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OPINION | JOHN BRUMMETT: The beauty of ambivalence

by John Brummett | November 18, 2021 at 3:02 a.m.

A new poll for ABC and The Washington Post shows that 27 percent of respondents wanted Roe v. Wade repealed while 60 percent wanted it retained.

On the drilled-down specific issue of whether the government or a woman and her doctor ought to control the decision about abortion, 75 percent favored the woman and her doctor and only 20 percent favored the government.

So, then, what is all this political screaming about? Why are Republican-nominated Supreme Court justices pondering cases that deny abortions more broadly and threaten the very case law made by Roe v. Wade?

It's for the same reason that American politics grows ever-more dysfunctional.

It is that zealous extremists make noise all out of proportion to their numbers while the sanely fair-minded and conflicted go less noisily about their daily lives. And our political process--by the influence of money, congressional gerrymandering and the greater voting reliability of zealous extremists--has magnified the influence of extremist zealotry, of loudness, all out of proportion to the marginalization it once got and still deserves.

The answer is not to tell people to shut up--because we have the constitutional right of free crazy in this country--but for the politicians to learn not to listen. But that's hard for them. More than likely, their districts have been drawn to exaggerate the influence of right-wing or left-wing extremists on whose passions and votes they rely.

There is nuance to the finding, of course. The only sub-group in the poll producing a majority wanting to repeal Roe--58 percent--is the white evangelical Protestant demographic. That's the demographic dominating Arkansas and all of the South and some of the Midwest.

So, around here, these national findings will sound wrong. But that's from inside our zealous-extremist bubble. And our bubble is a lot smaller than the national bubble, which is populated heavily by the fair-minded and conflicted.

I wish somebody would do a national poll asking respondents whether, when it comes to abortion, they are (a) certain in their views, or (b) ambivalent. I would bet the percentage certain would be the pretty close to the 27 percent wanting to repeal Roe v. Wade. The rest would be gloriously ambivalent.

The virtue of ambivalence is that it stands in opposition to zealous rigidity. But the political problem with ambivalence is that it is not its own political party with its own funds and megaphone and its slates of candidates running in their own gerrymandered islands of like-minded bubbles.

With our politics devoted to volume rather than numbers and to rigidity rather than conflicted fair-mindedness, we get insurrection apologists on the right and tactical nincompoops on the left.

Basically, here are the political numbers for Americans, broadly estimated. The Trump base, including the revolutionaries and the white evangelical Protestants, is about 30 percent. The left fringe, defined for this purpose as Bernie Sanders primary voters along with the most-woke, is about 15 percent.

And what of the balance, the 55 percent?

I'd wager that a great plurality and perhaps majority of that 55 percent recoils against simple abortion on demand and would never choose it or recommend it for loved ones. But it opposes outlawing abortions when a doctor tells a woman that her unborn child has a brain/skull disorder by which it can't live outside the womb, or when a woman is pregnant by rape or incest, or when the result would be a nation in which abortions would be provided in some states but not others, usually for those who can afford them.

I'd wager that a great plurality or perhaps majority harbors no ill will toward a transgender person and likes to think it would intervene if such a person was being bullied or mistreated, but doesn't think political correctness ought to be defined by whether one still uses only "he" or "she" for gender identification or wishes to go to bat for a transgender girl wanting to run in a track meet.

I'd wager that a great plurality or perhaps majority accepts the plain American history teaching that the country has a racist past, but does not believe we should define ourselves solely by that without regard for our attempted reforms, some more successful than others.

I'd wager that a great plurality or perhaps majority nods when Barack Obama, who is in that 55 percent, says in a podcast with his rock 'n' roll pal Bruce Springsteen that he can make a sound argument for race reparations in America, but chooses not to do so because it likely would prove politically counterproductive for an already damaged modern American political condition.

I'd wager that the 55 percent watches neither Sean Hannity nor Rachel Maddow, but eats dinner or goes to a ballgame or does homework or walks the dog.

America needs to get past its cocksure cults. It needs street marches by ambivalent people making soft noises and carrying signs with question marks on them.

John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is a member of the Arkansas Writers' Hall of Fame. Email him at Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.


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