by Sheila Liaugminas
Identity politics keep demographers and pollsters and political strategists busy. But they keep the rest of us divided in ways many of us don’t appreciate. The 2008 presidential election engaged class and race warfare to a degree that seemed to set the nation back decades. The 2012 election is ramping it up. Only this year, gender politics are newly strategic, and faith-based voters are more discounted.
As if there’s such a thing as “the Catholic vote” and “the woman vote.”
The war of words
Time and again in news media I’m reminded of Walter Lippman’s classic Public Opinion (1922), on the ability of government and other bureaucrats, organizations, and media to manipulate perceptions of truth by controlling the language. It pre-dated Roe v. Wade and the myth of “choice” by about 50 years.
And it pre-dated by about 43 years the 1965 Griswold v. Connecticut Supreme Court ruling that a state’s ban on the use of contraceptives violated the right to privacy. That was the case that set everything else in place for the sexual revolution and abortion law and became one of the milestones in human history for vast and rapid cultural change.
I wouldn’t have thought of this had it not been for a fast turn of events in succession.
Last August, President Obama’s Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius announced that HHS was planning to require health insurance coverage for contraception, sterilization, and abortion-inducing drugs as “preventive care for women” with no co-pay and no opt-out for employers. Disregarding objections from one of the nation’s largest health care providers Catholic hospitals along with the collective voice of the Catholic bishops, the administration turned it into a mandate in January 2012. Just over a week after the Supreme Court ruled unanimously in the Hosanna-Tabor case to uphold religious liberty and deny the Obama administration the right to tell churches how they could define ministry and ministerial duties.
Since then, my show on Relevant Radio, “A Closer Look,” has featured religious leaders from the Catholic and non-Catholic world, including an Orthodox Rabbi, a Muslim woman attorney, the president of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, and evangelical leaders. I’ve interviewed legal scholars from the American Center for Law and Justice, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, the Center for Vision & Values, and the Witherspoon Institute. The issue is the constitutional right of religious liberty established in the First Amendment by the nation’s founders. But the administration spun it as a women’s rights issue, in what some experts called a calculated strategy. Though it didn’t take an expert to see that.
Into this charged public debate over women’s health and choice and rights came an astounding and instructive event. The Susan G. Komen breast cancer advocacy group in late January announced plans to stop funding Planned Parenthood. The announcement was met with a deluge of opposition and a strong response by Planned Parenthood. The swift reversal by Komen took place in about two days. And then it was gone from news coverage.
It was replaced in the media by a campaign to target the Catholic Church as the enemy of the administration because of the Church’s teaching on birth control. Accusations of Obama’s “war on the Church” were drowned out by accusations of the Church’s “war on women,” deflecting attention from the violation of conscience fundamentally at stake in the government’s HHS mandate.
The “war on women” was an obvious campaign strategy in this election year. Media drove it in GOP presidential debates by injecting social moral issues about marriage, family, and, inevitably, questions of contraception into the mix. If only the question ABC’s George Stephanopoulos posed to Governor Mitt Romney about birth control pills had produced any serious media scrutiny of where that question came from, or the ramifications of the Griswold decision.
In the spring primary season, it quickly went from Rick Santorum’s “war” to Mitt Romney’s, though it was political theatrics.
“They make a mistake when they think women are a monolithic group,” [New Hampshire Republican senator Kelly] Ayotte says. “Women have diverse opinions on these issues.” She points to a USA Today/Gallup poll of battleground states in which women ranked government policies on birth control as the sixth most important issue to them this election, behind health care, gas prices, unemployment, the national debt/deficit, and international affairs. Democrats want to push the “war on women” storyline because they think it will work well for them, Ayotte says. “But at the end of the day, women have very different opinions, and they’re going to vote on a broad array of issues.”
(“Mitt’s Women Problem”, National Review online, April 23, 2012)
At the end of that week, Democratic operative Hilary Rosen criticized Romney’s wife, Ann, as a reliable voice for women in her husband’s campaign, because “she hasn’t worked a day in her life.” That was a game-changer.
Women vs. Women
In a relatively short period of time, I interviewed Matthew Franck of the Witherspoon Institute, and the Love & Fidelity Network’s Cassy Hough on “the lies our culture tells” to young adults. I interviewed Jennifer Roback Morse of the Ruth Institute, time and again, Maggie Gallagher, Brad Wilcox, Robert George, Helen Alvare, Marjorie Dannenfelser, and Kathryn Jean Lopez among many others. I had Jenn Giroux and Cathy Cleaver Ruse and Colleen Carroll Campbell on my program.
One week in April, several guests and shows somehow intersected on the topic of the sexual revolution and what it has wrought in the culture.
There was Mary Eberstadt on her book Adam and Eve after the Pill (2012, Ignatius Press). Mary Ann Glendon on the HHS mandate and constitutional law and religious freedom. Dr. Glendon speaks from a depth of knowledge on “the women of Roe.”
Organized feminism had almost nothing to say to women like me who were trying to juggle work and family obligations. In fact, many of its spokeswomen went out of their way to denigrate marriage and motherhood... Ironically, the old feminism brought to light how much of women’s work has been undervalued, but then bought into that very same disrespect by acting as though the only work that matters is market work.
(“The Women of Roe v. Wade”, First Things, June-July 2003)
Which played out exactly when Hilary Rosen disrespected Ann Romney for “not working a day in her life” while raising a family.
I talked with Barbara Nicolosi about her chapter in a book called Style, Sex, and Substance: 10 Catholic Women Consider the Things that Really Matter (2012, Our Sunday Visitor, Hallie Lord, ed.) Culture shapers, and especially the millennial generation, are fixed on one basic question, she says: “What is it to be family?”:
As Catholic women, daughters, wives, and grandmothers and moms, we have something vital and saving to say about all of these things.
Are they counted in those polls tallying “the woman vote”?
Radio listeners and readers of my blog and audiences in talks I give have told me they hope women will come forward and speak out with conviction and clarity to counterbalance the high-profile attention women of the abortion movement have long been getting. I think it’s happening, and it’s building.
Some pundits say the president and his campaign have written off the Catholic vote as a reliable bloc this time around, and that’s hard to say. But “the woman vote” is another story. And it’s a narrative no pollster or pundit can tell. Mary Eberstadt said in a March Wall Street Journal article, “Has the Sexual Revolution Been Good for Women? No”:
Myth No. 3: The “social issues” are unwanted artifacts of a primitive religious past that will eventually just fade away.
To the contrary. What we know as the “social issues” abortion, gay marriage and the rest are here to stay, and we’ll be dealing with them for generations to come. In fact, one might even predict that these vexing issues will outlast almost every other controversy burning today.
The pollsters just don’t understand the woman vote any more than they can pigeonhole any gender or class or identity group into any particular election outcome. Colleen Carroll Campbell made a key point in her column, reprinted in this issue of Voices:
As for the women’s vote, pollsters attest that knowing a woman’s marital status and level of religious observance will allow you to predict her electoral choices with far more accuracy than knowing her gender alone.
And most pollsters don’t acknowledge the weight of that demographic data. Or in human terms, faith and values. But demographers and pollsters don’t determine the outcome of elections.
Sheila Liaugminas, a member of the Voices editorial board, is a noted Catholic journalist who lives in Chicago. She currently hosts the daily program “A Closer Look” on Relevant Radio, and serves as network news director. Her blog: SheilaReports.com.
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