Weekend Edition: Performance, not perfection, might be the enemy of the good
The failure of our leaders to understand their roles and govern is making us less safe and less free.
There are different kinds of leadership in any movement — just as there are different types of work. This week, on the heels of Justice Alito's leaked Supreme Court opinion that would wholly and dramatically overturn Roe v. Wade, Senator Shumer brought a bill to the floor “to codify Roe” and establish a Federal legal right to abortion. After fifty years of relying on judicial protection, this action was, on the one hand, wildly overdue. On the other hand, how Shumer chose to advance the bill and importantly which bill he chose to advance speaks volumes about his failure to understand the nature of his own leadership and the responsibility demanded of his role.
There were two bills introduced in the Senate. One was a very simple one that codified Roe's viability standard and Caeys’s undue burden standard and left all other discussion and specific limitations that have dominated state abortion law for the last five decades aside. The second bill attempted to codify the access guaranteed by Roe AND specifically reverse every abortion limitation put forward in various states since 1973 while editorializing extensively on both the nature of abortion rights and the motivations and justifications of abortion opponents.
The former was a narrow compromise attempt to codify Roe's protections. The latter was an attempt to solidify those protections by obviating possible restrictions that might exist within the framework of access created by Roe and Casey. Despite knowing that it could not pass and would likely face a bipartisan filibuster, Shumer chose to bring the latter to the floor anyway. By focusing on the performance of a position that an activist would take, Senator Schumer chose to lead like an activist. But he is not an activist and choosing to lead like one is an abdication of his leadership responsibility in his role as Senate majority leader. The collapse of this differentiation in leadership is destroying both parties. Our elected leadership has adopted a performative quality that is focused on culture and activism. As essential and important as that leadership is, it means no one is governing.
We've all heard the phase “don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” In political advocacy conversations, it is sometimes meant sarcastically as a pejorative for taking weak positions and not making the full throated case for a convicted moral stance. But in most social impact contexts it, of course, points to a willingness to remain committed to untenable positions or practices that keep us from helping people at all.
Governing at the national level requires passing laws for the whole country written, debated, and voted on by leaders who represent the whole country. To be generous, perhaps Sen. Shumer believed no abortion rights bill could pass and that the performance was his only option, but even that belies the possibility that advancing something genuine and consistent with where the country as a whole stands might actually work, might actually enshrine important and significant legal protection for women that expands their autonomy and self-determination and ensures access to abortion in the vast majority of cases. Imperfect to some for sure, but a broad and significant victory for women's liberty. Passing nothing, not even getting an actual vote on the bill itself, protects no one.
What the last week of poll after poll on Roe and abortion reveals might not be that the country as a whole is clamoring to keep Roe but that abortion is painful and complicated as both a civil rights question and a moral one. When a majority of the country says, “keep the precedent.” What they may be saying is “don't move, we need to talk about this.* What activists hear and push for is “yes, America wants abortions to be legal, safe, and available.” What legislators ought to hear and think is something more like, “this is fucking complicated. Since barely a majority could even raise their hands to keep the status quo, let's provide some structure and stability for the country.”
But rather than protecting the vast majority of women exercising their personal automony and control over their own bodies and morality, Sen. Shumer engaged in a purity performance that protects zero women in practice. What he is doing is letting performance be the enemy of the good because he has forgotten what kind of leadership his role demands. Like it or not, the debate about abortion is neither obvious nor settled in America. Yes, we should keep debating, keep discussing, keep advocating and protesting. AND our leaders should protect women while the debate continues, holding personal automony and morality above an uncertain and deeply conflicted collective morality. THAT is the leadership we need from Shumer. The leadership of the broad exhaustive expression of the activist can be left for others to carry.