Friday, August 25, 2006

The Rightwing Group Slander Of Liberals Refuted—Part 5F

Abortion: A Summing Up

This concludes the abortion section of my argument (based primarily on data from the General Social Survey [GSS]) that it’s not liberals, but ultra-conservative movement conservatives who are far outside America’s mainstream. In contrast, ordinary conservatives and liberals agree much more often than not. This is the last of 6 sub-parts. [Links at end of post.]

At the end of the last post, I noted:
If abortion is murder, there are no extenuating circumstances.

This is, however, an extreme minority position, much like opposition to welfare state spending.
One key to reactionaries’ success is their ability to tap into extremist emotions, but escape responsibility for doing so—whether in stirring up violence or in launching arguments whose conclusions they shy away from. The position that abortion is murder does both these things. Here, we fix our gaze on the reactionaries’ extremist game, and what it says about who’s really out of touch with the American mainstream.

A Fringe Minority

As I repeated just above, the position that abortion is murder (not homicide—which can justifiable, in the case of rape, incest, or threat to the mother’s life, for example—but murder) is a fringe minority position, much like opposition to welfare state spending. In fact, it’s even more of a fringe position. A mere 8.1% of the population opposes abortion in all three cases in the AbThreat scale during the most recent timeframe.

It’s even more revealing if we put these two conditions together: opposition to welfare state spending and to all abortions on the AbThreat scale. The NatSpend6Sp scale measures attitudes toward six welfare state spending questions. Running cross-tabs between NatSpend6Sp and AbThreat yields the following:

The bold numbers are percentages. In the lower right-hand corner, the intersection of two fringe positions—one 16.6%, the other 6.4% (a bit lower than the 7.3% in the total survey population)—comes out to just 1.2%. This is the percentage of people who hold two key movement conservative positions: that abortion is murder, and that the welfare state should be cut. In contrast, the two boxes in the upper left-hand corner total to 55.9%. That’s the intersection of those wanting to increase welfare state spending and supporting abortion in all three cases in the AbThreat scale. That’s the liberal position that’s “out of touch with the American people,” according to folks in the 1.2% lower right-hand corner.

It’s amazing how much power these people have, given how marginal their attitudes are. They have been the driving force behind 30+ years of culture war, that has produced remarkably little over-all change in levels of support and opposition to abortion rights. And yet they remain a tiny fringe.

Questioning The Fringe

Part of the key to their power is simply that it’s never questioned. Reactionaries claim to be conservatives, and nobody questions them, really. By constantly demonizing liberals as “other,” they automatically draw attention away from the gaps that divide them, not just from the mainstream of American opinion, but from the mainstream of conservative opinion—the very body of opinion that they claim to represent, and have the most prominent influence over. Yet, for all their influence, they cannot convince a majority of self-identified conservatives to do away with the welfare state, or to oppose all abortions. Indeed, they can only maintain their positions of power and influence by hiding the full implications of these positions.

Consider what it means to call abortion murder. If that is so, then there are tens of millions of murderesses running around the country. If we were to take this seriously, America would have virtually no other industry except for the prison-industrial complex. The task of apprehending, convicting and imprisoning so many people would take up almost all of our national resources. Does anyone seriously advocate this? No. Of course not. To do so is to reveal the utter absurdity of the position.

One does not have to like abortion even a little to recognize that it is not murder. We do not treat it as murder because we cannot treat it as murder. However fervently a small minority of people may feel, if society were to act as if it were murder, society itself would fall apart.

Even the anti-choice leadership knows this, and so they resort to deception and bluff. They continue using the language of murder, but their aim is not to punish abortion as murder. Their aim, instead, is mass intimidation, for it is the only by intimidating women who want and need an abortion that they can be prevented en masse from getting one. And what kind of society can we be, living in such a state of mass intimidation?

Law & Morality: Separation Strengthens Both

The root problem here really is a confusion of law and morality, which in turn is a reflection of (not the same as) the confusion of church and state. The reasons for keeping them separate are diverse, but one reason should be crystal clear: too much mixing of the two undermines both of them. This was the view set out by John Locke in his Letter Concerning Toleration. As the Dictionary of the History of Ideas entry on liberalism explains:
Locke's Letter Concerning Toleration (1689), shorter
than Bayle's Commentary and more popular and less abstract than Spinoza's argument in the Tractatus, is the classical apology for liberty of conscience....

The proper business of civil government, according to Locke, is to protect and promote men's interests. Though everyone has the right to try to persuade others to hold beliefs which he thinks are true and important, nobody has the right to use force to that end. The civil magistrate has no authority from either God or man to require anyone to profess or refrain from professing a belief on the ground that it is true or false, necessary to salvation or incompatible with it. It is not for him to dispute with his subjects or to persuade them to a particular religion. Even if he could force them to adhere to it, he would not thereby save their souls, for salvation depends on a free adherence to what is true. A church is no more than an association of men who come together to worship God in the manner they think acceptable to him, and no church can claim authority from God to be the only teacher of the true faith. Like any other voluntary association it may make rules for its members, may admonish and exhort them, and may expel them for disobeying the rules. But it may not deprive them of their civil rights, or of any rights other than those they acquire by joining it, nor may it call upon the civil power to do so. No belief is to be suppressed merely because it is heretical, nor any practice merely because it is offensive to God. No doubt, what is offensive to God is sinful, but what is sinful is not punishable by man. No man deserves punishment at the hands of other men, unless he has offended some man, unless he has invaded his rights.

Locke, in this Letter, seems at times to come close to saying what J. S. Mill was to say long afterwards: that men are answerable to civil authority only for their harmful and not their immoral actions. Yet he does not say it outright, nor even clearly imply it.

What he does say is that all beliefs are to be tolerated “unless they are contrary to human society” or to moral rules “necessary to the preservation of civil society.” This is not a clear saying. What is to be reckoned contrary to human society or necessary to the preservation of civil society?
Indeed, these are not easily-answered questions. But the simple fact that abortion has been widely legalized for 30 years or more counts heavily against any argument that tolerating a belief in abortion rights falls into either category. To the contrary, as pointed out above, it is the outlawing of abortion that would create a state of mass intimidation incompatible with our notions of a free and democratic society.

Laws must stand by the consent of the governed, freely given, or respect for law in general will suffer for it. But morality can and must strike out for what is seen as right, however few agree. The two represent distinctly different approaches toward changing human behavior. A widely disrespected law, based on moral arguments, undermines respect for both.

What liberalism stands for, more than any particular result, is the unfettered exploration of multiple different perspectives and chains of thought. This can deeply frustrate those who are guided by a simple moral vision. But America was founded in the aftermath of bloody religious wars that scarred the face of Europe. Moral certainty had produced a bloodbath lasting for decades—this was the background against which Locke wrote, and the background against which our Founding Fathers took his lead. We had excellent reasons to divide the realms of morality and legality, allowing for influence, but not straightforward dictatorship.

Seeking Common Ground

The battle cry that abortion is murder is just one form in which that founding wisdom of our nation is attacked. It is good that so few truly believe in it. It is bad that so many are deceived by it. There is another way. A recent Pew Poll found a desire for common ground:
Abortion continues to split the country nearly down the middle. But there is consensus in one key area: two out of three Americans (66%) support finding "a middle ground" when it comes to abortion. Only three-in-ten (29%), by contrast, believe "there's no room for compromise when it comes to abortion laws." This desire to find common ground extends broadly across the political and ideological spectrum.

Majorities of Republicans (62%), Democrats (70%) and political independents (66%) favor a compromise. So do majorities of liberals, moderates and conservatives. More than six-in-ten white evangelicals also support compromise, as do 62% of white, non-Hispanic Catholics.

Only one group expressed unwillingness to find a middle way. Two-thirds (66%) of those who support an outright ban on abortion say there should be no compromise. In contrast, two-thirds of those who want abortion to be generally available are ready to seek an accommodation.
Those who support an outright ban represent just 11% of population. Two thirds of that is roughly 8%. Every other group predominantly favors finding a consensus. It won’t be easy, especially with 30+ years of rightwing-sponsored culture wars behind us, and all the misinformation and disinformation that entails. There are a lot of myths and outright lies to undo. But the desire to find common ground is very much an affirmation of what liberal democracy is all about. It’s what sets us apart from the theocratic tradition that America broke with at its founding, and that animates our most threatening enemies today. It’s a good sign. And it’s a further sign that liberals are much more in tune with America’s mainstream than reactionary “movement conservatives” are.

Links To Previous Parts

Here again are links to the previous parts of this series:
    Part 1: Introduction. Overview of argument and data.
  • Part 2: GSS Spending shows conservative support for the welfare state, and high levels of cross-ideological agreement.
  • Part 3 shows shifts in party identification consistent with the historical record of race as the primary impetus for white Democrats shifting to the Republican Party.
  • Part 4 looks at the partisan shifts through the lens of religion.
  • Part 5A “The Big Picture—Parties, Abortion and Race Over The Years” began the 6-part look at abortion.
  • Part 5B A big-picture snapshot of abortion attitudes.
  • Part 5C Changes in abortion attitudes over three time-spans.
  • Part 5D: Abortion, party and ideology over three time-spans.
  • Part 5E: Abortion and Church Attendance


At 7:40 AM, Blogger Robert D Feinman said...

The goals of the right are like the greyhound races and the rabbit. They have been keeping their followers running by holding the issues of abortion, gay marriage and other social issues constantly in front of them.

There has been a certain amount of progress in that there are a number of new laws restricting both.

Now what? Their followers still have to get up in the morning and go to the same job. They still worry about job security, health, retirement and education. It's like the dog catching the mechanical rabbit.

While it may seem like the left is losing we may be at the darkness before the dawn. The conservatives may have finally overplayed their hand.

I think you also need to investigate the influence the super wealthy right has had in steering public perception. The key families (Coors, Scaife, etc.) have spent billions to set up rightwing think tanks. This twenty year effort has been highly effective. The left has only come to realize how pervasive this effort has been recently.

This needs to be investigated and exposed more than it has been in the past.

At 1:16 PM, Blogger W. R. King said...

Paul Rosenberg,

I found your blog through the swords crossed blog, which I have just decided not to waste any more time reading, especially since it has more or less become the blog of the one called "Ender."

Just want to say that I appreciate the time that you put into these posts. I went back through your archive and read the series you wrote on race. There is a lot of good information and analysis there. I plan on checking out a few of the works you cited for a project that I am working on.

Look forward to reading more of your work.

Take care,

Wesley King

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