Monday, January 30, 2006

By the time you read this Samuel A. Alito, Jr., will be an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, despite his troubling record on ethics (a stubborn refusal to recuse himself in cases involving conflicts of interest that nearly rivals Nino Scalia’s), a disturbing tendency to side with the government and big business against the individual, and, of course, his documented stance on the issue of abortion. Once again, it seemed to come down to Roe v. Wade. And once again Roe’s opponents prevailed.

Has Roe become a liability to Democrats? It seems to hit the headlines every time there’s an election, disappearing from the news when it’s no longer useful as a wedge issue. It is as much an effective tool of the right as the left, but it’s the right that has exploited it masterfully in the last several elections by insisting that abortion is a black-and-white issue, and forcing the left to approach it as an end-game as well. This all-or-nothing approach is great theater, but belies the truth of daily life and the common sense with which most approach living it, and which our politics should reflect.

Although the sentiment is certainly not new, Democrats have recently had some success as “pro-choice/anti-abortion” candidates, and this has pundits asking if it’s possible for a political party, or those who pledge allegiance to it, to be pro-choice and anti-abortion at the same time. And the short answer is yes. Yes transcends the issue itself and brings us face-to-face with the democratic ideal. It’s not only an acknowledgment of the other's private, autonomous existence, and her right to make her own way in the world—an idea ostensibly advocated by conservatives—but also an acknowledgment of a shared reality where private selves intersect in sometimes very significant ways, as equals, in the crucible of lived experience. The polarizing dogma that has defined this debate up to now is indicative of a general trend towards orthodoxy, the goal of which is order through coercion. Democracy strives for something much higher, and harder: order through consensus, which requires compromise.

The game plan on the right is to polarize the populace on deeply personal issues. And they are winning. Their success has driven the left to oppose orthodoxy with orthodoxy. But this is a losing proposition for Democrats, who should not be ashamed to be liberal in the old-fashioned sense: not limited to or by established, traditional, orthodox, or authoritarian attitudes, views, or dogmas. Unfortunately, Democrats have proven inept at connecting issues like full reproductive- and marriage-rights to the lives of people who don’t see themselves personally impacted, whether negatively in the absence of such rights or positively by their expansion. And the Dems will continue to be played by the GOP until they can articulate, with true conviction, in the vernacular, why anyone but those immediately affected should care. Or at the very least, why they should not be threatened, as the GOP suggests, by the rights of others.

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