Both Sides Now

Our parents and grandparents on both sides were involved in community affairs, so perhaps volunteering and community service are just in the family DNA. Whatever the reason, I have been interested in politics for nearly sixty years now.

My earliest taste came at the end of seventh grade, when John Phillips beat me in the election for eighth-grade class president. Activism came in the eighth grade, when the teacher for some reason closed the classroom library. I circulated a petition to get it reopened, incurring the teacher’s wrath–a wrath that endured even beyond the eighth grade.1

Those who know me now won’t find that surprising. What they may find surprising is the circuitous path I’ve followed in politics–because I’ve seen partisan politics from both sides now, and the result affects my view of political ideology, parties, and the present Presidential race.

My high school had a Political Science Club2, and early on I became involved in conservative Republican politics.3 With a friend whose uncle was a Republican party official, I started attending ward meetings. Pretty soon I was recording speeches by Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan on my fancy new reel-to-reel tape recorder. I volunteered in Barry Goldwater’s campaign as a sophomore, and became a Republican precinct captain and credentialed poll-watcher years before I was eligible to vote.

Most of the adults I hung around with were cultural conservatives; some were classic economic conservatives, and a few were libertarians. Strongly anti-communist and pro-defense, I demonstrated in favor of the Vietnam war. Lacking the $24 annual dues to join the John Birch Society, I instead joined a chapter of Young Americans for Freedom and edited its newsletter. Eventually, my work brought me into contact with conspiracy theorists and militiamen; by the time I graduated, the crazier elements had scared me off.

I spent my college years pretty much without a political ideology or party affiliation. I recall favoring Nixon for President in 1968, while I was still too young to vote.4 (At John Carroll’s mock Republican convention, at the urging of a brother from Maryland, our fraternity nominated his governor, Spiro T. Agnew, who became Nixon’s first Vice President.)5

Many who know me now know some of the rest. As a newly-minted teacher after graduation, my work eventually led me into a leadership role in my teacher union. As a teacher union activist, I soon learned that Democrats were generally friendlier to workers and to public education than Republicans. Although I supported a fair number of reasonable Republican legislators, I found myself supporting Democrats most of the time, and registered as a Democrat.

Eventually, I became a precinct official once again–this time for the Democratic party. I held positions on Cuyahoga County’s Democratic Party Central Committee and Executive Committee, and my local Democratic club, until just a few years ago.

Hopefully I learned something from these varied political experiences. Next I’ll try to identify some lessons learned from my experiences as a foot soldier for both parties. This schizophrenic political history should be good for something!

Notes:

  1. A couple of years later, I ran into her while I was distributing political literature near the church, and she expressed surprise that I wasn’t in jail.
  2. It was the sixties, after all.
  3. And recall that this was in Chicago, where I think they hunt Republicans with trained dogs.
  4. It wasn’t until the year I turned 21 that the 26th Amendment lowered the voting age to 18.
  5. Until Spiro’s conviction for felony tax evasion opened the way for Gerald Ford.

Faith as Proxy

Last month, as the political tribes lined up for and against the Supreme Court nomination of Amy Coney Barrett, Washington Post columnist Hugh Hewitt wrote a column lamenting what he claimed was prejudice against Catholics.1 “Today’s voters,” he wrote, “will recognize any focus on faith in this judicial context for what it is: anti-Catholic bigotry.”

Hewitt argued that if “Senate Democrats in Barrett’s confirmation hearings, or in talking to the press, . . . focus on the nominee’s religion, the scurrilous tactic will almost certainly be met with disgust by voters.” They haven’t done that, but Catholicism has been invoked a-plenty by Barrett’s supporters.

Hewitt is a Catholic, as am I. He argues that it’s wrong to discriminate against a Catholic designee on the basis of religion, and I agree. But there’s something else at work here.

Almost immediately after Barrett’s nomination, we began to hear about her being a “devout Catholic.” In fact, if you Google “amy and barrett and devout and catholic,” you’ll see that the search turns up about 338,000 results.2 This focus on her religion didn’t happen because of the malign influence of anti-Catholic bigots: it happened because her Catholicism has become a proxy for pro-life positions that can’t come up during the confirmation hearings.

It has become standard practice for Senators to try to read tea leaves that will indicate how a Supreme Court Justice candidate will rule, because the nominees can’t openly talk about their positions on these issues. And this reluctance to talk about hypothetical opinions didn’t start with Barrett.

For example, Ruth Bader Ginsburg said with characteristic clarity at her confirmation hearings, “it would be wrong for me to say or to preview in this legislative chamber how I would cast my vote on questions the Supreme Court may be called upon to decide. . . . A judge sworn to decide impartially can offer no forecasts, no hints, for that would show not only disregard for the specifics of the particular case, it would display disdain for the entire judicial process.”

So the Senators can’t ask Judge Barrett how she would rule on a hypothetical case. What they can do is to look at her seven children and conclude that she must be a “traditional” Catholic, and therefore a guaranteed vote against Roe v. Wade.

So what we have here is not anti-Catholic bias being exercised against her. What we have is a use of Catholicism as a proxy for her anticipated support for overturning Roe v. Wade.

Who’s the bigot now?

Notes:

  1. It’s ironic to use the term “prejudice” here: prejudice involves a “preconceived judgment or opinion,” and plenty of preconceived judgment is on display in the present hearings.
  2. I put aside for the time being the inappropriateness of characterizing someone else as devout. One’s observance can be public, but one’s devotion–the characteristic that makes one “devout”–is really known only to God.

The Barrett Hearings

The Contrarian has some observations about the Amy Coney Barrett nomination for Supreme Court Justice and the confirmation hearings that started this week. As I write this, it is anticipated that the Senate will vote next week, and we pretty much know the result.

The present hearings are a show trial: Senators have pretty much declared how they will vote, so both sides can simply play to their bases. Principle? Justice? Fairness? The institution of the Supreme Court? Please. ACB will be confirmed, and we may see some disastrous decisions in the decades ahead.

The nation is in this situation because Democrats lost the last Presidential election and have been unable to gain control of the Senate. It was clear four years ago that the Republic had suffered a catastrophe, and the administration would have four years to do its damage. Nothing should surprise us. Even if voters turn out the current occupant, his outrages will continue right up to the moment his successor takes office, and the legacy of the past four years will extend for decades.

Democrats have made much of this late-term nomination by a (one can hope) lame-duck President. In my view, the Republicans were wrong four years ago to deny a hearing to Merrick Garland. Their convenient turnaround in 2020 only exposes the hypocrisy of the position they took then. In my view, every Republican Senator who served in 2016 and went along with their leaders’ position should be voted out of office.

But while Democrats have every right to point out the hypocrisy of the Republicans in this matter, it is just as hypocritical of them to take now the position Republicans took in 2016. The Republican Senate is doing what politicians do: using their power while they can. Their base elected them to do this. Principle has nothing to do with it. Frederick Douglass famously said, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” If he observed that about the power brokers of his era, why should we expect differently about ours?

The answer for the Democrats is to regain the government and then use that power just as relentlessly as the Republicans are doing now. 1

A couple of years ago I saw the wonderful movie RBG. You don’t have to be an attorney or a constitutional scholar, or even a Democrat, to admire her, personally, intellectually, and professionally. I honor her life and mourn her death. But she didn’t have a vote on her successor in life, and she doesn’t get one in death. Honoring her wishes would be fitting, but it’s not enshrined anywhere in the Constitution. Proceeding with a hurried replacement process isn’t fitting, but it’s legal.

Notes:

  1. In this vein, personally I don’t like packing the court because it inevitably would become a tit-for-tat process stretching on to infinity. If the Democrats get power and decide to use it to cement their advantage, then I do like pursuing statehood for the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. I don’t know enough about the legalities of those: beyond the likelihood that they would yield Democratic electoral votes, they have essentially nothing in common. But with enough votes, all that can be sorted out.