Protestors on both sides of the abortion divide swarmed the grounds of the Supreme Court as justices prepared to weigh in on the <i>Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt</i> Texas abortion case in 2016.
Adam Fagen/Creative Commons (BY-NC-SA) license
Protestors on both sides of the abortion divide swarmed the grounds of the Supreme Court as justices prepared to weigh in on the <i>Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt</i> Texas abortion case in 2016.

A rich ecosystem of arguments can keep democracy alive

When victors write their opponents out of the political process, then losers are left with nothing but the tragic option of burning down the house

PUTNEY — Fragile as a moth's wing and vibrant as a sunset, democracy is a wonder of nature.

When a nation is alive to its mysterious forces, when it allows various approaches to human flourishing and happiness, democracy feels as elemental as gravity.

But when we stop believing in our capacity to handle complex issues from myriad points of view, then democracy dies. When we fear our political opponents more than we cherish democracy, we engage in behavior that undermines democratic rule.

It's easy to see this process in red states. When state legislators expel elected officials or governors sign bills that limit people's rights, progressives call foul. And for good cause.

When the Tennessee legislature expelled two of its members, it signaled a lack of respect for the people in those districts and their capacity to choose their own representatives.

When Texas restricted access to reproductive health care, it demonstrated a lack of respect for the people to make their own decisions. (My guess is that in the long run both of these tactics will backfire; voters do not like being treated as if they are stupid.)

But blue states are also at risk of deep-sixing democracy.

Instead of expelling the opposition, a progressive anti-democratic tactic is to shut down debate. This was most clear after Vermont voters overwhelmingly passed a Constitutional amendment protecting reproductive rights.

Instead of taking the win with grace, the victors doubled down. As one pro-choice leader announced, “our autonomy over our bodies is not up for discussion.”

If you supported Article 22, which recognizes “an individual's right to personal reproductive autonomy,” that statement seems reasonable. But if you were one of the 23% of Vermonters who did not support the amendment, those words send an anti-democratic signal: If you are pro-life, the winners do not want to hear from you.

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The problem with this approach to politics is that it forces minorities out of the political process and into the dark recesses, where political violence breeds. When victors write their opponents out of the political process, then losers are left with nothing but the tragic option of burning down the house.

At least that's the conclusion of Rachel Kleinfeld, a senior fellow at the Democracy, Conflict, and Governance Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, which recently published “Five Strategies to Support U.S. Democracy.”

Democrats are fooling themselves, she argues, if they think they can support democracy by winning all the elections and taking over all the institutions.

Even if that could happen, she says, it would not help democracy. To take up all the oxygen in the room is to replace democracy with an authoritarian regime, in which the majority uses various degrees of violence to maintain control within each state.

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The first two of Kleinfeld's five strategies to combat political violence are relevant to the abortion debate in Vermont.

Instead of silencing the opposition, we should encourage “responsible conservatives to vote for democracy,” she says.

That means using rhetoric that appeals to conservative values, such as the family, the Constitution, the military, religion, and private property. Pro-choice Vermonters do not lose any power by supporting a social safety net that offers families increased assistance (U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney's Family Security Act 2.0 being one example).

The second strategy is to “reduce the social demand from the Right for illiberal policies and politicians.” When pro-choice Vermonters tell pro-life Vermonters that they have nothing to contribute, it plays into the hands of reactionary leaders. Why should conservatives take democracy seriously if their deepest values are denigrated?

To reduce the demand for anti-democratic tactics, we must create more opportunities for the losing side to weigh in on policy decisions.

Luckily, the language in Article 22 provides ample room for those discussions.

Along with recognizing the individual right to personal reproductive autonomy, Article 22 also recognizes the state's “compelling interest” in regulating abortion using “the least restrictive means.”

Conservatives still have a role to play in deciding what that compelling interest might look like, and progressives would be wise to listen.

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But reducing political violence is not the only reason to bring minority points of view into the discussion. Learning to coexist through deep disagreements is the greatest fruit of democracy. By taking turns losing and winning, we learn how to be better friends to one another.

The “hard truth of democracy,” writes political Danielle Allen in Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship since Brown v. Board of Education, “is that some citizens are always giving things up for others.” Sometimes our side wins, sometimes it doesn't.

“It is the job of the winner in any given political moment,” she explained on The Ezra Klein Show, “to make the ongoing possibility of a political friendship real.” An important way to keep that friendship alive is to recognize the sacrifice.

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When Article 22 became law, those who voted against it did not just lose the vote, they made an important sacrifice.

For those who believe that reproduction is not an individual right but part of sacred and natural process, Article 22 feels like a slap in the face. It's up to the winners to prove that it is not. Progressives need to acknowledge that the Amendment has not stifled debate. It is in the details of policy that we can keep the political friendships alive.

And through those ongoing disagreements we might learn something important about the abortion debate.

Instead of winners and losers, there is a rich ecosystem of arguments, from pro-life progressives, who critique the abortion industry for valuing unencumbered workers over vulnerable human beings, to pro-choice conservatives, who use transcendent values to argue for the dignity of discernment.

There is much to learn from each other.

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So rather than giving into our fears, which only brings on nasty authoritarian habits, Vermonters should take up the virtues of political friendship, of recognizing the sacrifices we ask of each other to keep this noble experiment alive.

But that can only happen if those who support Article 22 make space for those who lost the vote. Surely a supermajority affords enough confidence to hear the fears and resentments of those who wanted the amendment to fail.

As is always the case with democracy, the minority deserves our reassurance that their sacrifice to our precious democracy will be worth it.

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