Mary Jo Bane
I would like to vote, this year or sometime, for a ticket and a party that is pro-life, pro-family, and pro-poor.
It’s not clear to me why this formulation (which I was introduced to by the Reverend Eugene Rivers and political scientist John DiIulio) seems so odd to so many people. For me it follows from a commitment to the essential dignity and equality of every human person. It restates the very Catholic notion of a consistent ethic of life, which seeks to cherish and enhance, through both private and public action, life from its beginning to its end, but with due concern for the middle years as well. It takes its stand with the most vulnerable: the unborn, the dying, the young, the oppressed, the poor, and even the criminal.
As I have thought it through, being pro-life, pro-family, and pro-poor means neither idolizing the free market with its disregard for inequality, nor assuming that all problems are best solved by large federal spending programs. It means not assuming that everything that is sinful ought also to be criminal, but also not precluding the possibility of influencing or regulating moral behavior, for example on late-term abortions. And because democratic politics is the best mechanism we have yet invented for doing our public work this side of the kingdom, it means being committed to open, thoughtful, evidence-based deliberation.
Neither party meets my criteria. For someone (quoting here Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan) who was "baptized a Catholic but born a Democrat," this year’s Democratic primary had some truly depressing moments. Watching Senator Bill Bradley and Vice President Al Gore trade accusations about who, over the longest period of time, had been the most rabidly prochoice up to the last minute before delivery, or about who might, for one moment, have secretly harbored a positive thought about school vouchers, did not warm my heart. Nor am I inspired by what are now the positions of both parties on the death penalty. Or on campaign financing.
Nonetheless, I will vote for Gore-Lieberman. This choice is no doubt partly a matter of simple lethargy: I have never voted for a Republican presidential candidate since my first vote, for Lyndon Johnson in 1964.
But there is more to it than that. The country is in an era of unparalleled prosperity and the planet is in a period of unparalleled global integration. At the same time, the gap between rich and poor in this country, in terms of material well-being, is almost as great as it has ever been. Life expectancies for some groups of African Americans are as low as in the poorest countries of the world. And the gap between rich and poor countries is shockingly large, and appears to be growing. In much of sub-Saharan Africa, and in some countries of the former Soviet Union, life expectancies are actually falling. One and one-half billion of our sisters and brothers on earth live below a poverty line-defined as one dollar per day per person. We cannot, in conscience, ignore these facts or disclaim responsibility.
The Democratic Party does not have solutions to these problems. The solutions are very hard, and there are no simple answers. I suppose it is because of what the Democratic Party has been and remains that I believe that Democrats are more likely to address these problems and work to solve them. It has been, and is still, more than the Republicans, the party of the working class, of ethnic minorities, of immigrants, of the struggling and the disenfranchised. It shows more appreciation of the interconnectedness of the world and more sense of responsibility for the developing world. It even, I would argue, shows more appreciation for the preciousness of life across the whole life cycle, especially for the lives of the very vulnerable.
It is hard, admittedly, to point to specific policy proposals that clearly reflect these concerns; Gore and Lieberman, like "the other side," are busily directing their attention to middle-class swing voters. But I believe that their approach to, for example, health insurance, Social Security, and tax cuts or lack thereof is considerably more likely to benefit those who need it most.
And perhaps, at some point, the Democratic Party (or some party) will recognize the logic and the potential popular appeal of an approach that, in conventional terms, is both more socially conservative and more economically progressive. I think of it as pro-life, pro-family and pro-poor, and I eagerly await an opportunity to vote for it.
The restoration of honesty and honor to the presidency; no more presidential vetoes of federal bans on partial-birth abortion; cleansing the Augean stables of the Justice Department; a different U.S. approach to international population policy; prudent moves toward enhancing senior citizens’ lives through a partial privatization of Social Security; health-care reform that doesn’t turn the problem over to the guys who can’t fix the potholes; education policies that rate parents’ inalienable rights higher than the self-interest of the National Education Association; a new partnership with Mexico; an administration that understands that the armed forces are not primarily a laboratory for social engineering; a "Not for Rent" sign on the Lincoln Bedroom; a man at home with himself versus a man constantly reinventing himself (and concocting fairy tales in the process)-all of these strike me as persuasive reasons to vote for George W. Bush for president.
But the overriding reason is simply stated: the Supreme Court.
The next president will likely make three, perhaps four, Supreme Court nominations. Vice President Al Gore made clear in his acceptance speech, as he has throughout his campaign, that he has a stringent litmus test for Court nominees: any potential justice must be firmly committed to the notion that Roe v. Wade (with its companion case Doe v. Bolton) established a constitutionally protected regime of unrestricted abortion-on-demand-a regime recently reaffirmed in the most uncompromising terms by the Stenberg v. Carhart decision, which extended the mantle of constitutional protection to infanticide.
Should Gore make those three or four nominations and get his nominees confirmed by the Senate, not only would the abortion license remain unbridled for generations; Roe’s lethal logic and Roe’s deracinated concept of freedom as radical personal autonomy would continue to infect other aspects of our public life. A Court dominated by Clinton and Gore appointees could also be counted on to continue the Court’s fifty-three-year-long effort to establish secularism as the official creed of the American republic.
Would Bush nominees to the Supreme Court jettison Roe as wrongly decided? Perhaps not. But they would almost certainly not treat abortion-on-demand as the ne plus ultra of constitutionally guaranteed rights. That is its current status, and that is what Gore appointees would be required to reaffirm as their admission ticket to the bench. Bush appointees might not go the whole way and recognize that there is only one "religion clause" in the Constitution, in which "no establishment" serves the goal of "free exercise." But Gore appointees would certainly render Father Richard Neuhaus’s public square even more naked than it already is. And does anyone believe for a minute that vouchers or some other way of empowering parents to send their children to schools of their choosing would withstand scrutiny by a Court dominated by Clinton and Gore appointees?
Beyond the specifics is the larger issue-the judicial usurpation of our democracy. We are, increasingly, a people stripped of the rights of self-government. The Court’s decision in the partial-birth abortion case Stenberg v. Carhart overturned a bill that had been passed by Nebraska’s unicameral state legislature 99 to 1-a demonstration of popular will that didn’t give the slightest pause to the Court majority. Bush has said that he will appoint judges who interpret the law, not make the law. It is not the most elegant of formulations, but it gets to the essential point: "We the people" are no longer ruling through our duly elected representatives. Unless that trend is reversed, our democracy is in serious jeopardy.
The next four years will likely be the last window of opportunity in which to build some legal boundaries around the temptation, posed by the new biotechnologies, to remanufacture the human condition by remanufacturing human beings. In our present state of moral and scientific confusion (in which the nation’s leading newspaper can blithely describe a human embryo as a "microscopic clump of cells," overlooking the biological fact that that "clump" is what the New York Times’s reporters and editors looked like at that stage in their lives), it is just barely conceivable that we will get those boundaries in place in time. But that work will be in vain if the Supreme Court continues to insist, against both Catholic social doctrine and the classic political theory of the West, that freedom is personal autonomy, period, and that "personhood" is something the state ascribes at its pleasure.
That is what a Supreme Court dominated by Gore nominees will insist. And that is why Governor Bush must be elected.
If you want to live like a Republican," President Bill Clinton advised in his speech to the Democratic National Convention, "then you better vote for a Democrat." Thus did the Triangulator-in-Chief confirm his party’s ideological deference to the GOP. Indeed, seldom has the symbiosis of the two major parties been expressed with such unself-conscious crassness. Yet seldom has a clearer sign appeared that it is time to end the two-party regime of money, smugness, and consensus that nullifies every ballot. And the best way to exercise this urgent obligation is to vote this November for the Green Party ticket of Ralph Nader and Winona LaDuke.
"But isn’t voting for Nader wasting your vote?" the pundits insinuate. I think the question is just the opposite. Why are you stealing support from the Greens by casting a vote for either Al Gore or George W. Bush, two essentially interchangeable figureheads? I contend that the Green Party is currently the most indispensable vehicle, not only for the reclamation of our democracy from corporate power, but for the moral and imaginative renovation of our political life.
Ralph Nader’s moral integrity and intellectual caliber are unimpeachable, and he demonstrated his populist credentials by walking the picket lines with striking Verizon workers. (Try to imagine Gore doing this, and you’ll appreciate the need for a Green insurgency.) But the understandable focus on Nader has drawn attention away from the Green platform, an even more durable reason to abandon the mainstream. It calls for easing voter registration; twelve-year term limits on public officials; and full public financing of election campaigns. It endorses the repeal of the Taft-Hartley Act, one of the chief obstacles to a robust revival of the labor movement; worker control of pension funds; a proportional, single-chamber Congress; long-overdue cuts to the military budget, and an end to the "war on drugs" that has violated civil liberties, entangled the United States in a counterinsurgency war in Colombia, and distracted attention from urban poverty-as well as failed to stem the consumption of narcotics. It demands universal health care through a single-payer system; a thirty-hour work week so that "working families" (a phrase that unwittingly ratifies the assimilation of family life to corporate designs) can be just families; and not a minimum but a living wage, something Catholics especially should endorse with historical pride.
Indeed, the Green conceptions of ecology and economics recall some of the oft-forgotten but most desperately needed notions of Catholic social thought. In genuinely "personalist" fashion, the Greens call for an end to the legal fiction of corporate personhood and the gradual breakup of large corporations. Moving beyond the "regulatory" approach to corporations and an idea of civic virtue that does not extend much beyond recycling laws, the Green environmental program encourages bio-regionalist approaches to ecology and production that used to be championed by people as diverse as Peter Kropotkin, Lewis Mumford, the Catholic Workers, and the National Catholic Rural Life Conference. In what could be considered an imaginative extension of the "seamless garment" ethic, Greens call for the prohibition of patents on life forms in order both to preserve genetic diversity and to guarantee farmers’ access to seeds and other biotechnologies. And by insisting on "workplace democracy"-meaning not only a reanimated union movement but complete worker control of management, supervision, and technical design-the Greens revive not only syndicalism and guild socialism, but the democratic corporatist schemes of Jacques Maritain, John Ryan, and Raymond McGowan, as well as the ideals of Dorothy Day and Robert Ludlow.
While the Greens’ support for unlimited abortion rights should trouble Catholic voters, its conjunction with opposition to capital punishment should also highlight the contradiction and falsity of the positions taken by the consensus parties. Both parties unequivocally endorse the death penalty. But while the Democrats’ advocacy of "choice" is adamantine, the Republicans’ stated antithesis is, I strongly suspect, bogus, a rhetorical and even cynical ploy to attract Evangelical and Catholic voters. (Twenty years of relative inaction, the prominence of prochoice governors, and the prochoice sentiments of many Republican voters are additional reasons to suspect Republican integrity on this score.) I would argue that both major parties fail, in theory as well as in practice, the litmus test of any serious "life ethic." (Yes, litmus tests are eminently proper-what is real politics, folks, without pH levels of partisanship?) Thus, partly by default and partly by conviction, the Green platform is the ensemble of positions most palatable to Catholics.
This platform, while plainly more intelligent, republican, and genuinely populist than the boilerplate of the consensus parties, contains demands that at this point can also be described as utopian. But at this moral and imaginative nadir of our political culture, they represent the only visionary force in American politics, and vision becomes politically legitimate only through support. And that vision constitutes the only antidote to the facile cynicism that makes the choice between "the lesser of the evils" into the permanent condition of the evil of the lessers.