Monday, August 11, 2014

Sixth District is all good

I live in the Sixth Congressional District where three conservative candidates are vying for the Republican nomination. I have not endorsed one of them because I would be happy to vote for any of them. Each has his strengths and weaknesses, but, on the whole, I can't come to the conclusion that one is clearly preferable to the others.

Ashley Schultz thinks otherwise. She is "terrified" of Glenn Grothman who she believes would "set us back fifty years." Now I think that Ashley is a rising young star and a great addition to Purple Wisconsin.* But I see it differently. 

I am not endorsing Glenn Grothman. His strength is his commitment and engagement with ideas, but, as Ashley points out, his weakness is his tendency to be, at best, overly blunt and, at worst, unmindful of important nuance. If all she is saying is that he has a weakness as a candidate - a tendency to gaffe - that may counsel a vote for one of the others, I have nothing to say. I don't necessarily agree, but it's a fair point.

But I do believe that there's a distinction that needs to be made clear. Ashley may have assumed it. I think it needs to be made explicit.

It's one thing to criticize a candidate for not adequately negotiating the shoals of our silly public discourse about things like a "war on women." But we still ought to recognize that the discourse is, in fact, silly.

We see it happen again and again. Someone will make a statement that is either ambiguous or "objectionable" only for its failure to show proper obeisance to certain sensitivities or to one of the canonical myths of politically correctness. The statement may fail to add a Seinfeldian qualification ("not that there's anything wrong with that") disavowing a bias that has not been expressed. It may  come too close to an uncomfortable truth that is susceptioble to misinterpretation (e.g., Paul Ryan's recent statements regarding the interaction of culture and poverty).

He or she will then be overwhelmed by charges of "racism" or "sexism." When his or her defenders point out that the charges are untrue, the attackers will just scream louder or say that, even if it was not biased, the statement was in some sense "insensitive" so "just as bad." Because being seen as "racist" or "sexist" is anathema in today's society, people who know better either join the pogrom or head for cover.

Now, to be clear, I don't think that's what Ashley is doing. But the examples that she gives are instructive. In our hypersenstive world, they may be political gaffes, but they are not substantive errors.

For example, Grothman made a statement about young men being more interested in making money because they may someday be breadwinners. He was arguing that disparities in pay between men and women do not necessarily reflect employer bias. One alternate explanation, he said, might have something to do with life choices. He gave the example of two lawyers who marry. The husband stays at his firm while the wife takes time off to raise the children. At 50, he'll probably be making more money than she is, but this will not be the product of employer bias.

The first thing to note is that Grothman is right. This story applies to about many lawyers that I know. For whatever reason, women have been more likely to step out of the workforce - or take less demanding jobs - for family reasons. This has consequences. Indeed, yesterday's New York Times reported on a study finding that "too much" family leave can hurt one's career prospects.

The second thing to note is that his point was not normative - he was not saying that this is the way it should be - only that it has been the way it is.

It could be that women who are becoming lawyers today will be less likely to do this in the future. It may be that the greater tendency - so far - of women to interrupt their careers (or take more family friendly jobs) is the product of "socially constructed" gender roles. It may be that employers should - whether on their own or by compulsion - adopt more family friendly policies so women are less likely to leave - even if this does impose costs on others.

But none of this is what Grothman was addressing.

Ashley quotes an old - and admittedly inartful - statement opposing mandatory life sentence for persons committed of two or more counts of sexual assault of a child. While one could read the statement as being "insensitive" to victims, Grothman's point was that all such offenses are not the same and that some sentencing discretion may be in order. For example, do we want to impose a mandatory life sentence on an 18 year old convicted of having sex with his fifteen year old girl friend? He could have said it better, but it seems pretty clear that this is what he meant.

Now I understand that many people don't want to think this hard (although it's really pretty easy) about what someone has said. Some don't want to give a political opponent the benefit of the doubt. Others find it easier to suspend critical analysis. For them, it is enough that he said something that  - kind of, sort of  - has to do with gender roles or some other sensitive topic and that's icky.  It's easier to think one has preserved one's own virtue by pre-emptorily throwing the speaker under the bus.

Of course, Ashley Schultz is not one of those people. But I think we need to make a distinction between criticizing a candidate's political skills and judgment, on the one hand and his or her substantive positions on the other.

* By way of disclosure, Ashley works at St. Anthony's School where I am on the Board of Directors. I have no authority over her, but, even if I did, she should feel to tell me where I'm wrong. God knows I need it.

Cross posted at Purple Wisconsin


Anonymous said...

i'll tell you where you are wrong.

grothman is a terrible representative period.

I can not name one thing he has thought of on his own.

but then again, I have not agreed on anything you have commented on, ever, either.

John Mitchell said...

Yet you still come here and post.

Display Name said...

Gosh, whenever I hear Grothmann in an interview, I can't help but be reminded of his "commitment and engagement with ideas".

Certainly the smarter Republicans in the herd, in private, are shaking their heads and laughing when he talks.

Heck, even Grothmann speaks differently when he thinks he's having a private, honest conversation about the behavior of Republicans.

Anonymous said...

yes I do,

somebody has to call him out.