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Tribal Loyalty and the Corporatist Agenda: It’s Not Just For Republicans Any More

In 2007, Glenn Greenwald wrote a column about how our political debate was being constrained by the demonization of figures like Howard Dean, Al Gore or Ron Paul who were singled out and labeled "weirdos" for expressing opinions outside of party orthodoxy, even though those opinions may have broad popular support.  Noting that Ron Paul shared several core principles with progressives on the issues of civil liberties and his opposition to the Iraq war, Glenn asserted that his participation in the GOP presidential primary gave him an important platform for "expanding the scope of issues we consider and the ideas that are worth hearing."

Glenn's column triggered an ongoing debate, with many "liberals" demanding that anyone who embraced a pro-life stance (as Paul does)  must thus be excluded from serious consideration on any issue whatsoever.  Glenn noted that Paul's pro-life position was no different from Harry Reid's.

Ezra Klein responded:

I find Glenn Greenwald's defense of Ron Paul's anti-abortion record deeply bizarre. "Look over here, he likes the Constitution" doesn't exactly respond to concerns that, in a Ron Paul world, tens of millions of women will be forced to use their bodies to bear children against their will. I'm less than pleased that my civil liberties are being abrogated, but I'm not willing to sell reproductive rights down the river for it.

That's an interesting position.  Does the health care bill Ezra has been fervently pushing "sell reproductive rights down the river?"  Some would argue that it doesn't, but Ezra Klein is not one of them. When the Stupak amendment passed in the House bill, Ezra wrote:

The idea that people are going to go out and purchase separate "abortion plans" is both cruel and laughable. If this amendment passes, it will mean that virtually all women with insurance through the exchange who find themselves in the unwanted and unexpected position of needing to terminate a pregnancy will not have coverage for the procedure. Abortion coverage will not be outlawed in this country. It will simply be tiered, reserved for those rich enough to afford insurance themselves or lucky enough to receive from their employers.

The abortion language that was ultimately included in the health care bill came from the Senate, which does in fact force women to purchase separate "abortion plans" on the exchange, and allows states the ability to opt out of offering abortion plans on the exchange altogether.  Ezra allows Michelle Goldberg to make the argument for him that the health care bill does really good things for women anyway, providing "feminist cover" to support it even though one would have to objectively say that it "sells reproductive rights down the river."

And what about those people who still hew to Ezra's 2007 position, believing that it's not okay to "sell reproductive rights down the river"?  When we pointed out that this is in fact what the bill does, Ezra dismissed it as "helping activists kill the bill" rather than "actually informing anyone about what is in the bill."  According to Ezra, "the restriction here is not on the right to choose, but on whether primary insurance covers abortion."  Therefore, since the goal of the bill is not restricting a woman's right to choose, the fact that it does so anyway is just a coincidence and therefore not a valid reason to object to the bill's passage.

Ezra then went on to write (with no small amount of irony) that poor David Frum had been purged from AEI for his failure to walk in lockstep with the GOP on health care, after Frum pointed out that the foundations of the bill really were conservative.  He castigates the party for its unfettered tribalism in shutting down a truthteller like Frum, who he applauds for merely pointing out the obvious conservative intellectual inconsistency. You could give yourself whiplash trying to count all the reversals wrapped up in that one, starting with Ezra's long-held insistence that the health care bill represents a huge progressive victory (though he has been trying to square the two, as if progressive "goals" hadn't been used as bait to neutralize liberal opposition and achieve a drastic corporate agenda).

It's probably unfair to single out Ezra for this rather glaring inconsistency, since he was just one of many who were quick to excoriate "purists" on the left who didn't support the bill and then subsequently leaped to Frum's defense.   But if the lesson of the David Frum firing is that it's really bad for a political movement to stigmatize dissent and deviation from the party line, what does it say about those steely-eyed "pragmatists" who castigated pro-choice dissent within their own party when abortion rights were deemed an acceptable sacrifice?

There is no consistent, coherent moral position being expressed here.  Rather, a woman's right to choose has value primarily when it can be demagogued to exclude those who don't pass its litmus test of tribal loyalty. Abortion is a core element of the liberal canon that cannot be broached at any cost when it comes to shutting down potential trans-partisan alliances around civil liberties or ending the war that have nothing whatsoever to do with choice.  But when it comes to a law that actually seriously impacts a woman's right to choose,  abortion rights can be sacrificed for some "greater good," with some feminist cover quickly assembled to affirm that an appropriate standard has been met.  And anyone who doesn't arrive at that conclusion at the same time is operating in bad faith and should not be taken seriously.

The abortion issue is emblematic of the way in which appeals to tribal loyalty were used to stigmatize and delegitimize progressive opposition to a radically corporatist health care bill. George Bush couldn't privatize Social Security because of liberal opposition, but liberal resistance to a health care bill authored by the insurance companies was effectively neutralized by a call to Democratic party loyalty.  Anyone making a consistent values argument, who didn't immediately fall in line and support the passage of a neoliberal health care bill, was "helping the Republicans" - as if Republican opposition to the bill wasn't the very thing that gave progressives negotiating power in the first place.

In What's the Matter with Kansas, Thomas Frank poignantly describes how white working class Americans are tricked by corporate elites into acting against their self-interest through naked appeals to irrational tribalism.

Glad that only happens to Republicans.

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Jane Hamsher

Jane Hamsher is the founder of Her work has also appeared on The Daily Beat, Common Dreams, AlterNet, The Nation and The American Prospect.

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