Office Hours: ‘I thought these issues were settled’

Updated
Office Hours: 'I thought these issues were settled'
Office Hours: 'I thought these issues were settled'
“I woke up from Mardi Gras, and realized I didn’t have rights anymore.”

This was the brief, funny, more than a bit overstated, yet informative reflection of one of my Tulane students during a lunch discussion on Thursday. While most people enjoyed a brief respite this week for Presidents’ Day, New Orleans was in the full crescendo of our ancient and all-consuming ritual of carnival. The effect, even for my most politically astute students, was to distract them from the Republican primaries. As the world began to return to normal on Wednesday this student was shocked to discover that transvaginal ultrasounds, personhood initiatives, and debates about the availability of birth control were dominating the political landscape. “This is really jarring,” she said “I thought these issues were settled.”

Her experience is a useful metaphor. The past several years have felt a bit like waking up to the jarring realization that issues on which many assumed we had reached consensus are still open for debate. Rights we believed secured can still be rescinded.

Confident that citizens enjoy a right to privacy ensuring them the right to decline or consent to bodily invasions? Virginia’s legislative actions this week shake that conviction.

Convinced that our multiracial democracy has a broad interest in and commitment to diversity? The impending affirmative action case heading to the Supreme Court threatens that assumption.

Assume there is no religious litmus test for leadership of our constitutionally secular government? The GOP primaries might deceive you into thinking we are in church rather than watching debates.

Believe that racially derogatory stereotypes are artifacts of 1950s Hollywood? This weekend’s Academy Awards repackage them for the 21st century.

This wake-up call need not be frightening or discouraging. It is just the work of democracy–a reminder that history does not march inevitably toward egalitarian ends. There is always circularity, retrenchment, resistance, halting progress, and struggle. While it is useful to eschew discouragement, it is worth asking why this menu of “social issues” has reemerged so forcefully during this political moment. These are my best guesses.

An incumbent president, even one who looks as vulnerable as President Obama did in late 2011, tends to discourage the opposing party’s strongest candidates from entering the race. (See: Hillary Clinton, circa 2004.) That the Republican Party is suffering from a less than stellar choice set is painfully obvious.

With the likes of Chris Christie, Nikki Haley, Bobby Jindal, Jeb Bush, and Marco Rubio potentially biding their time for a nomination that may be open in 2016, this year’s Republican field is dominated by a quirky set of ideologues and desperate-to-remain-relevant-has-beens willing to grasp at social-issue straws rather than offer coherent economic alternatives. Who would have guessed that Herman Cain’s 9-9-9 plan would still be the most recognizable conservative economic strategy of the campaign season? With the more racially and gender diverse Republican Party still nascent in the wings, the Republican presidential primary has devolved into older White guys talking birth control on Ash Wednesday. Shudder.

Further, the militarism of the Obama administration is hampering the normally effective hawkishness of Republicans. Able to cite the deaths Osama bin Laden, Muammar Khaddafy, and more than a few Somali pirates on his watch while still touting a troop reduction in Iraq, President Obama makes Republican claims of his weakness laughable. Many progressives are unhappy with the President’s foreign policy, but it is an effective guard on his right flank. So conservatives are reduced to invoking with the nuclear Iran bogeyman and…abortion. We are supposed to be terrified of both Ahmadinejad and unrestrained ovaries, oh yeah, and undocumented workers from Mexico.

These are, of course, only hypotheses and we are still at the start of what will be a long election year. The Republican field may prove less anemic than it appears right now. The eventual nominee may enter the fall with a more muscular approach to economic policy. In the meantime, we need to stay awake to the possibility that this primary season can do real damage to the rights many of us thought were long settled.

Office Hours: 'I thought these issues were settled'

Updated