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The ERA is back on the table, and the fight exposes the myth of polarization

Photo by Paul Udstrand

We live in interesting times. At a time when neo-fascists have found a voice in the White House, feminists and liberals are finding their voices in the U.S. Congress. Some characterize this as a dangerous era of polarization, but it’s really just predictable and necessary socio-political reaction to neo-fascism.  

For instance, in the wake of recent electoral victories Virginian liberal Democrats are pushing to revive and ratify the Equal Rights Amendment. The ERA was first proposed in 1923, and fell one state short of ratification in 1982. The “polarization” narrative will no doubt characterize this as yet another example of partisan extremism and progressive over-reach. The truth is that the ERA actually haunts Democrats and American liberals in many ways that find their roots in the “moderate/centrist” takeover of the Democratic Party in 1980s. In the sense that “moderation” and “centrism” are the antithesis of polarization, the triumph of neoliberalism and the New Democrats in mid-’80s can be seen as the foundation of today’s polarization narrative, and the rise of Republican power.

The 1960s and ’70s saw a lot of liberal activism that ushered in some substantial social and political change. The ERA would have been a powerful bookend to an era of civil and women’s rights that gained everything from abortion rights to voting rights and desegregation. When the New Democrats took control of the Democratic Party and established the Democratic Leadership Council, liberal progress in the U.S. pretty much ground to a halt.

‘Incremental’ vs. ‘radical’

Under the guise of “practicality,” the New Democrats (Like the Clintons) fractured movements like feminism into “incremental” vs. “radical” agendas. Under the guise of “bipartisan” moderation, polarization and extremism were presumably held at bay. However, this was a false narrative that merely protected the elite and status quo under the pretense of bipartisan cooperation. Moderation can be its own form of extremism. While incremental glass-ceiling feminism became the dominant ideology in the Democratic Party, initiatives like the ERA languished and gender equality started rolling back.


One of the problems with glass-ceiling feminism is that it tends to declare premature victory. Those who “break through” — i.e. Martha Stewart, Madeleine Albright, Hillary Clinton, et al. — tend to declare “Mission Mostly Accomplished” while millions are essentially left behind and gender equality is rolled back. Martha Stewart doesn’t need an ERA and she reckons neither does anyone else because they can all overcome adversity the way she did.

When the New Democrats created a party organized around their own vision of moderation, they created a party that refused to confront or even recognize Republican extremism. You can’t seek compromise with extremists, so Democrats pretended they weren’t dealing with extremists. Unfortunately that pretense of normality helped Republicans win elections. It’s weird to see a political party adopt a self-destructive praxis, but it happened right here in America.

Rolling back the 20th century

Since the New Democrats took control of the party, Republicans have gone on a rampage electing governors, and capturing statehouses and Congress. From voter restrictions to abortion and environmentalism, Republicans have been rolling back the 20th century. It’s not an accident that the Democratic battle against partisanship and polarization made the Republican Party the most powerful political party on the planet. The rise of the Republicans is a predictable outcome of “moderate” accommodation.

Paul Udstrand
Paul Udstrand
When the New Democrats abandoned the ERA they created a dilemma for “centrist/moderate” politics that haunts them today. The more they denounce polarization, the more they promote it because their antidote to polarization is to denounce moderate responses and seek compromise with extremists. The “centrist/moderate” solution to polarization (i.e. bipartisan “moderation”) ends up empowering Republican extremism rather than confronting it.

One reason that Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are gaining so much traction with Medicare For All is the similarity of the ERA to the ACA (Obamacare). For those of us who’ve been around long enough to watch “moderates” declare victory and walk away satisfied with their incremental accomplishments, it’s déjà vu all over again. “Moderate” Democrats jettisoned the idea of a national health plan in favor of a market “solution” and walked away perfectly satisfied. Like the glass-ceiling feminist who didn’t need the ERA, affluent liberals and Democrats decided they didn’t need public option or Medicare for All. Like the ERA, Obamacare was passed with promises to follow up, promises that were abandoned when Democrats decided they could live with Obamacare much the same way they decided they could live without the ERA.

Basic and logical solutions

The push for Medicare for All today is in many ways informed by the collapse of the ERA in the ’80s. It’s not a coincidence that these initiatives emerge around the same time. Neither Medicare for All nor the ERA are “radical” examples of extreme polarization; they are simply basic and logical solutions to crises that have been marginalized by our political elite for decades. Voters may well be taking note that our self-declared “moderates” have a habit of leaving the field to reactionary Republicans and claiming it’s the best they can do. Clearly, this is not the best we can do and American voters are not satisfied with indefinite failure.

The revival and passage of the ERA isn’t a new round of polarizing “extremism.”  It’s a moderate response to ongoing sexism and gender inequality. If anything we may be witnessing a power shift wherein America’s real moderates are displacing pseudo-moderate New Democrats. The progressive agenda is actually a popular moderate agenda that will unify the nation, rather than polarize it. The real voices of moderation are the ones confronting extremism, not those seeking to accommodate it or share its power. ERA champions are not “Feminazis” confronting neo-Nazis in a battle royal of polarization; they’re actually just moderates seeking to fulfill a century-old demand for equality.

Paul Udstrand is photographer and blogger in Minneapolis. He can be followed on Facebook and his blog Thoughtful Bastards.


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Comments (10)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 11/21/2019 - 09:49 am.

    The ERA is long, long overdue. If Virginia votes in favor, it might be up to the Supreme Court to decide if it’s been legally adopted, given the lengthy time frame, and we can depend on Republican stronghold states to challenge its adoption. It will be interesting to see where political figures position themselves once this becomes an unavoidable issue.

  2. Submitted by William Hunter Duncan on 11/21/2019 - 10:10 am.

    That has been one of my purposes here in these pages, to counter the swing of so-called moderate democrats toward what might have been called moderate republicanism in the 50’s-60’s.

    Particularly distressing has been the moderate Dem abandonment of working people, their embrace of all things corporate, bank and billionaire, and their unquestioning support for the totally unaccountable war/intelligence/surveillance/media machine.

    Indeed, after the election of Obama, dems seemed to believe they were on the right side of history, that forever after the universe would simply allow them to win because that is progress. Then when the universe allowed for the election of Trump, they fell into a kind of neo- McCarthyism, accepting the neoliberal/neoconservative turning of Russia/Putin into an all-purpose boogeyman, to distract from the gross income and power inequality in America.

    Meanwhile republicans have outmaneuvered Dems in every way, changing the judiciary for a generation, controlling most of the states and most of the federal government.

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 11/21/2019 - 11:11 am.

      No one had to “turn” Russia and Putin into anything. The facts are what they are.

      • Submitted by William Hunter Duncan on 11/21/2019 - 02:31 pm.

        Yes, to hear Dems these days, one might come to believe that whatever flows from the CIA/FBI/NSA/NSC etc intelligence is an incontrovertible fact that can’t be questioned.

        (Never mind most of the facts so proclaimed are rarely deemed worthy of evidentiary support, and any fact that might call into question the general intelligence narrative is called a “conspiracy theory”, repeated ad nauseum by media that never does any fact checking, but merely repeats ad nauseum the intelligence narrative.)

  3. Submitted by Pat Terry on 11/21/2019 - 01:40 pm.

    Question: Can states that ratified the ERA later un-ratify it? Some of the states that passed it are now firmly controlled by Republicans.

    • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 11/21/2019 - 05:09 pm.

      That’s a good question. I may be mistaken but I seem recall hearing over the years that the final count has actually been held open, so all that’s needed is that final State vote, even though we’re decades past 1982. I don’t think this re-opens the entire process or give state a chance to change their votes.

  4. Submitted by RB Holbrook on 11/21/2019 - 02:45 pm.

    The earlier battles over the ERA presaged the rise of the reactionary right. While the substance of the ERA was popular, in that people were in favor of the language it contained, the “ERA” name was anathema to many. The fight against a constitutional mandate of gender equality was rallied behind calls to “preserve the family.” Demagogues used ill-informed opposition as a wedge, and were able to leverage that wedge into opposition to legal abortion, affirmative action, and any other progressive legislation, however popular it might really have been.

    Demagoguery and ignorance are still with us, unfortunately. The ERA could, ironically enough, be hampered by the limited successes of the women’s movement (“She did just fine without it. Why do I need it?”).

    Incidentally, that is a great picture to illustrate this article.

  5. Submitted by Ole Johnson on 11/22/2019 - 10:03 am.

    “You can’t seek compromise with extremists, so Democrats pretended they weren’t dealing with extremists.”

    I’m confused, your entire article seems to be that the Dems were wrong to moderate and need to be more extreme. Using your logic, why would anyone want to work with/compromise with your proposed Extreme Dem party?

    Seems to me you are calling for a civil war. No splitting the middle. Has to be white or black.

    • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 11/23/2019 - 08:05 am.

      Mr Johnson,

      I’ll assume my poor writing has contributed to your confusion. Here’s what I’m trying to say:

      1) The New Democrats were NOT actually a “moderate” movement the claimed to be, they were conservatives that transformed the Party into a moderate Republican Party more so than a Liberal alternative to the Republican Party.

      2) The only real extremist on the field have been reactionary Republicans. The ongoing Democratic accommodation of that extremism has strengthened the Republicans party and normalized its extremism

      3) I’m not advocating counter extremism, but I do say we cannot and should not accommodate Neo-Fascist. The last time we did that 60+ million people died and we discovered human remains in ovens.

      4) The so-radical “leftist” we’re talking about are in fact just FDR Liberals. The ERA and MFA are not radical leftist agendas they’re just common sense proposals that have been marginalized on a political landscape that by-and-large has been more conservative than our citizenry for decades.

      I’m not calling for a Civil War, and don’t think reasonable people will have any difficulty working with liberal Democrats.

      The last paragraph of my article:

      “The revival and passage of the ERA isn’t a new round of polarizing “extremism.” It’s a moderate response to ongoing sexism and gender inequality. If anything we may be witnessing a power shift wherein America’s real moderates are displacing pseudo-moderate New Democrats. The progressive agenda is actually a popular moderate agenda that will unify the nation, rather than polarize it. The real voices of moderation are the ones confronting extremism, not those seeking to accommodate it or share its power. ERA champions are not “Feminazis” confronting neo-Nazis in a battle royal of polarization; they’re actually just moderates seeking to fulfill a century-old demand for equality.”

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