Thursday, March 24, 2005
The New Front
Andrew Kohut wrote in yesterdays' New York Times:
While there were probably more votes of conscience in Congress on the bill than the public thinks, it is also pretty clear that the Christian conservative movement now has the clout on life-and-death issues to do what the National Rifle Association has done for years on gun control. Strengthened by the results of the November elections, the movement can convey to legislators that the intensity of their constituents' beliefs is more important than the balance of national public opinion. Swayed by this reasoning, more than a few Democrats may be more interested in moving to the right on moral values than in staking out the middle of the political landscape.
One of the first big skirmishes in the culture wars was gun control. It seemed for a long time that the forces of progress and enlightened self interest would dictate that we would enact reasonable restrictions on the ownership of guns. Even the police backed such measures as a matter of self defense. I took it for granted for many years that common sense would prevail. But in the end the right won that battle hands down. It's over. There isn't even a discussion about it when a kid gets his hands on a bunch of guns and mows down ten people. Nothing. Just collateral damage, folks. The price we pay for the right to bear arms.
Ron Brownstein wrote today:
Does the "culture of life" extend to the victims of gun violence?
That's the question critics are asking after President Bush's contrasting responses to the two events dominating national attention this week.
Although Bush made a special trip back to Washington from vacation to sign legislation offering a new federal right of appeal to Terri Schiavo's parents, the president and his aides have said almost nothing about the mass shooting in Red Lake, Minn. — the deadliest outbreak of school violence since the 1999 Columbine High School massacre in Littleton, Colo.
The Minnesota tragedy has increased alarm among some school safety professionals about Bush's efforts to eliminate funding for two major programs meant to prevent classroom violence, including a Clinton administration initiative to help schools hire more police officers.
"It makes absolutely no sense that at a time when we are talking about better protecting bridges, monuments, dams and even the hallways of Congress, that we are going backward in protecting the hallways of our schools," said Kenneth S. Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services, a consulting firm.
Bush's responses to the Schiavo case and the school shootings track with the preferences of two of his core constituencies.
Conservative Christians pressed Bush to intervene for Schiavo, while the National Rifle Assn. and other gun-owner groups generally look to minimize the relevance of political responses to mass shootings.
"It seems callous to talk about politics or to try to push a legislative agenda on the back of this heart-rending crime," the NRA's chief spokesman, Andrew Arulanandam, said in response to the Minnesota shootings.
I wrote earlier that I had given up on that battle because of the bill of rights. While I think that most sentient beings would interpret the 2nd amendment to mean that members of the militia (a sort of national guard in today's parlance) should have access to weapons, I came to believe that any "interpretation" of the bill of rights was a mistake. In light of the zealots on the other side I decided that it was best to interpret the bill of rights as literally as possible or risk having these nutcases fool around with the fundamentals.
And they would. As Eugene Volokh said the other day, he doesn't see the BOR as sacred writ and it's pretty clear that these radical Republican Theocrats don't either. Normally, I would agree that enlightened people could look at the BOR and make changes to it as their culture evolved in different ways, so of course it isn't a sacred writ. But clearly we are not enlightened. I say now, don't touch it in any way.
The right had a very powerful weapon to gain the support of civil libertarians in the battle over gun rights but they don't have use of it in this next one. In fact, they are attacking the Bill of Rights and just as fundamentally, the independent judiciary that unholds them this time. And they are being quite open about it. Here's the smarmy Hugh Hewitt:
WHAT TO MAKE OF THIS, the latest in a string of judicial decrees that run contrary to the will of the representative branch? Here's one reaction that arrived in my email account an hour after the 11th Circuit chose to ignore Congress:
We are no longer a nation of laws. We are a nation of lawyers. It doesn't matter how carefully we frame a law. It doesn't matter what sort of initiative the voters pass. The elite judges do whatever they want. . . .
Lest you think I'm some sort of ignorant red-neck, I have a Ph.D. in History from the University of California. I am deeply troubled by the rise of the rogue courts. Unless
there is radical change--revolutionary change--we are doomed.
I don't share my correspondent's pessimism, but I think his anger is very widespread and fuels not only the strong support for Senator Frist's decision to break the Democratic filibusters of judicial nominees, but also a backlash against any Republican who sides with the Democrats on the coming rules change vote.
The polls don't support their position in the Schiavo case, but neither did they support the NRA. It's the zealousness of this constitutncy that will fuel their decision. Right now I am hearing that the zealots want to force Jeb Bush to send in troops to take custody of Schiavo and that he is thinking of doing it. (And BTW, any comparison between this and the Elian case is spurious. The Clinton administration was upholding the court's decision while Jebbie would be going expressly against it. That's something that normal people would call a constitutional crisis.)
If Democrats think that moving right on these alleged religious and "life" issues will help them, however, they are wrong. This is much bigger than the gun issue. If the GOP can destroy Americans' faith in the judiciary as being capable of making unbiased, apolitical decisions, and if they succeed in intimidating judges the way they have intimidated the media, we will see the Bill of Rights radically reinterpreted. (And the big money boys will slither along behind collecting all the money.)
Eric Alterman wrote yesterday:
This Terri Schiavo thing is a perfect paradigm for our politics. Republicans are fundamentally contravening their own alleged principles by trying to put the federal government in the face of an intimate family decision-making process—“In interviews, some conservatives either dismissed the argument that the vote was a federal intrusion on states' rights or argued that their opposition to euthanasia as part of their support of the right-to-life movement trumped any aversion they might have to a dominant federal government."-- and ignoring the structural problems (more here) they helped create vis-à-vis the nation’s health care coverage that are actually quite germane to the larger issues it raises. The Democrats, meanwhile, are taking a sensible position but are lack the confidence to defend it in public. And the media is covering the story as if it’s the Democrats who are risking the wrath of voters despite that fact that voters tell pollsters that 70 percent of the public supports their position.
The media, particularly the cable "news" networks, are what they are. Infotainment shows for news and tabloid junkies. (I just saw a story on CNN about a cat that was fitted with artificial limbs. I'm not kidding.) This is a problem.
But it is also a problem that Democrats can't seem to step forward and take the mantle of straight talking common sense on issues like these. We are intimidated on these social issues because we are buying into the frame the right wants us to use --- "the Bible" and "life." I think our frame for these social issues should be "the constitution" and "freedom." And from that we defend the judiciary on the basis of the separation of powers (checks and balances)and we defend people's right to live their lives freely on the basis of the Bill of Rights. Frank Luntz wants to use the symbolism of the constitution for his side and I think we are nuts to let him do it. They treat the constitution like toilet paper and plenty of people will see that if we just point it out to them, particularly if we repeatedly invoke the constitution as the means of protecting their right to live as they choose without interference from busy bodies.
While the Democrats may still be scarred by its alleged association with 60's libertinism, as Noam Scheiber writes here, the Republicans are revealing themselves to be contemporary radicals who are far more threatening. Scheiber uses the example of Bush flouting the UN as illustrative of how they win even when they are losing. But these issues that affect everyday lives are substantially different. People may be willing to give the administration the benefit of the doubt on national security, about which they acknowledge that the experts in the government know more than they do. But on issues like social security and medical care they are many degrees more confident in their own experience and many degrees more skeptical of the government's motives.
During the Clinton scandals, for instance, the Democrats came very close to taking back the congress in 1998 when the GOP went too far with their intrusion into his sex life. The public rejected the sanctimonious moralizing of the Republicans. Middle aged men having extra marital affairs is not shocking, nor is it something that most people believe is a public matter. Similarly, most people see this public spectacle of the Schiavo case for the political stunt that it is.
The problem is that Democrats failed last time to stake out for themselves the common sense argument with which people already agree and run on it. It's a terrible mistake because this is the very basis of the culture war.
These people want to dictate how you live your private life. They want to tell you who you can marry, how to raise your kids, what religion to practice (and you must practice it) and what "values" you must hold. And they want to use the strong arm of the government to do it. Sure, there are problems in our society. Yes we are living in a fast paced society in which it is difficult to raise children and the world is changing so quickly that it's hard to keep your balance sometimes. But most Americans don't wish for others to make decisions for them about how to live their day to day lives, regardless of the challenges. It's just not the American character.
That is not to say that we have no concept of the common good. Americans once came to a consensus that the government was the most democratic means of helping people to mitigate the pitfalls of capitalism and ensuring all of its citizens a fair shake. But we have never seen it as a means to legislate what people do behind closed doors or when making the most personal life decisions about their marriages, families or their own bodies. We believe that the government is far too clumsy a mechanism for such delicate matters. The individual reigns supreme over himself. All we ask is citizens pitch in for the national defense, the running of the government, social services to help the weakest among us and insure themselves against the risks they must take in a dynamic capitalistic system.
It's just this simple: The Republican party wants to tell you how to live your personal life while they systematically remove all government cooperation in ameliorating the risks this fast paced world creates. The Democrats want the government to leave you to make your own personal decisions while having it help you mitigate the social and economic risk our fast paced world creates. It is a stark choice. There is no reason we cannot begin to make the affirmative case for ourselves on this basis.
I don't know who it will be, but I think that the Democrats will win when they find a candidate who can speak in common sense terms to the American people about who we are and who they are. I think people are nervous about these guys but they don't know if we are any better. They are yearning for some clarity. If we provide it, they will come.
digby 3/24/2005 09:29:00 AM