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Why Identity Politics Works (Except When It Doesn’t)

Guest Blogger Dave Thomer explains how he picked a candidate to support in the PA Gubernatorial race.  (Hint: It's NOT this guy, current Governor Tom Corbett)

Guest Blogger Dave Thomer explains how he picked a candidate to support in the PA Gubernatorial race.
(Hint: It’s NOT this guy, current Governor Tom Corbett)

I’m a Philadelphia resident who teaches in the Philadelphia public schools and has been married to WRUN Admin Pattie for the last 14 years. So you are probably not surprised to hear that I am rather eager to see Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett defeated in 2014. I am optimistic that the Democratic nominee will be able to defeat Corbett, but first there is the significant issue of choosing said Democratic nominee. I spent a large chunk of today trying to decide if I would donate to any of the candidates before the July 31st filing deadline, and wrote about that process at my site, This Is Not News. I thought it might be worthwhile to discuss how gender factored into my decision. All things being equal, I would like to support a female candidate for the nomination. But at this stage of the campaign, I found myself unable to do so.

Let me tackle both parts of that process. Why did I go into the process hoping that I could find a woman to support? Part of the answer is pure political calculation. There is usually a significant gender gap in support of the Democratic and Republican parties, and I believe that a qualified female candidate could widen that gap in the Democrats’ favor. In the specific case of Corbett, his position on reproductive choice and his comments about women closing their eyes during trans-vaginal ultrasounds might not be the primary reasons for his low approval ratings. But they are certainly not helping, and a strong female candidate should be able to vividly demonstrate how absurd and out of touch Corbett’s positions are. As I mentioned, I really want to see Corbett defeated. So if a woman gives the Democratic Party a better chance to do that, I would like to pick that woman.

The larger reason, however, is that when we vote for someone we are not selecting a policy automaton who will make political decisions based on some set of formal algorithms. We are electing a person who is going to make judgment calls, and sometimes that judgment is going to be based on the personal experiences that make each one of us different. I have written before about how important empathy is for a functioning democracy. It is important for each of us to try to look at the world from another person’s point of view, and understand how our choices will affect them. It is important that every citizen believe that the people in their government are trying to understand the consequences of the policies they they propose.

In order for empathy to really work, we have to be exposed to as many different perspectives as we can. With all the good will in the world, I can not imagine the perspectives and experiences of others who come from different backgrounds. I need to listen to them when they speak. I need to read them when they write. I need to spend time with them in order to know them as people so that my imagination has something to work with when I try to be empathetic. It is a lot easier to hear and learn about different experiences when there are leaders who have had those experiences. It is a lot harder to avoid hearing and learning about them as well. I would point to President Obama’s comments about Trayvon Martin as an example.

On the flip side, empathy only goes so far. There are things that I understand at a deeper level because I experienced them. So when you have a job like the governor, which can only be held by one person at a time, it is inevitable that there will be some issues and concerns that the governor understands at a personal level and some that he or she does not. As long as the governor is trying to reach beyond his or her own experiences, that is fine. But what can be harmful is if one governor after another has the same basic background and perspective. The government will wind up institutionalizing that one perspective, and others will be lost. There have only been a total of 36 female governors in the entire history of the United States. There are currently only five in office. Pennsylvania has never had one. So in the abstract, before I look at individual candidates, I can see a strong reason to want a governor who can bring a personal experience of the issues facing women to the office.

Some people might question me generalizing that women and men have different experiences, such that I would assume that a woman has understanding of something that I assume a man is lacking. Don’t those assumptions work against the idea of equality? Wouldn’t it be better if I just took a bunch of resumes, biographies, and policy statements, then stripped them of all reference to gender, and picked the best one? Well, besides the fact that such a process is practically impossible, I believe that equality requires recognizing and affirming differences. From a pure biological standpoint, women and men will have to deal with health issues that are not identical. I think that’s a relevant difference when you think of the impact that a governor can have on health care policy.

Beyond that, as much as I would like to say that we live in a world that is free of gender stereotyping (as well as stereotyping based on race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and so on), the truth is that we do not live in that world yet. Lots of people treat men and women differently. That means that men and women will experience the world in different ways.

Here’s a personal example. When our daughter was born, I was in graduate school working on my dissertation. Pattie had a full time job that provided the bulk of our income, not to mention our health insurance. So Pattie went back to work and I stayed home to watch our daughter while I did my research and writing. At work, many of Pattie’s female coworkers assumed that she was going to quit her job as soon as possible in order to be a stay at home parent. Meanwhile, I took our daughter with me to take care of some paperwork at the university, and a couple of people made comments like, “Oh look, Daddy’s taking care of you for the day!” We each fought against the expectations people had based on our gender, and I’d say that Pattie had the more aggravating fight to deal with.

If you want a more substantial example in the policy world, look at what people are saying about Janet Yellin and whether she has what it takes to be the chairperson of the Federal Reserve. Men can and should be empathetic to that kind of stereotyping. But we should also have leaders who have faced and overcome it personally, to help create a new culture where the next generation of leaders will not have to face the same obstacles.

So that’s why, all things being equal, I would like to support a woman to be the Democratic Party’s nominee for governor. (Feel free to bookmark this post, come back in 18 months, and do a search-and-replace to change to “governor” to “president.”) And yet, at the end of the day, I’ve chosen to support John Hanger. How can I do that in light of everything I have just written?

Well, that’s where the “all things being equal” comes in. Background and biography are important, but they are not a blank check. I have to have the sense that the candidate will use that background to try to implement policies that I support. Hanger has just done so much more than the other candidates to define his positions that the other candidates look much poorer in comparison. I absolutely love former environmental protection secretary Katie McGinty’s resume and biography. But she barely mentions education at all on her campaign website, and even her environmental policies are vague. I want her to step up her game. If by January, she’s laid out proposals that are even close to Hanger’s on the critical education and economic issues facing the state, I will happily change my support.

In the end, I think that this shows where “identity politics” factors into my thinking. It’s important to evaluate candidates based on their qualifications and proposals. But when deciding between candidates who have cleared that bar, establishing greater diversity in government is a virtue that can legitimately push one qualified candidate ahead of another.

Dave Thomer is a teacher, adjunct professor and blogger from Philadelphia. He blogs at www.notnews.org


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Empathy and the More Perfect Union

By Dave Thomer
Special Guest Blogger

As the Democratic National Convention opens, many speakers and presentations will attempt to convey the idea that President Barack Obama understands and cares about the challenges and opportunities that a wide variety of American citizens face. Witness, for example, Day One’s speeches by Stacy Lihn, a mother who is concerned about the cost of medical procedures necessary to save the life of her daughter with a congenital heart defect, or Lilly Ledbetter, whose remarks continue to stress the importance of wage equality. This effort aims both to convey the Democratic Party’s empathy for voters and convince the voters that they should value empathy in their public officials. Partisan Democrat that I am, I think this is a wise and necessary move.

Empathy has been an important part of Obama’s vision for a long time. In general terms, his frequent mention of the Biblical notion of being “my brother’s keeper,” modified to include being “my sister’s keeper” as well, demands a degree of empathy. In order to look out for each other, it’s necessary that we think about how our actions will affect another person. In order to think about how my actions will affect someone else, I have to understand that person’s position and circumstances. It’s not enough for me to say, “How would this affect me, if there were somehow an exact duplicate of me in a position to be affected by my action?” I have to know something about the actual person who is going to be affected.

Obama has also been more specific in citing the need for empathy. He ran into some pushback when he was getting ready to nominate Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court because he cited empathy as one of the qualifications he was looking for in a justice:

[T]he issues that come before the court are not sport. They’re life and death. And we need somebody who’s got the heart to recogni– the empathy to recognize what it’s like to be a young, teenaged mom; the empathy to understand what it’s like to be poor or African-American or gay or disabled or old. (Full Quote.)

Critics accused him of wanting a justice who would ignore the law and the Constitution in order to follow her feelings. But the law is often vague and incomplete. Certainly the Constitution is. Witness the ongoing argument over the meaning of the Second Amendment, or the fact that the notion of a right to privacy is not explicitly stated in the Constitution but must be inferred from the text based on the existence of other rights as well as our own expectations as citizens. There is always a context to be taken into account, and there are often multiple valid but conflicting interpretations that one can choose. Obama makes the explicit claim that when we do so, we should do so by understanding the effect that our chosen interpretation will have on others.

I would make the argument that this empathy isn’t just a requirement for presidents and Supreme Court justices. It’s a requirement for every citizen in a democracy. When we choose our positions on issues, or choose which candidates to support, we shouldn’t just think about how that choice affects us. We should think about how it will affect our fellow citizens, and then decide which option will have the best overall result, even if it means that we make an individual sacrifice.

There’s no formal requirement that we do this in a democracy. We can treat voting the way that many economists treat the market: a group of disconnected individuals all making their own decisions about their individual self-interest. In the aggregate these individual decisions will create a majority that will drive society forward, hopefully creating the highest possible good. I don’t like this vision of democracy because it seems short sighted and disrespectful of fellow citizens. It encourages us to treat politics and government as a matter of winners and losers. In a democracy based on self-interest it becomes rational for some voters to oppose something like the Lilly Ledbetter Act because it will redistribute certain resources. In a democracy based on empathy, we can feel and understand the unfairness of wage inequality and it becomes rational to search for a solution to that problem.

I know which of those societies I prefer, and I’ll be taking my stand on the question on election day. As important as that vote will be, it’s just as important to remember that every day, every one of us has a chance to build that society, empathic act by empathic act, and create more space for our leaders to act accordingly.

Dave Thomer is a public high school teacher and college instructor. He blogs about education, philosophy, politics, and more at NotNews.org.


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The 112th Congress’ Worst Moments for Women

7 Aug 2012

By now we are all well aware that the 112th Congress left a lot to be desired in terms of actual legislating and leadership.  By last count, the 112th sent only 54 bills to the President, 14 of which were to rename post offices (the latter of which is ironic since one of the many items this Congress failed to do was come up with a plan to restructure the struggling U.S. Postal Service). They also failed to take any action on the economy (despite having the President’s proposed jobs plan in their laps since last year) and failed to come up with a federal response plan to the worst drought this nation has seen since the Dust Bowl.

So what did the 112th Congress spend their time doing?  Three things, actually: trying to block the Affordable Care Act, obsessing about birth control coverage, and trying to limit abortion rights.  And on those three items, the 112th was very busy.  How busy? Check out our list of this Congress’ 10 Worst Actions for American Woman and judge for yourself.

The all-male birth control panel at a House hearing earlier this year. (Photo Courtesy ThinkProgress.org)

  1. The All-Male Birth Control Panel. – Who can forget this? It was the picture that summarized the War on Women for many of us: the so-called panel of “experts” called in to testify before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform’s hearings on the health care birth control mandate.  Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA) invited only male members of clergy to testify as to the mandate’s implications (and refused a request from the Democrats to include Georgetown student Sandra Fluke) in February 2012.  Democratic female lawmakers called foul. Some even walked out of the hearings in protest. Photos of the hearing went viral, enraging women from coast to coast and sending political tongues wagging. For advocates of reproductive rights, the panel was visceral proof that Congress wanted to make laws governing the reproductive options available to women…without regard for or input from women.  For their part, Rep. Issa and his House GOP colleagues seemed surprised that anyone would see anything wrong with holding a hearing about female contraceptives and leaving out females.  Perhaps they lack the insight of Senator Barbara Boxer’s (D-CA) sixteen year old grandson, who saw the now-infamous photo of the panel and instantly sussed out the problem: “It’s all dudes.”
  1. The House strips down VAWA, leading to a Congressional stalemate on the bill. – Question: When did protecting women from domestic violence become a partisan issue? Answer: In 2012. The 112th Congress managed to take one of the few non-partisan legislative issues of the past twenty years, an Act that passed Congress overwhelmingly in 1994, and was reauthorized in 2000 and 2005, and turn into a partisan mess that revealed a shocking lack of concern for the women facing domestic violence. In April, female Republican Senators joined with Senate Democrats to pass S. 1925, a bill which reauthorized the Act and expanded its protections to include immigrants, LGBT persons, and Native American women. No-brainers, right? Wrong.  After a highly charged debate throughout which there was much finger pointing as to just which party hated women more, the House passed a bill that reauthorized VAWA without the Senate’s expansions. In a contentious election year, wherein both parties typically don’t see past the end of the news cycle, reconciliation of the two bills was doomed and Congress set about passing more pressing legislation, namely renaming post offices.
  1. Rep. Mike Kelly compares mandatory birth control coverage to Pearl Harbor and 9/11. – In a moment of stunning short-sightedness, Representative Mike Kelly (R-PA) declared that August 1, 2012, the first day that insurers were required to cover birth control for American woman, would be remembered as an “attack on our religious freedom. That is a day that will live in infamy,” along with December 7, 1941 and September 11, 2001.  We realize that Rep. Kelly is a little past the demographic for Sesame Street but is it too much to hope that a sitting member of the U.S. Congress has grasped the concept of the “one of these things is not like the others” game?  Evidently not.  Senator (and World War II Vet) Daniel Inouye (D-HI) later scolded Kelly’s comparison as “complete nonsense.”  We could not agree more.
  1. House holds 33 symbolic votes to repeal the Affordable Care Act. –  The American people have been demanding that Congress do something – anything – about the economy, about jobs, about infrastructure, about the financial services industry, about a whole lot of urgent issues facing the country today. So what did they do? Well, in the case of the GOP-led House of Representatives, they voted 33 times to repeal the Affordable Health Care Act over the past year and half. Even though none of bills repealing the law would go anywhere in the Senate and would certainly be vetoed by the President. Even though the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the Act in July 2012. Even though the Act is designed to provide coverage for 30 million uninsured Americans. Even though the Act ends certain egregious insurance industry practices such as charging higher premiums to women and refusing to cover pre-existing conditions.  Several polls have shown that public opinion has shifted on the Affordable Care Act, with the majority of Americans now supporting government role in providing access to health care coverage. Does that shift mean that these legislators will give up their mission to repeal the ACA? Not likely according to Rep. Marsha Blackmun (R-TN), who said, after the latest symbolic vote, “We’re going to keep at it until we get this legislation off the books.”
  1. The Blunt Amendment tries to mix contraception coverage with highway funding, at women’s expense. When we said that the 112th Congress obsessed about birth control, we’re not exaggerating. Republicans in the 112th found a way to voice their displeasure at mandatory contraception coverage in the unlikeliest of legislative conversations, even highway construction. In February 2012, Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO) added an amendment to a highway bill that would have not only allowed all employers to block contraception coverage for employees due to moral objections but would them to block coverage of any health service required by the 2010 health-care law. Pandora’s Box much, Senator?  The vote to kill the amendment ultimately succeeded but the vote was a terrifyingly close 51-48, largely along party lines, though three Democrats supported the amendment, and one Republican voted against it. It should be noted that the sole Republican who voted against the Blunt Amendment was Olympia Snowe (R-ME), who is retiring from the Senate.
  1. Senate blocks advancement of the Paycheck Fairness Act. – We’ve heard it time and time again; American women earn, on average, 77 cents for every dollar a man earns. Minority women earn even less. And despite the insistence of some that this is discrepancy is solely due to all that time women take off to raise babies, the real statistics tell a different story. The fact is gender discrimination is still a major factor in the wage gap. The Paycheck Fairness Act, introduced in 2011 in both houses of Congress would have required employers to demonstrate that salary differences between men and women doing the same work are not gender-related. it would also haves prohibited employers from retaliating against workers who compare salary information with their coworkers for comparison.  Opponents of the bill argued that the existing Equal Pay and Civil Rights Acts adequately protected women from gender wage discrimination and that the Paycheck Fairness Act would only result in “unnecessary litigation.” The Paycheck Fairness Act failed to gather the necessary votes to advance. All Senate Republicans, including female Republican Senators who had supported early drafts of the bill, voted against it. That made us wonder, what would happen if American taxpayers tried to pay female lawmakers 77% of what male lawmakers make? Would they support paycheck fairness then?
  1. Senator Mike Lee adds D.C. anti-abortion amendment to cyber-security bill.  Just hours after a similar bill restricting abortions in the District of Columbia failed to pass in the House, Senator Mike Lee (R-UT) resurrected the proposal and attached it to a completely unrelated cyber-security bill in the Senate. The proposal, which aimed to ban abortions in D.C. after the 20th week of pregnancy without providing exceptions for the health of the mother, is based a now-disputed study on fetal pain.  Abortion opponents won’t let go of the study, especially after having success in passing statewide bans such as one in Arizona. In fact, the House version of the bill was backed by PReNDA author Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ), who has vowed to bring up the bill again in the next session of Congress.  As for the cyber-security bill, like most bills branded with abortion regulations, it proved radioactive and failed to pass, adding one more item to the list of issues the 112th failed to resolve.
  1. Senator Rand Paul plays anti-abortion politics with flood relief bill. – In what is perhaps the clearest example of why Congress spends a great deal of time getting nothing done, Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) is apparently trying to build his career by stalling legislation. In June 2012, Paul attempted to derail flood insurance legislation that was expected to pass the Senate easily (on the eve of flood and hurricane season, no less) by demanding that the Senate vote on whether life began at conception as part of the bill’s review. Senator Harry Reid (D-NV) called the request ridiculous, and postponed the vote on the bill, rather than accede to Paul’s demand.  The Senate was eventually able to negotiate a resolution to the flood insurance bill by combining it with student loan legislation but Paul is undeterred. His other obstructions include attaching anti-union clauses and gun rights provisions to foreign policy legislation and trying to force in an amendment repealing the contraception insurance coverage requirement by inserting it into federal highway legislation.   Other lawmakers are beginning to emulate these tactics, increasing the number of instances where politicians try to earn their political  bona fides by preventing Congress from getting anything done.
  1. Denny Rehberg vs. Women’s Healthcare. – In a Congress where flip-flopping and shifting allegiances can be the rule and not the exception, Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-MT) stands out as remarkably consistent. Unfortunately for us, he’s consistent on blocking women’s access to affordable health services. For two years in a row, in his role as Chair of the House Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies, Rehberg submitted a budget that eliminates funding to Planned Parenthood and to the Title X family planning programs that provide health care access to nearly five million low-income women every year. Do we have to say yet again that federal law already prevents taxpayer funds from funding abortion services?  So in cutting funds to these programs, Rehberg is really advocating eliminating badly needed preventative health care, such as cancer screenings, to low-income women? In the 2013 budget, Rehberg added provision that would let all employers block contraception coverage from employees for “moral objections” even though the birth control mandate already allows this exemption for religious organizations. Basically, this is Rehberg doing a mulligan on the failed Blunt Amendment (see Item 5 on this list).
  1. Rep. Trent Franks pushes unenforceable PReNDA. – In May 2012, Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ), one of the House’s most prominent anti-abortion legislators, introduced the Prenatal Discrimination Act, to ban “sex-selective abortions” – the practice wherein women choose to terminate pregnancies because they are carrying female fetuses.  Call us cynical but we could not help but be perplexed when Franks and his House GOP colleagues touted this bill as civil rights legislation, given the party’s typical insistence that not only are existing civil rights laws more than adequate, but that liberals should not be so quick to assume that gender discrimination is widespread. Indeed, they argued that gender discrimination in U.S. abortions was widespread, a claim not backed up by fact.  Put simply, PReNDA was designed to put more legal obstacles between women and abortion services. Under the law medical professionals would be required to report “suspected” discriminatory abortions or face possible criminal charges. The legislation would also allow a woman’s partner or parents to sue an abortion provider if they suspect she got an abortion because of the fetus’ gender. The vagueness of the law would have resulted in any woman terminating the pregnancy where the fetus turned out to be female to be suspect. The chilling effect of the law on women’s health service providers would have been immeasurable. Women’s rights groups including Planned Parenthood and the Center for Reproductive Rights joined with  medical associations and civil rights groups in opposing this bill, which failed to get the required two-thirds majority to pass.  It only fell short by 30 votes, though, something voters who support reproductive rights need to remember when they go to the polls this November.