Social policy matters more than we let on

The political season that we are sweating through shares some attributes with the warm days that accompany it: There is no shortage of blustery wind gusts that interrupt the sweat-inducing heat that leaves those who are exposed to it feeling depleted – and in need of a shower.

During this contentious election cycle and the venomous legislative days that have fueled its rancor, any topic is sufficient to boil voters’ blood or evoke their fears, but social-policy issues are particularly effective emotional triggers – and politicians of all stripes are pulling them with abandon.

It is no overstatement to say that the Republican agenda over the last year has been shockingly malicious toward women. There was the U.S. Senate’s narrowly defeated Blunt Amendment, which would have allowed employers who had a moral objection to particular component of health-care coverage – such as birth control or mammograms – to strike that provision from the policy offered to employees. There was the weakened Violence Against Women Act, passed in the U.S. House of Representatives, that would lift protections for immigrant women in abusive marriages, and omits gay, Native American, student and other minority groups from the bill’s reach.

There is the perennial but growing attempt to undermine women’s access to abortions, through outright bans on them after a certain point in pregnancy to requiring humiliating, invasive and medically unnecessary procedures before an abortion. As The New York Times put it in a May 19 editorial: “Whether this pattern of disturbing developments constitutes a war on women is a political argument. That women’s rights and health are casualties of Republican policy is indisputable.”

On a more positive end of the social-policy spectrum, there is the dramatic shift in same-sex union policy that is playing out across the country. The real-time change in public acceptance of and support for fair treatment of gay couples in committed relationships is leaping into the policy arena in all branches of government and at all levels. Thursday’s ruling by a federal appeals court that found the Defense of Marriage Act violates the Constitution’s equal protection clause in denying gay married couples the same federal benefits that their heterosexual counterparts enjoy is a dramatic step in the direction of setting federal policy that is blind to sexuality and fair to all. It is as encouraging as the Colorado Legislature’s failure to pass a measure extending benefits to same-sex couples was disappointing.

These two issues are illustrative of just how important social policy is, though, and while the economy consistently eclipses all other issues on voters’ minds, it is far from the only thing decision-makers busy themselves with addressing. In fact, economic issues, while virtually synonymous with politics, are those least easily manipulated by executive, legislative or judicial action. The systems that influence economic success or failure certainly include and are responsive to government action, but extend well beyond its reach.

Social policy, on the other hand, can very much be determined by policymakers, and in the offing comes significant consequences for individuals and society at large. How Americans are treated by the laws of their nation is nothing short of identity-defining: If women are extended fewer protections than men, or subjected to curtailed freedoms because of paternalistic moralizing, their experience as Americans and as humans will be diminished in some way – or many. Same goes for gay men and women, whose commitments to one another are deemed inferior because of their sexuality.

As the intentions behind these policies of discrimination are internalized by those they affect, the strength of our free and fair society erodes. As such, the decisions, leanings, intentions, promises and hedges made around social issues by those in office or those who aspire to be should be as present in voters’ minds as what those politicians say about creating jobs and addressing government spending.

Campbell Brown, a former CNN news anchorwoman, recently wrote an op-ed in The New York Times where she takes President Obama to task for pandering to women, and dismisses the importance of these personal issues: “The struggling women in my life all laughed when I asked them if contraception or abortion rights would be a major factor in their decision about this election. For them, and for most other women, the economy overwhelms everything else,” Brown said.

And polling numbers back Brown’s observation: A recent Pew Research Center study found that social issues such as abortion, birth control access and gay marriage were “very important” to 39 percent, 34 percent and 28 percent of voters, respectively, behind just about everything else.

The economy, health care, jobs, terrorism, even foreign policy, all played more prominently in voters’ minds. Given the profound personal and cultural implications that policy surrounding social issues can have, those numbers are alarming.

We should all care a lot more about how fairly we conduct ourselves, and hold to account those who aim to further stratify our society through unfair, mean-spirited or condescending policies. The richness of all our lives, if not our lives themselves, depends on it.

Megan Graham is a Herald editorial writer and policy analyst. Reach her at

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