Culture War Aggression?

Andrew Sullivan’s assessment of the Biden administration is troubling. Rather than seeking the unity he promised, Sullivan suggests that Biden is pursuing policies favorable to the left which will alienate conservatives. A certain percentage of conservatives supported Trump merely because they worried about an aggressively liberal Biden administration. I had many conversations with such conservatives in which I suggested that their fears were overwrought and Biden would pursue consistently moderate policies. He is and always has been a moderate. Why would he become anything else as President? And yet, why do his first acts as President seem so immoderate? Why does he seem beholden to the liberal forces in the Democratic party that he defeated in the primaries?

For instance, one of the real worries for religious conservatives, embodied by the recent Fulton v. City of Philadelphia case, has been the protection of individual religious conscience over and against state attack in the name of LGBTQ+ equality. A significant number of religious conservatives abandoned their scruples about Trump because of their fear of secular attacks on their religion. Seemingly, it would have lowered the temperature a great deal to quiet conservative fears by staying away from these issues. But as Sullivan reports: “Biden also pledges to remove any protection for orthodox religious freedom and individual conscience in “LGBTQ+” areas in his proposed Equality Act, which repeals the relevant sections of Biden’s own Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and also makes sex indistinguishable from gender.” Two different notions of unity underlie the difficulty here. Religious conservatives might be convinced to seek unity and abandon Trump’s fiery divisiveness if they knew that their concerns would be respected. If their concerns aren’t going to be respected, why not continue the fight? I suspect secular liberals do sincerely want unity but they want that unity on the basis of terms that they think the only conceivably just terms. Liberals ask: why should religious people have the sorts of exemptions promised by the RFRA if those exemptions result in unjust treatment? Both sides are seeing past each other. Religious conservatives think their survival depends on decisively “defeating” their adversary, removing the danger by taking them off the field. Secular liberals think that they can and should convince religious conservatives of what they think is the obvious injustice of their opinions. If religious conservatives can’t be convinced of the injustice of their opinions, then secular liberals think they should be removed from the field.

By contrast, constitutionalism depends on seeing politics not as two adversaries lined up in the field against one another ready to go to war. Instead, it depends on seeing why the other side might hold its opinions and not assuming the worst of them. Although it’s not necessary to agree with the other side, it is necessary to accept that they are legitimate partners in the business of governing and seeking the common good. People engaged in a war don’t respect constitutional processes. To respect constitutional processes, we need to learn again how to respect the other side. Ultimately, constitutionalism, which is in such peril right now, depends on both sides lowering the temperature.

3 thoughts on “Culture War Aggression?

  1. I would urge readers to take a look at President Biden’s actual executive order on equity (linked in the Sullivan piece) and compare its components to Sullivan’s description. Still more striking is Biden’s multi-pronged immigration plan — which I have only seen in outline from the administration–not an actual bill. In its outline the administration addresses every concern Sullivan has regarding incentives to dissuade an influx, enhanced border security, and so forth. I find Andrew Sullivan’s piece, and Ben’s elaboration of it, to be distortions of Biden’s actual statements and orders thus far.

    1. I did look over it and it talks a great deal about various “equity” commissions. What he means by equity isn’t made clear. Perhaps he doesn’t mean what Sulivan says he means. But the word certain has connotations of equality of results. As I try to show in the post, my deepest worry is the religious question. I think much of the “fuel” for the culture war comes from the two dramatically different ways of seeing the world that follow from religious belief. To settle it down, I think Biden needs to steer a course that doesn’t include things like getting rid of RFRAs. We shall see.

      1. The Biden executive order begins as follows: “Equal opportunity is the bedrock of American democracy, and our diversity is one of our country’s greatest strengths. But for too many, the American Dream remains out of reach. Entrenched disparities in our laws and public policies, and in our public and private institutions, have often denied that equal opportunity to individuals and communities. Our country faces converging economic, health, and climate crises that have exposed and exacerbated inequities, while a historic movement for justice has highlighted the unbearable human costs of systemic racism. Our Nation deserves an ambitious whole-of-government equity agenda that matches the scale of the opportunities and challenges that we face.”

        Note several things: 1) equality of opportunity remains the goal — one from which American life has fallen so far short that it prompted the recent widespread awareness of systemic racism. 2) though equality of opportunity is never mentioned explicitly in the Constitution, equity is — and indeed was a principal reason the anti-federalist Brutus opposed the Constitution. Brutus lost. Equity is as American as apple pie. Joseph Story wrote one of his most important treatises about it. 3) religious minorities are one of the potentially disadvantaged groups for whom equity might be necessary, as explicitly mentioned in this order. 4) does equality of opportunity really capture the just quest for marriage equality that rightly concerned Andrew Sullivan earlier in his career? Is not the insistence, for example, for marriage equality rather than civil union equality a matter more of equity than equality of opportunity? 5) finally, and in sum, Sullivan and Kleinerman are the ones raising issue of culture wars fought on old and tired familiar terms — not President Biden. Biden owes his election, and the country owes an enormous dept to Jim Clyburn and African-Americans throughout the South on Super Tuesday for nominating Biden and defeating Donald Trump. It was imperative that systemic racism and its cousins be a first order of business for President Biden, along with the pandemic. His executive order is powerful, but measured, and it changes the terms of the debate from those that Sullivan and Kleinerman reflexively impose upon it.

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