A swerve to the right
By Leonard Hitchcock
It is by now a platitude that the Republican Party has, over the past several years, moved strongly to the right. How and why this has occurred, however, is far from clear. Does the change represent a shifting of the views of average Republicans? Probably not, according to most commentators. Rather, the party has come under the control of a different segment of the Republican rank and file, a segment that has always held more conservative views and finally succeeded in acquiring the power to set the agenda and the policies of the party according to its own beliefs.
As to why the shift to the right has occurred, consider the issue of abortion. Republicans have opposed abortion for many years, but recently they have been on an unprecedented campaign, at both the state and federal level, to actually deprive women of the right to have abortions — a right to which the Constitution, according to the Supreme Court, entitles them.
Republican tactics have included legislating regulations that harass Planned Parenthood and other abortion providers, that require pregnant women to undergo medically-unnecessary ultrasonic scans in an effort to coerce them into choosing not to have abortions, that shorten the time period within which abortions may be legally performed to 20 weeks and less (a clear violation of the “viability” standard in Rowe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey), and, recently, that propose to eliminate some of the traditionally-accepted justifications for abortion, viz. rape and incest.
What has driven the Republicans to violate their own oft-proclaimed commitment to personal freedom, to de-regulation, and to keeping the government out of the private affairs of the citizenry? What has led them to go so far as to back away from an acknowledgement that the circumstances surrounding a woman’s becoming pregnant are relevant to the moral permissibility of abortion?
In previous columns I have discussed the findings of psychologists regarding the cognitive biases of radical conservatives. When confronted with a moral/social situation that calls for analysis and decision making, conservatives are drawn to the simplest analysis and to the decision which appears to represent complete certainty. The simplest analysis is one which identifies the fewest factors as relevant to decision-making; the greatest certainty is attained through the application of some moral principle that can be claimed as undeniably true.
In the case of the abortion problem, radical conservatives have formulated an argument that exemplifies these biases. They select one factor in the situation — the nature of the fetus — as relevant, claim that “personhood” is part of that nature, then invoke a moral absolute — the impermissibility of willful murder – to generate a decision. In other words, the argument is: All human fetuses are persons; killing a person is wrong; therefore, killing a fetus is wrong.
Someone less driven towards simplicity and certainty would find the abortion problem to be far more complicated and less amenable to a clear solution. The fetus is, after all, intimately connected to and dependent upon another human being, its mother, and that mother’s welfare, interests and rights are directly impacted by the life or death of the fetus. Furthermore, while the species of the fetus is scientifically ascertainable, its “personhood” is not; in fact, there is no agreement on what “personhood” actually means or when, if ever, it is appropriate to apply that label to a fetus. Neither is it the case that the killing of one human being by another, even when willfully done, is always a case of “murder.”
The radical right chooses to ignore these complexities in favor of a simple syllogism, and it has fastened upon this simplistic argument with a single-minded tenacity. Moreover, it has begun to take note of one of its implications: that the circumstances under which the fetus came to exist are irrelevant. If it is the “personhood” of the fetus that alone is decisive then, no matter how insemination takes place, whether through consensual sex or rape, killing the fetus is impermissible.
Another recognized cognitive bias of conservatives stems from their religious convictions. Catholic and evangelical sects explicitly condemn abortion, and underlying that judgment are a host of implausible assumptions about God’s existence, God’s interest in humankind, the special status of humans, the existence of souls, and so forth, all of which feed into the conservatives’ analysis of relevancy. And their willingness to assume that there are such things as moral absolutes is, needless to say, heavily dependent upon the assumption that there is a divine law-giver.
Moderate Republicans tend to recognize that abortion is a complex issue and differing opinions are possible. Even if they cannot accept the cogency of pro-choice arguments, they acknowledge that those arguments represent an honestly-held opinion that deserves respect. For moderates, compromise is an option. The new Right believes that its narrow analysis of the issue has put it in possession of God’s own truth on the matter. It insists upon ideological purity and rejects compromise. That is the essence of the swerve to the right: Republicans are no longer a political party, they are a crusade.
Leonard Hitchcock of Pocatello is a professor emeritus at Idaho State University.