Five doomed proposals for changing the national conversation
From one point of view, it all came to nothing.
Two weeks ago, liberals around the country thrilled to the story of Wendy Davis’ filibuster. With a few minutes of help from a raucous gallery of protesters, Texas State Senator Davis’ 11-hour speech ran out the clock on the special session of the legislature that Governor Rick Perry had called to pass a draconian anti-abortion bill.
For two weeks, anyway. But Perry was still governor, so he called yet another special session. And the Republicans still had majorities in the legislature, so Friday the same bill passed the Senate and was on its way to Perry’s desk. In spite of massive protests, in spite of a viral video that made another new heroine out of Sarah Slamen, the legislative result is the same as if everyone had just stayed home.
Soon we’ll probably be able say the same thing about Moral Mondays in North Carolina. The Republicans have a supermajority in the legislature and they’re not afraid to use it, so they’re going to pass whatever they want, no matter how many religious leaders protest, no matter how many Carolinians they have to arrest.
So it’s pointless, right?
In the long term, no, it’s not pointless. This is the only way things change.
Losing my shrug. Let’s start with the obvious, even if it doesn’t seem all that consequential. A few months ago I’d have shrugged if you told me Texas and North Carolina were about to pass a series of laws that would impose real hardships on women and the poor. “The South,” I’d probably have said, “what can you expect?”
Well, Wendy Davis and William Barber have taken away my shrug. Like lots of other blue-state folks, I have been reminded not to write off Texas and North Carolina. Red states are not monolithic blocks of small-minded people. Progressive forces may be losing there right now, but they’re fighting. And people who keep fighting just might win someday.
If you don’t believe that, recall how the Religious Right and the Tea Party got where they are today. For decades, right-wing extremists rallied for proposals they couldn’t hope to pass into law, and mostly still haven’t: human life amendments, balanced budget amendments, the gold standard, defunding the U.N., and so forth. They failed and they failed again. And sometimes they succeeded when no one had given them a chance. (When the Equal Rights Amendment passed the Senate 84-8 in 1972, its ratification seemed a foregone conclusion.) But today their point of view has to be dealt with, and in some states is dominant.
Before you can win, you have to change the conversation. And the only way to do that is to fight battles the conventional wisdom says you can’t win. You’ll lose most of them. For a while you’ll lose all of them, because the conventional wisdom isn’t stupid. But that’s how things change.
The only way to change the direction of the wind is to keep spitting into it.
How conventional wisdom shifts. I have written in more detail elsewhere about how conservatives manipulate the supposedly liberal media. Journalism is not a conspiracy, but there is an unconscious group process that decides what news is, what can be stated as a simple fact, and what has be covered as controversial. Partisan groups can pressure that process and get their desired response, independent of whether most individual journalists agree or disagree with their views.
In that article I focused on how outside pressure can make known facts seem controversial. So, for example, global warming is almost always covered as if it were in dispute, when in a scientific sense it is well established. But powerful voices will argue with journalists who say global warming is a fact, so instead they write he-said/she-said articles, or leave the global-warming angle out of a story entirely.
Today I want to focus on the opposite side of that same unconscious media groupthink: Anything that is stated forcefully by one side and not contested by the other will be covered as if it were a fact.
So: Texans are all conservatives. Only people on the right care about “morality” or “the family”. “Moral issues” are the ones about sex — abortion, contraception, homosexuality — and the moral position is the conservative position. Feeding the hungry, caring for the sick, making sure workers get a fair wage — all that sermon-on-the-mount stuff — those aren’t “moral” issues.
If you don’t regularly and loudly contest those notions, they’ll get reported as facts. They’ll provide the background assumptions that frame the coverage of everything else.
Wolf Blitzer’s evangelism. The clearest recent example of this principle was Wolf Blitzer’s embarrassing interview with an atheist mother after the tornado in Moore, Oklahoma in May. Blitzer badgered the woman to “thank the Lord” for her and her child’s survival until she finally had to confess her atheism.
So is Blitzer is an evangelical Christian trying to push his religion on CNN? Nope. Wikipedia says Blitzer is a Jew, the son of Holocaust survivors. I can’t say from that precisely what he believes about God, but he was almost certainly not pressuring this woman to proclaim her Judaism.
Instead, Blitzer was applying two seldom-contested stereotypes:
- Oklahoma is in the so-called Bible Belt, so everybody must be some kind of conservative Christian.
- There are no atheists in the foxholes. When life and death hang in the balance, everybody becomes religious.
Probably Wolf had been hearing loud proclamations of Christian faith all day, and no voices on the other side. (This is another kind of groupthink. It’s not considered rude to thank Jesus in these circumstances — even in the presence of people whose loved ones Jesus apparently chose not to save. But conservative Christians would take offense if you said, “Stuff like this just shows that everything’s random and you can’t take it personally.”) So it became a background “fact” of his reporting that the people of Moore were having an evangelical Christian response to their survival.
Candle-lighting vs. darkness-cursing. We can wish for harder-working more-objective journalists who will seek out the truth and cover it fairly, regardless of the power dynamics. But in the meantime journalism is what it is, and we’re just being stupid if we let conservatives manipulate it and don’t fight back.
The facts on the ground today are that the media will challenge a pro-choice Catholic to reconcile the contradiction between his politics and his faith, but not an Evangelical who votes to cut Food Stamps or reject Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion. (Matthew 25:35-36: “For I was hungry and you fed me. … I was sick and you cared for me.”) Want to change that? Join the Moral Mondays protests in Raleigh, or start something similar in your own state capital.
In the short term, you may not change any votes in the legislature. But if enough people contest the previously uncontested “facts”, those “facts” leave (what Jay Rosen and Daniel Hallin call) “the Sphere of Consensus” and enter “the Sphere of Legitimate Controversy”. The conventional wisdom changes.
From defense to offense. So far the big progressive protests have been efforts to resist conservative aggression: rollbacks of women’s rights in Texas, unemployment insurance in North Carolina, workers’ rights in Michigan and Ohio.
It’s time to go on offense. In addition to resisting the regressive agenda of the right and timidly putting forward small proposals like universal background checks for gun buyers, progressives need a blue-sky positive agenda that we keep making people notice. Just because we can’t pass it in this term of Congress doesn’t make it impractical. (When have conservatives ever been constrained by that?) You have to keep proposing it until people get used to hearing it; only then will they look at it seriously.
So here are five bold proposals that are “doomed” according to the conventional wisdom. Their complete impracticality is a “fact” and will continue to be so until loud voices move them into the Sphere of Controversy, from which they can get serious consideraton.
- The Equal Rights Amendment. The ERA passed Congress in 1972 and fell three states short of ratification when the ratification deadline passed in 1982. Supporters of the three-state strategy claim the deadline doesn’t count and in 2011 got ratification through one house of the Virginia legislature. But the ERA gets re-introduced in every session of Congress, most recently in March. Only the fact that the conventional wisdom says it can’t pass, protects politicians from explaining why they disagree with “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.”
- Single-payer health care. Of all the existing plans to help the 50 million Americans who lack health insurance, Obamacare is the most conservative. (It’s Romneycare, after all.) Conservatives opposing Obamacare have offered no plan to fulfill the “replace” part of their “repeal and replace” slogan. And yet, if you watch Sunday morning political shows on TV, Obamacare is the “liberal” position. It’s better than the status quo, and I support it on those terms. But single-payer is what gives Europe, Japan, and the industrialized parts of the British Commonwealth lower costs and higher life expectancies than we currently have. It would do the same for the United States.
- End corporate personhood. Few actual humans defend the idea that corporations should be people with full constitutional rights. A variety of constitutional amendments have been proposed to reverse this piece of conservative judicial activism (which in particular has no basis whatsoever in the originalist constitutional interpretation conservatives claim to favor). Bernie Sanders’ Saving American Democracy Amendment says: “The rights protected by the Constitution of the United States are the rights of natural persons and do not extend to for-profit corporations.” Everybody who runs for office should be challenged to state a position on that.
- A federal Reproductive Rights Act. The current reproductive-rights situation in states like Texas resembles Jim Crow: Women’s constitutional rights are not repealed directly, but are made impractical by a series of restrictions transparently introduced for that purpose. In the same way that the Voting Rights Act protected minorities’ right to vote (until recently), a federal Reproductive Rights Act should impose federal oversight on states that have a history of infringing women’s rights.
- Replace the Second Amendment. The overall situation of weapons and society has changed so much since 1787 that it’s hard to attach any meaning at all to the full text of the Second Amendment. I don’t have a revised text in mind yet, but I think the amendment should defend the right of individuals to procure appropriate tools to defend their homes, while giving Congress the power to control military hardware.