Life Watch: A Winter’s Tale

Editor’s note: Professor Arkes filed this story in October, when he was still hoping for the best but bracing for the worst.

Cayman Islands

December, 2010

Dear Eli:

I gather, from your Dad, that you are working on a research paper in school, and that an idea was sparked when you found, in the attic of the old house, some old party banners—a bumper sticker for someone called “Reagan,” and some insignia resembling an elephant. Your Dad was right: these were symbols of a group once known as the Republican party, a party that came into existence at the time of Abraham Lincoln, and came apart just a couple of years after you were born.

Your Dad also remembered correctly: I had been registered as a member of this party, one of only two people in the Amherst College community who were openly declared as Republicans. This was all the more curious because your grandmother and I had arrived in Amherst in the fall of 1966 as what used to be called “Kennedy-Johnson Democrats.” This was the fall when your father was born, but then the political world seemed to revolve on its axis. People who thought themselves liberals were now cast as conservatives if they opposed the so-called “right to abortion” and sought to protect the lives of unborn children.

I know that this language must sound strange to you, since it has largely disappeared from our politics. And indeed, it seemed to disappear around the time that the Republican party dissolved. When you were born, in 1994, that party took control of the Congress for the first time in 42 years, and it looked to be on the verge of becoming the majority party. But after the presidential election of 1996, the party came apart in a way that could not be repaired—not because the party was divided—large, national parties are usually divided. The party came apart after it was discovered that it could not win elections mainly by promising a dramatic cut in taxes.

That formula had worked in the past, but it failed conspicuously in 1996. If the party could not win elections simply by promising to cut taxes, it would have to turn to the other issues that vex Americans. It would have to start using the dreaded “M-word”: It would have to talk about “moral” issues, like abortion and euthanasia and gay rights. What you should know is that the Republican party was divided at this time between the so-called economic conservatives, who wished to talk only about taxes and the economy, and the so-called social conservatives, who were willing to talk about taxes, but who thought that the moral questions really touched the core, or the principle on which we lived our lives together. And among those moral issues, they regarded the issue of abortion as preeminent.

By the time you were born, the Republican party had been stamped, unambiguously, as the pro-life party. The main legislative initiatives to protect unborn children came from the Republicans in Congress, a fact that proved persistently galling to the economic conservatives in the party.

In fact, it turned out that the economic conservatives simply hated the pro-lifers more than they hated taxes and big government, and that point showed up quite vividly in that fatal election of 1996. Some of the economic conservatives seemed more than willing to stand back and see former President Clinton win that election, for they had the sense that his victory would finish off the pro-lifers as a political force. And curiously enough, on the other side, the pro-lifers seemed to be backing away from their own candidate.

He was a man named Dole, a taciturn senator from Kansas, not exactly an effusive type. In fact, he rarely spoke in complete sentences, and it simply did not seem part of his nature to fill out the argument or explain his case. When it came to abortion, his reticence mingled with his political caution, and the result was that he rarely spoke of the issue. Or, if Mr. Dole spoke about abortion at all, he treated it as a subject of interest mainly to Catholics, as he would treat Israel as a matter of interest mainly to Jews.

He was far then from suggesting—or even grasping himself—that the issue of abortion touched anything of central importance in the life of the whole community. The pro-lifers understood that he was, in a certain way, with them. But even they could pick up on the message that was muted and yet always there: that, as far as Mr. Dole was concerned, the issue of abortion, in the scale of things, was just not that important. Sadly, some pro-lifers deciphered that message and in their resentment backed away from Mr. Dole.

But in that reflex, they indulged their peeves and took leave of their better judgment. Mr. Dole might have been less than inspiring, yet there should not have been the least doubt among pro-lifers as to where Mr. Clinton and his party stood. The object of their policy was to sweep away every legal inhibition on the practice of abortion in America. Mr. Clinton was even willing, in that election, to defend a grisly form of abortion, performed on children just minutes away from birth. This was the “partial birth abortion,” which was performed by collapsing the head of the child and suctioning out its brains. The pro-lifers had focused on this issue in the campaign because it dramatized the fact that abortions could be performed on children right up to the moment of birth. The pro-life groups were counting on the educational effect of this measure, in breaking out news to the public, and they were also counting on the fact that the public, when informed, would be outraged.

Strange to tell, neither expectation was borne out. In spite of extensive public hearings, the news media continued to put up a screen, and by the fall of 1996 most members of the public did not have the faintest notion as to what these abortions were. And among those who did know, it appeared that the news made little difference. These abortions could not be distinguished from outright infanticide, but now even Catholic and evangelical voters seemed to weigh this matter in the style of Mr. Dole: In the scale of things, even they too seemed to agree that it just wasn’t that important.

Well, what was important to them? That was hard to say. They simply seemed far clearer in their estimate of what they regarded now as a subject not worth talking about. Some commentators detected a dumbing-down of the public, or a numbing of the moral reflexes. But in any event, there were unmistakable signs of a sea change in what was preciously called “the culture.” From that point forward, the arguments over abortion largely disappeared from our politics. Abortion became absorbed in the routines of our lives, administered by civil servants.

I gather that some of your friends in school have received the abortion pill, and that the nurses in the schools give out, these days, the contraceptive pills along with the capsules of fluoride.

It was around that time that your grandmother and I thought of looking for another place to live, and we removed ourselves to a place where, at least, the weather and the taxes were more congenial.

But to get back to the Republicans: They might have survived as a party and as a pro-life force if they could have maintained their hold on the Congress. When the party finally fell into the minority in the House, the members were soon demoralized. They had stopped objecting to the extension of federal power on issues like the minimum wage, or family leave, or medical coverage. The Republican idea seemed to be spent, and not even the Republicans were taking it seriously. As for business, or the corporations, they no longer found much of a percentage in attaching themselves to the crippled remnant of the Republican party. As long as business was good, they were quite content to preserve their access to the party that was now in charge of crafting the rules that governed business in America.

That may be why that new party arose, centered on small-businessmen. These were the people who were always hurt more directly and deeply by federal regulations and higher taxes, and it stood to reason that this interest would find some expression in our politics. And that was the origin of the group that now calls itself the Freedom and Enterprise Party. In fact, as I recall, there was a fundraiser for the party held not far from you, in San Francisco, sponsored by your rabbi, Marshall, and his domestic partner, Fred. This was just about the same time that they had decided they would no longer celebrate Yom Kippur in their congregation, because it was too much suffused with the notion of atonement. That was, they thought, altogether too invidious, too judgmental, too much given to that ancient reflex of finding fault and casting blame.

At any rate, I hope this is helpful in filling out the story. We were hoping to see you this past summer, but we were a little reluctant to make a trip to the mainland. After all, if we became ill, we might be rushed to one of your hospitals and encounter a staff reluctant to treat us, lest they be sued for interfering with our “right to die.” It might be more prudent if we simply send you the airfare once again, and have you come to us.



  • Hadley Arkes

    Hadley P. Arkes (born 1940) is an American political scientist and the Edward N. Ney Professor of Jurisprudence and American Institutions at Amherst College, where he has taught since 1966.

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