The “GOP” sinking of the ERA is part of a pattern of shamelessness for which this US party seems to pay no price
The most remarkable thing about the recent vote in the United States Senate blocking ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution is how unremarkable it was. No one was surprised that all but two Republicans opposed something so basic — but it deserves examination and punishment. How can that be?
The century-old effort would enshrine the notion that “equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex,” and that Congress can enforce it. The ERA has been ratified by the needed 38 states, but several missed a 1982 deadline which the April proposal would have eliminated. It failed, because it needed a supermajority of 60 out of 100 Senators, requiring some GOP support.
But the sweeping Republican rejection of an idea as basic as equal rights for women is not the most surprising thing here. Two things are more surprising: that almost none of those who voted against seemed to feel the need to justify themselves — and that almost no one demanded it of them. And that’s because the Republican position is not only expected but part of a pattern.
Consider the Republicans’ astounding record of taking positions that either go against the clear will of the majority of Americans or are easily presentable as ethically dubious or even morally wrong — or both.
A prime example of this is July’s near party-line vote against banning assault weapons, whose only purpose is to kill many people at once. Most polls, of course, show most Americans want stricter gun laws.
Republicans also showed no shame in pursuing measures that would throw millions of people off health insurance, or enact effective tax cuts for the rich in the developed world’s most un-egalitarian country.
Perhaps most shockingly, the Republicans also refused to convict Donald Trump in the Senate after he tried to steal the 2020 election and the Jan. 6 Capitol riots — in which people were killed — and continued to normalize him to the point that he may well be the 2024 nominee.
The common factor is that the Republicans rarely seem inclined to exert themselves offering explanations. This is odd, because it is human to at least show empathy and to try to persuade the other side — and it is just plain good debating tactics to concede the occasional point if only to then show why the counterarguments are stronger.
For example, it is not normal to just ignore that the US has the developed world’s most firearm deaths by multiples. Or that the rushed appointment of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court weeks before the 2020 election was the epitome of hypocrisy after the Republican-run Senate refused to hold hearings for Merrick Garland almost a year before the 2016 election, claiming not enough time.
No normative conservative party in the democratic world behaves in quite this way, with the possible exceptions of Fidesz in Hungary and the Law and Justice in Poland. In my travels as a foreign correspondent, I’ve turned every conservative stone. It’s close to unique.
What are the explanations?
Some blame the Republicans’ seething hatred for the various leftist excesses that often come under the (increasingly discredited) label of wokeness. It is a fearful disdain shared not only by their base but by some liberals as well — because aspects of the leftist agenda, like indifference to free speech, are illiberal. This kind of culture war indeed breeds scorched earth attitudes — but it doesn’t seem to justify the madness.
Others claim that fears of a loss of “white privilege,” or other versions of bitterness, are driving a sort of madness — that they cannot see what they are doing. That perhaps it attaches to an especially sharp racial tension in the United States, with its tortured past of slavery and segregation. But I’m noticing cleverer people than that in the Republican Party, and these theories let them off easy.
No, I go with Occam’s Razor, which is my favorite razor of them all: the answer is the simplest one. The Republicans act this way because they can get away with it. It is incredible that the party has such little fear of the voting public that it has glued itself to something as unpopular as the Supreme Court’s decision to allow states to ban abortion. But, at least until the 2022 midterms — when the Democrats unexpectedly held the Senate — there was no real evidence that the party was paying a price. Still, they now control the House of Representatives.
Having learned nothing — or perhaps the wrong thing — Senate Republicans now fearlessly, unapologetically and almost unanimously blocked the Equal Rights Amendment.
Opposition to the ERA — personified by the 1970s activist Phyllis Schlafly — has centered on the argument that it might be used to remove certain informal protections of women. The paradox is that misogynists who would want to do that are almost certainly Republicans who also oppose the ERA.
Some say — as Schlafly did — that the constitution already protects women’s rights. That is belied by the discrimination against women over the years, including that they were denied the vote until 1920. Indeed, so great has been the oppression of women throughout the ages that an explicit guarantee does not seem so farfetched.
Idella Moore, executive director of the advocacy group 4ERA, argues that “the right to vote continues to be the only guaranteed right women have in our Constitution” and that the ERA “would guarantee that all the rights and responsibilities contained in the Constitution” apply to women, providing “a clarion statement that all Americans are legally equal.”
“Opposition to the ERA by most Republicans is a position that undermines our democracy in the most sweeping and most obvious way,” she wrote in an email to me. “It is quite frightening that (politicians) regularly stand up against the ERA with no fear of being held accountable by their party or their constituents.”
Indeed. And the irony is that for today’s progressives, the “equality” promised by the ERA is practically a sign of a reactionary bigot: they seek “equity,” which basically means a favoring of the formerly oppressed. That even equality is presently too much for the Republicans is pretty close to literally beyond belief.
Society’s forgiveness of the Republicans’ misbehavior could fairly be viewed as a nefarious version of what the party’s own former stalwart George W. Bush might call “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” I say this because if the party’s behavior is left unpunished then, like a child, it will only become more mischievous still.
Down this path lies disaster for the Republicans themselves. They will eventually become so unelectable that even the built-in advantages afforded them by the Electoral College and Senate (which spectacularly over-represent small, rural, conservative states) will not be enough to help them stay competitive.
Many Americans view themselves as conservatives in some reasonable way — on redistribution, on traditions, on a skepticism of change for the sake of change. If they want a political party they can one day support again — let alone be proud of or not disgraced by — they owe it to themselves to punish a “Grand Old Party” that is anything but grand.
(A abridged version of this article appeared in Newsweek)