The controversy over the Obama administration’s ruling that access to contraceptives must be provided in healthcare plans offered by religiously-affiliated colleges and universities, hospitals, and charities provides an interesting insight into the conduct of contemporary politics in the United States.
The rule was established based on state law in California and New York. According to the Guttmacher Institute, in February 2012, 28 states “currently require insurers that cover prescription drugs to provide coverage of the full range of FDA-approved contraceptive drugs and devices.” Two of the states exclude emergency contraception and one state excludes minor dependents from coverage. In New York, the mandate was adjudicated in the state courts, and the New York Court of Appeals (the state’s highest court) ruled in 2006: “When a religious organization chooses to hire non-believers, it must, at least to some degree, be prepared to accept neutral regulations imposed to protect those employees’ legitimate interests in doing what their own beliefs permit.” When the case was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, the court refused to hear the case just as they had refused to hear a similar California case in 2004. Currently, two cases have been filed by religiously-affiliated institutions in Colorado—Colorado Christian University—and North Carolina—Belmont Abbey College, alleging that the current mandate violates the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment and the Freedom of Religion Restoration Act of 1993. These cases were filed in November and December, 2011. Several cases have been filed by states attorney generals. And more cases can be expected.
So, what does this controversy indicate about the contemporary political scene. First, the issue is framed differently by the contending parties in the controversy. On one side, those favoring the mandate regard the issue as a matter of gender discrimination and women’s health. The issue involves the right of women to contraceptive devices as a part of an employer-provided health insurance plan. On the other side, those opposing the mandate, regard the issue a matter of religious freedom. The issue involves the right of religious institutions to avoid policies that infringe upon their First Amendment constitutional liberty to the free exercise of religion and legislative protection against religious discrimination. The framing of the issue is important because how people view the issue can influence their opinion on the issue itself. Initially, the contest becomes one over which side can win the framing debate: Is the issue a matter of a woman’s right to healthcare or a religious institution’s right to the free exercise of religion. As the issue is viewed so differently, compromise is difficult, if not impossible. In this case, President Obama tried to compromise, but the result was not what he had hoped it would be. The compromise addressed the Catholic Church’s objection to paying for conceptive measures that violated its religious doctrine by requiring the insurance provider to cover the cost of contraceptives. Did this assuage the concerns of the opponents? Not really, because the issue is more about partisan politics than religious freedom, which brings us to our second and third points
Second, which side one takes in the controversy is more a matter of one’s partisan affiliation than one’s religious affiliation. In a Public Religion Institute tracking poll survey conducted in February 2012, 58 percent of Catholics agree that all employers should be required to provide their employees with health care plans that cover contraception or birth control at no cost to the employee. Fifty percent of white mainline Protestants agree; 61 percent of those who are not religiously affiliated agree; 55 percent of all Americans agree. In contrast, only 38 percent of white evangelicals agree. In the same survey, 73 percent of Democrats, 51 percent of independents, and only 36 percent of Republicans agree that birth control should be covered. Since partisanship and ideology are strongly correlated in contemporary politics, one could assume that similar ideological differences exist regarding the issue although the results of the survey did not include an item to determine a respondent’s political ideology.
Third, the issue is used as a wedge issue to affect political campaigns. A wedge issue is a controversial issue, usually social, that is used to drive a wedge between a political party and a member of its party coalition. In this example, Republicans will promote this issue by framing it as an attack on religion—particularly Catholicism—in hopes of driving a wedge between Catholic voters and their support for the Democratic Party—particularly President Obama. The Catholic bishops have strongly made this case, and their efforts have affected the media, both liberal and conservative, with E.J. Dionne, Chris Matthews, Melinda Henneberger, Mark Shields, David Brooks, and USA Today repeating the bishops’ claim that the rule is an assault on religious liberty. Democrats, who frame the issue as a matter of women’s health, will portray Republicans as hostile to policies that protect women’s health, using the issue as a wedge to drive Republican women away from the Republican Party. In 2008, there was a marriage gap, produced by the fact the unmarried women favored Democrat Barack Obama whereas married women favored Republican John McCain for president. If married women are less apt to support Republican candidates, the Democrats will increase their chances of winning.
Thus is the condition of contemporary American politics: Two sides contending to achieve political advantage in a polarized political environment. Each side fights to frame the issue in terms that are political advantageous, pushes its position as a moral imperative resulting from a constitutional or legislative right, and is unlikely to seek common ground because of the political and electoral effects of such a compromise. The only compromise acceptable to each side involves the other side adopting its position, which is not a compromise.
Exacerbating the condition is the fact that the institutions and processes of our political system were developed to promote and operate effectively only if politicians are willing and able to compromise. For example, the institutional arrangement known as a separation of powers combined with a system of checks and balances makes one of the branches dominate in one area of policymaking (legislating, implementing, interpreting) but allows the remaining branches to check that dominant branch. The system is best described as separate institutions sharing powers. An example of a process requiring compromise is the filibuster rule in the Senate, which allows 41 senators to prevent a vote. By the way, those 41 senators could represent only 11.3 percent of the United States’ population. Given our political system’s institutions and processes, the likely effect of partisan polarization is gridlock and inactivity. How can compromise occur when every issue involves a moral principle and divides the parties into opposing camps, both of which are seeking electoral advantage?