Litmus Test Alert
|If American politics
doesnt always make much sense, its largely because
of two broad classes of people: (1) fools, and (2) knaves. This simple
dichotomy roughly corresponds to the two-party system, though there is
plenty of overlap.
Every now and then (and now is one of those nows), the Republican Party is warned, by the solemn voice of the New York Times editorial board, that it risks losing the votes of moderates if it persists in applying litmus tests. Basically, this means that Democrats wont vote for the Republicans unless they act like Democrats.
Just the other day, the Times chided Steve Forbes, who is clearly preparing to seek the Republican presidential nomination in 2000, for endorsing litmus tests. It seems that
Whoa, the Naive Reader will interject at this point. Just what do you mean by litmus tests? And whats so bad about them?
Why, I thought everyone knew that! A litmus test is bad because ... because ... well, Im not sure, exactly. Something to do with choice, I think. You know, tolerance versus dogma.
Actually, litmus test is one of those phrases that clog and confuse our political conversation because they seem to stand for general principles, when in fact theyre applied only to one specific topic. In this case, abortion. The Republicans are arguing about whether to withhold party funds from candidates who dont oppose partial-birth abortions the late-term kind that might, without being too graphic here, make a butcher faint.
Opposition to such abortions may thus become a litmus test for party support. The phrase first gained currency during Ronald Reagans first term, when liberals charged that Reagan was making abortion a litmus test for Supreme Court appointments, and
Wait a minute, the Naive Reader may cut in. You still havent explained whats wrong with that. After all, dont political parties usually take firm stands on certain issues? Wouldnt the national Democratic Party withhold its support from candidates who favored racial segregation or child labor?
Well, Naive Reader, you may be naive, but youre logical. In politics, it often comes to the same thing. Of course youre absolutely right. Both parties have litmus tests, or they wouldnt stand for anything. But the opprobrious phrase litmus test is applied only to abortion to imply that opponents of abortion are uniquely intolerant. (Somehow the tolerance of those who favor abortion never seems to be in doubt, even when they wont permit anti-abortion speakers at national conventions.)
Terms like choice, big tent, and extremism are applied in the same lopsided way. Only opponents of abortion are extremists. Theres no such thing as a pro-abortion extremist. In fact, nobody admits to being pro-abortion. Theyre always pro-choice.
So we have a weird political spectrum in which moderation lies not at the midpoint, but at the left end. One extreme is extremist, while the opposite extreme is moderate. The knaves have decreed it, and the fools agree with them.
But that doesnt make any sense! the Naive Reader will protest.
Right again, Naive Reader. But political language is usually loaded this way. Its designed to manipulate emotions, not to inspire reflection. And it provokes automatic reactions, like an electric cattle prod.
Even lots of people who have qualms about abortion, especially the late-term kind, dont want to be called extremist or intolerant. They dont stop to think about the implications of these words, and it never occurs to them to demand that such terms be applied consistently.
Thats why the notoriously liberal media never refer to pro-abortion extremists. They dont even want the concept to enter peoples heads.
Otherwise, they might find the term applicable to the Communist Chinese government, which forces women to have abortions against their will, even in the last month of pregnancy. If that isnt pro-abortion extremism, nothing is. If you really believe abortion should be a matter of an individual womans choice, you should be horrified by the gruesome forced-abortion policy.
But when was the last time you heard an advocate of choice condemn the Chinese policy? Unfortunately, American politics doesnt have litmus tests for hypocrisy.
|Copyright © 2007 by the
Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation.
This column may not be reprinted in print or
Internet publications without express permission
of the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation
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