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

The real voices of moderation are the ones confronting extremism, not those seeking to accommodate it or share its power.

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.

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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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