-> Reviews -> Rights Talk

Posted 2017-05-15.

Unfortunately, American political discourse has become vacuous, hard-edged, and inflexible just when it is called upon to encompass economic, social, and environmental problems of unparalleled difficulty and complexity.

The core claim of this book is that Americans are obsessed with notions of absolute rights which lead to political dysfunction. “A tendency to frame nearly every social controversy in terms of a clash of rights … impedes compromise, mutual understanding, and the discovery of common ground.” This is explored in relation to various issues (abortion, family law, duties to aid) and comparison is made with how those same issues have been handled in Western European nations.

One of the things I find most frustrating about American politics is the way in which abortion can be exploited as a wedge issue; I know many people I have come into contact with could never be persuaded to vote against the GOP due solely to this. As the author notes, “[p]rolife and prochoice advocates alike have overwhelmingly opted for rights talk, a choice that has forced the debate into a seemingly nonnegotiable deadlock between the fetus’s ‘right to life’ and the pregnant woman’s ‘right to choose.’” I don’t know whether or not a change in discourse would be fruitful (or desirable) towards resolving the impasse, but I found the discussion interesting.

Another idea I found especially interesting was that a tendency to have courts decide controversial issues by deducing the answer from constitutional rights leads to a reduced public involvement in the political process. Have liberals jeopardized parts of our agenda by relying too heavily on the courts to protect it? It’s concerning that victories such as the legalization of gay marriage rest only on judicial pronouncement, given that the party opposed to them now controls the presidency, Congress, and most state governments.