Sunday, November 14, 2004


By Jack Random

The extreme right wing of the Republican Party has been able to capture power, implementing policies of corporate cronyism, unlimited tax cuts for the corporate elite, privatization of social institutions, subversion of environmental protection and civil liberties, deliberate neglect of the social safety net, and the unbridled use of military force in place of diplomacy, largely because they have formed a solid base among the evangelical right and the single-issue advocates of the second amendment (the right to bear arms).

While it would appear irrational to reduce the complex questions of our times to a single, red-button issue, the fact is we all have them. In the recent election, for millions of Americans, the war in Iraq was just such an issue. For me, the sovereignty rights of American Indians come very close. For dedicated environmentalists, the Arctic Wildlife Reserve or the Kyoto Accords may be a deciding issue.

We should not be so quick to deride as simplistic those whose hot-button issues are abortion, gay marriage, gun rights, school prayer or stem cell research. We may and often do vehemently object to their positions on these issues but we should not discount the conviction with which they are held.

The progressive response to these issues has generally been to sidestep them, to point out that they are wedge issues, designed to polarize the electorate and distract us from the “real” issues that more directly affect our lives. Democrats seem to feel that it is sufficient to use key words (faith, values, God) but, in the end, the faithful are not converted and the amber waves are a sea of red.

There is another way.

It is frequently observed that, despite all the electoral rhetoric, little seems to change on the wedge issues regardless of which party controls the government. During eight years of Democratic governance, the most that could be accomplished on gun control was the feckless Brady Bill, an assault weapons ban easily circumvented by weapons peddlers. The most direct result of the Brady Bill was a dramatic rise in the sale of the banned weapons before the ban took effect.

On the issue of abortion rights, it is richly ironic that abortions went down every year of the Clinton administration, a pattern that was reversed under his Republican successor. After two full years of a Republican dominated government, the only significant legislation was a ban on late-term abortions, a law that is controversial only because of its legal vagueness and its refusal to exempt cases of incest, rape and the imperiled safety of the mother.

It is time to begin engaging the wedge issues, beginning with abortion.

The question of terminology on the issue of abortion rights is more than rhetorical or academic. If you are pro-life, then you must be pro-environment and antiwar. If you are pro-life, you must be opposed to weapon systems and unbridled military spending. If you are pro-life, you must advocate strict gun control. If you are pro-life, you must oppose capital punishment. If you are pro-life, the life of the mother must give you pause and it is an extraordinary stretch not to support stem cell research, which holds the promise of life for millions.

If you are all of these, then you may well call yourself “pro-life” but if your position on life issues is less clear, then you are anti-abortion.

It does not follow, however, that those on the opposing side are pro-abortion. When the question of abortion presents itself in the life of a woman or a girl, it is invariably tragic. It is a world of sorrow and despair, which can only be compounded, sorrow upon sorrow, when the choice is denied. This is not an abstraction. Women have lived in a world without legal choice. The horrors of that world are why so many women are determined that we should never return.

Who is more pro-abortion: Those who would offer education, condoms and unhindered access to the care of health professionals or those who pretend that abstinence is the only choice? Why is it so important to define life at conception when stem cell research offers such promise? Because an open and honest education, along with the availability of the morning after pill, could reduce mid and late term abortions to a bare minimum.

Where would the Republicans be then?

It is, of course, not within our power to ban abortion or stem cell research. We can only make it more difficult and costly. The world will carry on with promising research regardless of American participation. If we were to ban stem cell research in America, our best researchers would migrate to other nations. If we ban abortion, we would return to the days of illicit abortions for the poor and Canadian abortions for the better off.

On the issue of gay marriage, in an apparent last-minute change of heart, the president assumed the position of his Democratic rival: that same-sex couples should be accorded all the legal rights and protections as heterosexual couples. Where does that leave the Constitutional Amendment: In the land of smoke and mirrors.

To turn the issue on its head, why is it so important to the gay community to embrace the concept of marriage? As a secular progressive, I am uncertain that I support the concept of heterosexual marriage. Should a couple be compelled by social pressures to enter a union that binds them to a legal code of conduct and accountability? Of course, people should be able to marry if they choose, but as a social institution, I am ambivalent at best.

It should be sufficient that any two people (or three or four…) should be able to enter any sort of legal arrangement they find to their liking. No coupling should be denied any rights or privileges accorded other arrangements. In fact, society-at-large should have absolutely nothing to say about the matter as long as it does not, in a real and tangible way, do harm to any individual. It is beyond me why this battle must be fought on the grounds of an antiquated religious institution.

It is time to get smart.

We should realize that, outside of the radical fringe, the wedge issues are raised only at election time. It is the Republican interest to maintain these issues rather than to affect real change, yet the progressive response of evasion, obfuscation and patronization has been ineffectual at best.

There is another way.

The progressive response to the wedge issues should be this: While we respectfully and deeply disagree, we are willing to fight it out on the public forum. Moreover, though both parties in this great cultural divide may disagree, we all believe in democracy. Let the battle be waged on the public airwaves, let both sides be heard, and let the people decide.

It is time to give direct democracy a chance. It is the rightful role of leadership in a democracy to inform and persuade the people as to the righteousness of their cause. Let us have our day and let the chips fall where they may.

Within the confines of a judiciary charged with protecting the fundamental rights of all our citizens, let the people decide by national referendum. Let it be clear that no referendum can overrule the constitution, yet there are many issues that can be settled:

Whether an assault weapons ban and compulsory registration (in a time of terrorism) should be extended to gun shows,

Whether a mother’s safety, rape and incest, should be considered in the availability of legal abortion,

Whether stem cell research should enjoy the unrestricted funding of our government,

Whether the unions of gay and lesbian couples should be afforded equal protection under the law.

I believe that the people will stand strong for the common sense protection and civil liberties of all Americans. Even if they do not, I would consider the mandate of the people a stronger basis for social change than the manipulations of cynical politicians. Moreover, the wedge issues would be effectively disempowered in the process of electing our national leaders.



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