The American right’s adept skill at repurposing and owning matters of ‘values’ is coming to a head in 2017, as an era of political resurgence is leading many once dormant liberals — the cafeteria Catholics of the political landscape — to awaken. In the midst of a self-titled ‘resistance,’ liberals in the US are cutting to the core of American identity, and who gets to define it.
I’m still waiting to see if the movement has the staying power to reassert control over the American landscape.
The pro-life generation
Liberals should have been cautioned when conservative opponents of abortion took hold of the term ‘pro-life,’ turning abortion into a question of whether people supported murder, or preserving the lives of the sacred unborn. The nature of the abortion debate in the United States is somewhat unique, partly in the sense that it’s a debate at all — many nations make a range of abortion services readily available to their residents. In those that do not, it’s a starkly religious issue, while in the US, it almost transcends religion, as religion has become so entangled with ‘virtue’ in America that people can be vehement about abortion without necessarily acknowledging the looming role of Christianity.
This isn’t about whether you are a good Christian — though much of the anti-choice movement identifies as Christian — but about a back and forth battle for the moral centre of America, and one that revealed the cracks in the secular facade that supposedly characterises the government in America. Rather than seizing control of the narrative before it went too far, and exposing the hypocrisies inherent in it, the left seemed rather indifferent, relying on Roe v Wade to protect it until suddenly it became readily apparent that conservatives had made an end-run around the landmark Supreme Court decision.
‘Pro-life’ was staunchly entrenched as specifically opposing abortion, rather than wanting to fight for a good quality of life for all Americans, including people who want to parent and need supports to do so.
Those family values, though
Then, the right moved in on ‘family values,’ turning them into something twisted, sinister, and bigoted, and again asserting ownership over the concept, determining that they alone were allowed to define and defend ‘family values.’ Mention the term to the left and they recoil as though it were poison, because the right has made it clear that it gets to define what a true American family looks like — Christian, heterosexual, middle class, has children. Other family structures are abhorrent and unwelcome within this framework, where it is not enough to be heterosexual, and one must treat the LGBQ community as the enemy, laying siege at the door of American virtue.
It’s telling that, yet again, the left decided to let the right have this one, and by the time the damage was done, it was too late. Defining ‘family values’ isn’t just about social attitudes, but political ones, and these definitions of family and virtue have been very effectively entrenched into a policy landscape that rewards and encourages certain types of families while punishing others. When some people have to go to court for the right to marry, to adopt, to visit loved ones in the hospital, the right has won, at great cost to the left.
When asked, many on the left would say they’re not patriotic, and may not even have a deep attachment to national identity, while ‘American patriotism’ is sometimes mocked by those overseas who are perplexed by flag waving and other acts of nationalistic worship. Both have missed the bigger key, that patriotism in the United States is owned by the right, which has retooled nationalism in a slightly softer package. The right has again taken a concept that should be broad and universal, with applications that are cross-cultural and stretch across society, and turned it into something narrow and hard, bitter and unpleasant.
The notion that love of country must perforce require worship of country is pervasive, but also inaccurate — if anything, it should imply a complexly negotiated relationship. With love often comes awareness and criticism, an acknowledgment of the imperative to help loved ones (or loved nations) grow into themselves, become stronger, better, more welcoming. We are in the quest for a more perfect union, not a perfect one, because perfection is an impossible goal, a brass ring that will remain forever out of reach.
Too late, the left has awoken and realised that it needs to take action through political involvement and engagement, that passivity and the hope that someone else will take care of it will no longer work. That in fact there is a moral imperative to get involved in the political system to whatever degree, from contacting representatives to running for office, and this is a duty to society, to the people around us, not just a selfish reflection on personal aims. With that is coming a slow awareness that things like patriotism and family values shouldn’t be the property of the right because these are some of the tools used to fight, to define the United States people want to live in, to connect with each other.
Can the left stay focused long enough to reclaim these things? To expand their definitions to include a diversity of expression and belief? Or will it become consumed in the usual infighting, leaving the extremely organised and coordinated right to decide the future of America?
Photo: Conal Gallagher/Creative Commons