Saturday, August 23, 2008


for a good discussion of the Trade plank, see

Friday, August 22, 2008

DEMOCRATIC PARTY PLATFORM - Faith, Fatherhood, and the Death Penalty

The platform repeats the 2004 celebration of faith, directly borrowing language: "We honor the central place of faith in our lives." (p. 48) This is part of a troubling new mainstream consensus that faith is a necessary public value that makes "our nation, our communities, and our lives...vastly stronger and richer." According to this view, the historic separation of faith/religion from public/policy decision-making and governance has been due to misundertandings of the Constitution and the secular base on which it stands.

In addition to articulating a political norm that good citizenship takes faith, the platform provision on faith embraces institutionalized faith -- religious institutions such as churches -- as government's partner. Notwithstanding the establishment clause, the platform summarily declares: "there is no conflict between supporting faith-based institutions and respecting our Constitution."

The platform section on "Children and Families" (p.49) spends a lot of time talking about making sure children are raised right. In addition to enumerating some policies (eg., Head Start, health care) and parental actions (turn off the TV, help with homework) that would benefit kids, the section also discusses the importance of fathers. Mothers are not mentioned at all (unless a reference to maternal health counts).

I have written extensively elsewhere about what's so troubling about redefining mothers'/children's economic insecurity as mothers'/children's need for fathers. See also the writings of Anna Marie Smith and Julia Jordan-Zachery. Let me draw attention here to the fact that the platform adopts wholesale some rather questionable assertions about the vile consequences for children of growing up without a father. The inevitable result of this argument is pressure on mothers to enter into marriages with biological fathers in order to do right by their children. This bodes a return to patriarchal (and heterosexist) norms and rewards in family policy -- norms and rewards that impede equality for women who are mothers.

Embedded in this section are some useful commitments -- especially a reform of the child support enforcement system to make sure that support payments go directly to families. Also, the notion that family leave can also be availed by fathers is an important addition to the discourse.

However, neither child support reform nor the prospect of fathers taking leave to help raise children justify defining fatherhood as a central component of social policy.

Death Penalty:
The 2004 platform did not advocate the death penalty. One big "change" in the 2008 platform is reference to the death penalty in the "Criminal Justice" section. Although the wording points to discrimination in the allocation of the death penalty, the sentence expresses concern by first endorsing the death penalty: "We believe that the death penalty must not be arbitrary."

This is not exactly a surprise to anyone who heard Obama's response to the Supreme Court's ruling against the death penalty in child rape cases. He denounced the decision, saying that the death penalty is appropriate in these cases, and embracing "state's rights" to make the decision to make certain crimes punishable by death.

Not a surprise, but distressing nonetheless.


This section of the platform signals an important change: it constructs "choice" in the reproductive context along a continuum of possibilities ranging from pregnancy termination to childbirth. (p.50)

The provision is clear and direct in announcing support for Roe v. Wade and opposing "any and all efforts to weaken or undermine that right." One problem here, though, is that Roe already has been weakened. Not only has the recent ruling on late term abortions significantly eroded the protections of Roe; the 1992 Casey decision dramatically undermined the framework for determining when and under what circumstances women may decide to terminate a pregnancy. So while the platform's unequivocal support for Roe should be applauded, we still need to ask whether the party actually will fight for a return for Roe and/or will fight to reverse the regulations enacted by many states to choke off the exercise of the pregnancy termination right.

Obama's recent efforts to temporize on the abortion issue do not suggest an intention to actively -- as well as "unequivocally" -- support the right announced in Roe v. Wade. Recent comments indicate a fixation on women's subjective decision-making: on one occasion, Obama declared he didn't think women should get abortions just because they are feeling "blue"; on another occasion he told Pastor Rick Warren that "women don't make the decision lightly." These sorts of comments, along with the embrace of parental notification provisions, imply that the central issue is women's judgment, not women's rights.

The platform's defense of Roe is not new -- the 2004 platform contains similar language. What is new is the effort to expand how we think about "choice" by coupling support for abortion rights with support for the decision to bear a child. The elements of this support are briefly listed -- pre- and post-natal health care, parenting skills, income support, and adoption programs. There's potential here, but the devil will be in the details.


It's interesting that the Women's plank is titled "Opportunity for Women" -- not Equality for Women, Justice for Women, Economic Security for Women, or Rights for Women of All Races and Classes. "Opportunity for Women" is kind of a throwback construction of sex/gender inequality issues, a reminder of early second-wave agendas to let women into men's world.

There's nothing wrong with the plank's pledge to ensure "that our daughters ...have the same opportunities as our sons." (p.16) But is the right to aspire to men's jobs all the feminist struggle has been about?

The policy elements of "Opportunity for Women" emphasize the labor market -- eliminating the glass ceiling, combating pay discrimination, supporting women as entrepreneurs. The labor market policy pledges may contain one very important new direction: comparable worth. Unfortunately, the references to titles of legislation, rather than to content, make it a little difficult to be certain about intended meaning. The plank commits to enacting the Lily Ledbetter Act, which would counter a 2007 Supreme Court ruling by restoring the status quo ante regarding when the clock starts on employment discrimination claims. The plank also commits to modernizing the Equal Pay Act, but doesn't say how. Current legislative proposals call for improving available remedies under the Equal Pay Act -- is that what is meant? Finally, the plank declares "we will pass the Fair Pay Act" -- but again, I'm not sure what is meant here. The Lily Ledbetter Act is often referred to as the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act -- so is the Fair Pay provision redundant of the pledge to enact the Ledbetter Act? Or does it refer to a current legislative proposal, introduced by Senator Tom Harkin and Representative Eleanor Holmes Norton -- a proposal that calls for a comparable worth strategy to achieve pay equity? If the latter, this is important. The Fair Pay bill would require employers to pay employees in female-dominated jobs at the same rate as employees in equivalent male-dominated jobs.

Missing from the labor market fairness agenda is support for the Equal Remedies Act, which would lift the caps on damages available in sex discrimination suits under Title VII. Making the full menu of economic remedies available to victims of employment discrimination based on sex has been urgently needed since 1991, when the Civil Rights Act enacted the caps on damages in the first place. Support for the Ledbetter Act without support for Equal Remedies leaves women as second class citizens in the labor market.

The "Opportunity for Women" plank refers to the platform's work and family agenda, as well as to it's anti-poverty commitment, which together round out a strategy for opportunity. But the prize here is getting the same deal in the labor market as men get.

The only mention of women's gendered experiences come in strong language against sexism and domestic violence. So the victimization of women will be fought as antithetical to opportunity.

But the unique work done mostly and willingly by women -- caregiving -- figures here only as an exception to labor market participation (see the Work & Family plank). Attention to caregiving in its own right defies the opportunity paradigm and requires rethinking our framework for justice.

Real change -- bold thinking -- would incorporate consideration for caregiving into an agenda for women through such mechanisms as a caregivers' allowance, portable child care benefits, and remedies for income inequalities (including in retirement) that derive from the disproporationate societal allocation of caregiving responsibilities to women.

Real change would also match the affirmation of rights for all women across all class-based, race-based, and sexuality-based experiences of inequality as labor market participants and as caregivers.

Only in two other spots in the platform are women's rights mentioned -- in the provision on "Choice" and in one titled "A More Perfect Union." More on these pledges in a separate post.


Like the Work & Family plank, the poverty plank expresses promising commitments -- especially the goal of cutting poverty in half within ten years. Notably, the plank explicitly notices that the majority of adults in poverty are women and links fair pay and support for mothers to poverty's cure.

But beyond admittedly welcome platitudes, the plank is mostly bromide. Expand the EITC; raise and index the minimum wage; strengthen unions; increase affordable housing -- we've heard this before. These are important ingredients of an anti-poverty policy, but they are not enough.

Real change would include consideration of expanded income programs, especially for caregivers; reformed and expanded unemployment insurance to assure income to workers who must leave jobs, whose jobs are taken away, who are stuck in part-time employment, or who need to overcome barriers to employment such as domestic violence, substance abuse, or mental health issues; the addition of a caregiver credit to the social security benefits calculation; paid family leave; universal child care; universal, single payer health provision; transportation offsets for low-income workers who must commute long distances to jobs; economic assistance for education and training; an end to labor market discrimination; a living wage.


This plank is potentially promising -- depending on what the stated policy commitments actually mean and how they are to be operationalized. Unfortunately, there's lots of wiggle room, because broad pledges are not backed up by specifics. The one reference to a specific plan of action is disappointing.

What's promising here is the focus on family leave -- on expanding the conception of covered leave beyond pregnancy/adoption and personal/spousal illness. The family leave issue does not mark a new direction for the Democrats -- the 2004 platform called for expanding family leave, too -- but the idea that leave should encompass situations beyond parenting and nuclear family sickness is an important elaboration. The commitment expressed here is for the FMLA to cover workers who take leave to care for an elderly parent, address domestic violence and sexual assault, "or attend a parent teacher conference" (this last circumstance is not exactly in the same ballpark).

However, expansions of the categories or circumstances of guaranteed leave do not correct some of the fundamental deficits of existing law. For example, given the Defense of Marriage Act, the FMLA does not extend the leave guarantee to lesbian or gay workers in marriages who need it to care for a sick spouse. Nor does the FMLA extend the leave guarantee to same sex partners in civil unions or other non-marital relationships. Meanwhile, non-biological parents in same-sex unions who are denied adoption rights in some jurisdictions are not eligible for the parenting component of the FMLA guarantee. Without changes in the FMLA and/or marriage equality for same sex partners, the expansion of leave protections to domestic violence situations will not be useful to same sex partners exiting abusive relationships; and expansions of caregiving criteria for leave will repeat exclusions of workers caring for a sick same sex partner or raising a non-biological child in a same-sex parental union.

Other limitations of the current law include the exclusion of large numbers of workers due to the size of their employer and/or due to the loss of an income during the guaranteed leave. The federal family and medical leave law leaves out 40% of workers (because employers with fewer than 50 workers are exempted under the law) and many covered workers cannot avail themselves of leave because the guaranteed leave is unpaid. Seventy-eight percent of workers who have not been able to take leave report that the reason is that they couldn't afford it.

So imperative aspects of FMLA expansion include 1) covering employers with fewer than 50 employees so that more workers are covered and 2) providing paid leave so that more workers can avail themselves of the leave guarantee.

The platform plank does not affirm either change. There is no mention of expanding coverage to reach more workers (by reducing the minimum size of covered firms). The plank does mention the problem that leave is unpaid, but seeks to address this issue by "working with states to make leave paid." While a few states do have good temporary disability programs that cover parental and personal/spousal medical leave situations, bucking responsibility of providing paid leave to the states is a sure way to ensure uneven, patchwork protections that prolong rather than resolve problems. And it is no way to ensure that the expanded categories of leave (eg, domestic violence) would be provided in a meaningful way: one of the biggest problems for DV survivors is the lack of personal financial resources to exit an abusive relationship; unless a survivor has access to an income she cannot avail herself of leave, and may not be able to leave her abuser.

There are many ways to accomplish the goal of paid family leave; passing the problem along to the states is not one of them. Paid family leave could be made a stipulation of federal contracts; the federal government could provide such leave to all public workers; and the unemployment insurance system could be modernized to cover unemployment and/or leave spells due to personal circumstances involving care for a child, care for oneself, or care for dependent adult family members.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008


The retirement and social security plank (p. 13) is fairly staple Democratic fare: protect Social Security from privatization; protect workers' pensions from corporate raids, corporate bankruptcy, etc; strengthen retirement security. The only news in the plank is the pledge to "automatically enroll every worker in a workplace pension plan" -- but it's not clear what this provision means, how it would work, or whether it would strengthen or endanger Social Security.


Many progressives are cheering the health care plank of the DP platform because it commits to a goal of health care for all. Laudable language about a "guarantee" for individuals loses some lustre in the details, however. The system of health care provision described by the platform is a hodgepodge of individually-purchased and/or work-based private insurance, with an optional alternative "public plan" for those left out. That kind of patchwork does not get us out of the for-profit, hierarchical system of provision that is largely tied to employment. Progressives used to be for a tax-based (not employment- & premium- based) system much like medicare. Now many are settling for the promise of "affordability" -- which is a promised based on the assumption that individuals pay for insurance...and get what they can pay for. To back up its choice to tinker with the existing system -- expanding the public system to pick up some slack and otherwise making private coverage "affordable" -- the platform states that as health coverage becomes more affordable, "individuals should purchase insurance and take steps to live healthy lives." (platform p.10-11). Under the Democratic "guarantee" not only are individuals expected to bear the burden of health care provision but they bear blame for becoming unhealthy, too.

The 2004 DP platform declared health care "a right not a privilege." That platform contained different emphases, but not a different impulse. In 2004, the party was concerned with costs and affordability, the expansion of SCHIP, prescription price negotiation for seniors, and pushing scientific boundaries to fight disease -- concerns espoused this year, as well. Two commitments articulated in 2004 are not repeated this year: 1) to provide all Americans with access to the same coverage that members of Congress give themselves, and 2) a Patient's Bill of Rights.

Despite some differences of degree and formulation between 2004 and 2008, the two planks belong to the same tradition of health care reform. So much for "change".

Monday, August 18, 2008

Is Obama the End of Black Politics?

Link to Matt Bai article from last Sunday's NYT Magazine.

Can you believe there are no women in an entire article about Black Politics?


His default position is that every controversial rights question is "a matter of state's rights". This was his response to Rick Warren's questions about a consitutional amendment to bar same-sex marriage. This was his response to the Supreme Court's ruling against the death penalty in child rape cases. I suspect this will be articulated as his default position on abortion rights -- states have "rights" to require parental consent, ban late-term abortions (provided there's a health exception), etc. On the same sex marriage question, McCain and Obama gave the same answer!! After defining marriage as between a man and a woman, both said it's a matter of state's rights. Worse, Obama made it sound like he has an even greater reverence for the heterosexual bond "as a Christian" because marriage "is sacred."

We're supposed to drink the koolaid for THIS?