The state of the race: Democrats and the moral life of our country

by Michael Sean Winters

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Yesterday, I looked at the moral challenge posed by the Republican party this year, and today I would like to look at what the state of the Democratic party says about the moral health of the party and the country.

First, let me acknowledge right up front: Comparing the two parties this year is not even like comparing an apple and an orange, more like comparing an apple and an elevator. The GOP has reached rock bottom in its addiction to nasty. As Joe Biden pointed out in his speech at the Democratic convention, what does it say about a person's sense of compassion that the phrase we most associate with him is, "You're fired?" The GOP's combination of nativism, white supremacist tropes, casual disregard for facticity and science, embracing of the gun culture, and general nastiness is unparalleled.

That said, I discern four problems with the Democrats this year, two of them less important and two of them very important, at least for us Catholics.

The first smaller concern is that the Democrats now seem allergic to any suggestion that something other than a government program will be needed to solve what ails our society. I am all for an activist government, trying to help society solve its problems, but the government cannot replace other social actors -- it should facilitate them, encourage them, fund them. I would have no problem with a single-payer government insurance system, but we do not want the federal government running every hospital, or every school.

In Philadelphia, or on the stump this year, you almost never hear the Democrats talk about the importance of civil society or about individual responsibility. The discussion about college affordability has been a perfect example of this: Who will stand up and say that the Democrats' plans go too far and will endanger the diverse array of private colleges and universities that strengthens the nation's intellectual culture? Who will object to the leveling effects of certain government mandates? Separate but equal was a lie, but when equality leads to homogeneity, there is a problem too. Too often, the diversity the Left celebrates is, literally, skin deep, while other varieties of diversity are shunned or worse.

The second concern has to do with Clinton herself. I am sure that if I had lived the life she has lived, I would be more guarded and less forthcoming. But, no one is forcing her to run for president, and if anyone wants the American people to give her all that power, we have a right to expect her to be more open and forthcoming. She does not lie the way Trump lies, all the time and with a disdain for facts that is breathtaking. But, more is at stake than some personal failure: We live at a time when the American people hold their institutions in exceedingly low regard, and a large part of the problem is that they have been lied to repeatedly by people concerned more about maintaining power than doing the right thing.

This cringe-worthy moment when Scott Pelley asked Clinton if she had ever lied is not the result of a Fox News smear:

Yikes. Strangely, the video proves that she is basically an honest person because only a basically honest person could be such a terrible liar. Beyond the personal capacity for deceit, too many Democrats, for too long, have campaigned saying they will not support a given trade deal that will cost American jobs but protect corporate profits unless there are major changes, and when people vote them into office, they add or subtract one comma and then say they support the trade deal now. Again, while not drawing a false equivalence between the responsibility of Republicans and Democrats for the rise of Trump, Democrats have some responsibility for the dissatisfaction of the American public, especially in the Rust Belt states where Trump's appeal resonates.

The biggest problem the Democrats pose to someone who is morally serious about citizenship is their position on abortion, and the fact that their position seems to be getting worse every year. I know, I know: I spent most of yesterday's column attacking Carl Anderson of the Knights of Columbus for over-emphasizing abortion as a political issue. But, I affirm that abortion is a very important issue, perhaps even the most important issue. It is shocking that our country has laws that are so different from Western Europe, where abortion after 14 weeks is illegal almost everywhere except to save the life of a mother. The mistake that people like Anderson make is claiming that voting for this candidate or that is likely to make much of a difference in the abortion rate. American culture will view abortion in a different light only when there is some cultural phenomenon that causes it to change. I have said before, when some star, maybe a Kardashian, aborts a child because that child is a girl and they want a boy or because they detect the gene for being gay and don't want a gay kid, then the culture will change. At present, all the political posturing on the issue is so much nonsense, with both the pro-choice and pro-life professionals proposing bills that will never become law, with a view towards raising more money from their donors. They are not interested in finding common ground.

The fake politics of abortion is why I dismiss some of the criticism thrown at Sen. Tim Kaine. At CNN, Notre Dame's O. Carter Snead criticized Kaine for failing to vote for bills that had no chance of becoming law. I attach no moral significance to such votes. The vote to defund Planned Parenthood is one on which I would have voted differently from Sen. Kaine to be sure, but I do not think Snead is correct in thinking the only reason Kaine voted against defunding Planned Parenthood was to preserve his own power. Refusing to get caught up in the Republican Party's exploitation of abortion is a good reason, not a decisive one for me, but perhaps it is for Kaine. Snead is half-correct that Kaine's adoption of the Cuomo line, of being personally opposed but not wanting to force his view on others, is exceedingly weak: We do not say, "Well I am personally opposed to racism, but if they want to be racists down South, we should not make it illegal or anything." But, here is why that analogy fails and borders on the offensive: No one really sympathizes with the racist, but we do, or should, sympathize with the woman facing a crisis pregnancy.

Kaine has clarified that he continues to support the Hyde Amendment. The Democratic platform wrongly decided to advocate overturning Hyde this year. I have written about that previously and often, but in this context, it is important to note that neither party can have it both ways. Democrats cannot insist that the right to an abortion is rooted in privacy, that the government cannot interfere, and then insist that the government pay for the abortion. (And, Republicans who vote in favor of Hyde but against food stamps need to recognize that they make a mockery of the pro-life cause and do it real damage by failing to see the need to help poor women facing crisis pregnancies. It goes without saying that if a woman is poor, every pregnancy is a crisis pregnancy.) I advocate Hyde both because it recognizes the way this issue is morally fraught in ways other issues are not, and because it represents the last time there was a genuine compromise. I also encourage readers to contact ombudsman when your local paper incorrectly states that the Hyde Amendment bars federal funding for abortion. I saw this several times in the past month. Hyde bars federal funding for elective abortion: It has always contained exceptions for rape, incest and the life of the mother.

It was strange watching the Democratic convention. On virtually every issue, they struck a distinctly anti-libertarian tone. The theme of Clinton's campaign -- "Stronger Together" -- was on every lip. But, when the discussion turns to abortion, it is all about individual autonomy, and not for the unborn child. Democrats rebut Republican complaints that Obamacare puts government in the examining room, but level the same complaint in the face of any legislation restricting abortion, even late-term abortion. The Democrats expressed concern for all the "un's" in our society -- the unemployed, the uneducated, the undocumented -- but somehow that sympathy stops short when they get to the unborn. There really is a hashtag "#ShoutYourAbortion," and Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL, really did shout out hers from the podium at the DNC. The abortion rights group tried desperately to keep Kaine off the ticket, citing the same argument to which Snead objected, but for them, saying one is "personally opposed" is now beyond the pale. The only really good sign from all this? Clinton chose Kaine anyway.

Listening to the convention, watching the career of Tim Kaine, it is obvious that the Democrats' strange obsession with libertarianism on this one issue is not rooted in a theory or set of principles. That would be too incoherent. Similarly, as my colleague Melissa Musick Nussbaum pointed out the other day, the Democrats rightly embrace the knowledge that science yields, except when the science in question pertains to pre-born life. The disconnect between the intellectual approach to the abortion issue and all others is not rooted in moral or intellectual theory but in history, in the way the sexual revolution and the women's liberation movement merged in the 1960s and gave abortion a totemic quality it should never have enjoyed. (Strange developments within the community of legal scholars played a role too.) I commend to everyone Charlie Camosy's treatment of this history in his book Beyond the Abortion Wars. If "truth will out," we will win this struggle, but it won't be easy and we need to be smart.

To be clear: As much as I fault the pro-life movement for addressing this issue in ways that were never going to work, no serious Catholic can ignore the moral seriousness of this issue nor seek to give the Democrats a pass on it. I was very pleased to see leading progressive Democrats like Sr. Simone Campbell and Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good urge the Democrats not to change the platform language to suggest there is no room for pro-life Democrats in the party. Catholics continue to constitute the swing vote, and we should never be a cheap date for either party! Yesterday I raised concerns about the fact that the Knights of Columbus are led by a Republican Party operative. I would not like to see them led by a Democratic Party operative either!

My final, large moral concern about the Democrats is a sin of omission, and it relates to my discussion above about poverty and abortion. During the Democratic convention we published a commentary by Richard Trumka, the president of the AFL-CIO asking why we consent to a political debate premised on the belief that we live in a time of scarcity, when we actually live in a time of abundance. I think it was the most important moral document of this election cycle. It deserves its own commentary which I will post on Monday.

[Michael Sean Winters is NCR Washington columnist and a visiting fellow at Catholic University's Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.]

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