, health care, reproductive rights, the Supreme Court…an important litany with which we’re all familiar. These are all, admittedly, absolutely critical issues.

That said, I’ve become increasingly convinced that 2020 is about America’s structural and systemic distortions—that our first order of business must be to confront the misuses of power that make fair and productive political debate about substantive issues impossible. These failures of American governance need to be addressed before any of the policymakers we elect will be able to discuss, let alone pass, rational, evidence-based policies.

You can’t drive a car if it’s lost its wheels, and you can’t govern if your institutions have lost their legitimacy.

Unless the systems are fair, no minority of any sort–political, religious, racial, economic–is safe.

America’s Constitution was all about checks and balances and the rule of law. Until we eliminate systemic corruption and return our government to those foundational operating  principles, we aren’t Americans—we’re just an assortment of contending constituencies who happen to occupy the same nation-state.

The Enemy Of My Enemy…

E.J. Dionne had an interesting column in the Washington Post a few days ago.

He was analyzing the relationship that has recently been uncovered between Russia and the American Right–not just the NRA (fascinating as THAT is) but also the Evangelical Christian community. There’s been a lot of focus on that community’s support of Trump, but very little commentary on its seemingly bizarre relationship with Russian operatives.

In truth, there is nothing illogical about the ideological collusion that is shaking our political system. If the old Soviet Union was the linchpin of the Communist International, Putin’s Russia is creating a new Reactionary International built around nationalism, a critique of modernity and a disdain for liberal democracy. Its central mission includes wrecking the Western alliance and the European Union by undermining a shared commitment to democratic values.

I think that one key to the referenced “disdain” for liberal democracy is resistance to the “liberal” part–not to liberal politics as we understand that term today (although the Right opposes that liberalism too), but resentment of the 18th Century liberal restraints on what the majority can vote to have government require of everyone else. In other words, the limits on majoritarianism imposed by the Bill of Rights. But I digress.

Dionne notes that Putin’s affinity toward the far right makes sense, because his power rests on a nationalism rooted in Russian traditionalism.

And the right in both Europe and the United States has responded. Long before Russia’s efforts to elect Trump in the 2016 election became a major public issue, Putin was currying favor with the American gun lobby, Christian conservatives and Republican politicians.

In a prescient March 2017 article in Time magazine, Alex Altman and Elizabeth Dias detailed Russia’s “new alliances with leading U.S. evangelicals, lawmakers and powerful interest groups like the NRA.”

I thought the most telling paragraph in the column was Dionne’s explanation of the Evangelical/Russia bond.

Evangelical Christians, they noted, found common ground with Putin, a strong foe of LGBTQ rights, on the basis of “Moscow’s nationalist and ultraconservative push — led by the Russian Orthodox Church — to make the post-Soviet nation a bulwark of Christianity amid the increasing secularization of the West.”

There’s an old saying to the effect that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” I have never understood fundamentalist Christians’ seething hatred for the gay community–as many pastors have noted, the one (incessantly recited) bible passage about a man lying with another man is vastly outnumbered by the biblical admonitions they cheerfully ignore about feeding the poor and helping the widow and orphan, etc.

It’s hard to avoid the suspicion that these Evangelicals use the Bible the way a drunk uses a street lamp–for support rather than illumination.

Be that as it may, evidently all Putin had to do too woo Evangelicals was discriminate against the people they’d love to oppress if only that pesky Bill of Rights and old-fashioned American notions about civil equality didn’t get in their way…

The deepening ties between the Russian government and elements of the right should give pause to all conservatives whose first commitment is to democratic life. The willingness of traditionalists and gun fanatics to cultivate ties with a Russian dictator speaks of a profound alienation among many on the right from core Western values — the very values that most conservatives extol.

Of course, the people who support Trump and are willing to get in bed with Putin (and I mean that in the most heterosexual possible way!) aren’t genuine conservatives. They have no discernible political philosophy–just a deep-seated resentment for people unlike themselves, and a well-founded fear that the dominance they once enjoyed is rapidly evaporating.