After Terri Schiavo: is there life in US politics?

Congress and the President showed that they are more interested in gestures than government.

Alex Gourevitch

Topics Politics

The Pope’s death has all but swamped the whirlwind media affair that was the ‘Terri Schiavo case’, but there are good reasons to stop and reflect upon what that controversy signalled about politics in America.

At one level, the battle over whether a woman in a permanent vegetative state should live or die, can only have reinforced public cynicism about politicians. For sheer politicking, nothing surpasses a recently revealed memo written by an aide to a Republican Senator and passed to other Republican senators, saying that the Schiavo affair was a ‘great political issue’ because it was ‘a tough issue for the Democrats’ and will excite the ‘pro-life base’ (1). Even before the memo was revealed, the public displayed intense suspicion towards political intervention in the case. A poll taken during the issue’s peak showed 82 per cent believing Congress and the president should stay out, and more strikingly, that public approval of Congress had fallen to 34 per cent, the lowest it had been since 1997 (2).

There is more to the story, however, than cynicism and opportunism. Public distrust in the government has been an especially pervasive feature of the American political landscape since the early 1990s. Declining voter participation, rising independent registration, and a large number of protest votes for third party candidates like Ross Perot and Ralph Nader, have all pointed to increased suspicion towards the political establishment.

In this political climate, mainstream politicians have struggled to establish points of contact with the public. Bread-and-butter issues like healthcare, social security, and taxes have been met with general disinterest, leading elected officials to seize on any issue they think will establish some momentary link between themselves and the public. This has meant orienting their actions towards the present, rather than the future, and towards the production of attractive public images in the media, rather than sustained relations between party leaders and members.

The Schiavo affair reveals how this politics of grand symbolic gestures works in practice. The first months of President George W Bush’s second term have been mired in controversy and intra-party conflict. With the Iraq occupation in a stalemate, Bush sought to restore some sense of mission by turning to the domestic agenda and pushing social security reform. But that effort stalled almost before it started, stuck in the quagmire of competing lobbies, lack of public interest, and the lack of clear will within the Republican Party to take it in a particular direction. After a brief episode of grandstanding over Syria’s involvement in Lebanon, the Republicans were desperate for an issue that could be posed in stark moral terms.

It was in this context that the Republicans decided to seize on the Schiavo case. In the process of transforming a legal battle into a political issue, they managed both to debase public debate and to deform political institutions.

The Republicans sought to make the Schiavo affair into one of a ‘culture of life’ against a ‘culture of death’. While this sounds like a sound moral principle during a two-second news clip, it is striking how miserabilist the Republican position is. By suggesting that defending Terri Schiavo is defending life, the Republicans reduced living to bare life. Rather than providing the public with any sense of what makes life worth living, they abdicated from discussing meaning at all. The Democrats, meanwhile, lapsed into their own vegetative state, withdrawing from any serious engagement with the Republicans and instead arguing for letting Schiavo die. This was hardly a more enlightened position. It made no effort to challenge the Republicans on the question that really mattered: what is a human life and what do we demand from it?

Neither side attempted to make the real argument for life – that human life is about more than mere survival, that it is about being a conscious, creative being actively participating in creating one’s own destiny. Behind the veneer of moralism lay a deeply limited view of humanity, more preoccupied with living wills than making life worth living. This is not a sensibility capable of giving real meaning to individual lives or social institutions. If anything, the Schiavo affair can only have deepened a sense of limited possibilities, not given anyone a renewed sense of purpose.

The grandstanding also made real changes in law and the relations among the main branches of government. Perhaps the most remarkable product of the whole affair is the ‘Compromise Bill’ written, passed, and signed into law in less than 48 hours. Introduced in the House of Representatives and Senate on 19 March, a day after Schiavo’s feeding tube was removed, the bill moved the case to the Federal District Court. The Republicans hoped this might lead to an overturning of prior decisions that allowed the feeding-tube to be removed.

The bill passed on 20 March in an undemocratic fashion. If the House of Representatives session, running unusually late on Saturday night/Sunday morning, pushed the boundaries of normal politics, the Senate vote on the bill was a parody of democratic procedure. The bill passed by a ‘voice vote’ of 3-0, with the other 97 Senators not present. The next day, 21 March, President Bush postponed his vacation, flew from Crawford, Texas to Washington DC just to sign the bill.

The emergency character of the legislation, replete with the mythos of late-night debates, unusual parliamentary procedures, and urgent presidential plane flights, was aimed to intensify the sense that the Republicans were involved in something higher than politics. No doubt they had an eye to how this would appear in the media. A brief look at the bill reveals how completely they had their eye on the instantaneous and the short-term. The Act is unusually short, containing only nine sections, only two longer than a sentence. Sections five through to eight explicitly state that the bill is not aimed at competing with any existing legislation on assisted suicide, patient-doctor relations, or will not constitute ‘a precedent with respect to future legislation’ (3).

Not only does the Act avoid setting any precedents, but it also did not aim to create any new ‘substantive rights’, that is to say any actual legal powers, for the parties involved. In other words, it was not aimed at having any real effect, so much as being a document that demonstrated the Republicans’ symbolic commitment to an abstract, starkly posed moral principle.

Even more troubling is the nature of the law itself. The first line in the Act reads: ‘For the relief of the parents of Theresa Marie Schiavo.’ (4) The essence of law is that it is general and abstract – that it prescribes or prohibits classes of behaviours, or specifies general social roles, but never addresses itself to any individual or group in particular. That is what separates law from decree, and legislative from executive and judicial activity. In addressing the Act to ‘the parents of Theresa Marie Schiavo’ Congress effectively ruled by decree. Bush and Congress even made a point of not using the issue to set a future precedent for a real piece of legislation on, say, living wills or feeding-tube removal procedures. Section eight reads: ‘Nothing in this Act shall constitute a precedent with respect to future legislation, including the provision of private relief bills.’ (5)

What is especially disturbing about this blurring of the boundaries between different branches of government, and the deformation of law, is that they seem to be unconscious by-products of the furore. It is precisely because Bush and the Republicans were more concerned with how the whole thing would look and play out in the media and in the present, that little thought was given to the real political consequences of what they were doing. Opportunism is perhaps too kind a word.

The calculations involved had little to do with the long-term fate of the Republican Party, congressional institutions, or the status of law – politicians didn’t set out to undermine constraining institutions. That would presume too much rationality and clarity of purpose. It was, rather, because those involved did not care what the long-term outcomes of their actions were, that the consequences were so perverse.

The only aim of those involved was to intensify the immediate, image-creating effect. House Republican Majority Leader Tom Delay came near to threatening the judge that dismissed Terri Schiavo’s parents’ appeal against removing the feeding tube. Moreover, since the only real purpose of the late night Act was to overrule a judicial decision, congressmen were then able to go on every radio and talk show they could find and announce they had ‘exhausted the legal options’. Political institutions and the law became mere instruments for the congressmen and the president to use in their frantic attempts to claim the moral high ground.

The Schiavo affair alone does not portend the end of democracy nor the decline of the rule of law in the USA. But it does highlight the quasi-authoritarian and arbitrary character of a highly moralised politics organised around dramatic public gestures. When a series of self-contained moments are substituted for a broader vision for the future, the effect on democratic institutions can only be corrosive.

Alex Gourevitch is a PhD candidate in political science at Columbia University, New York.

(1) GOP memo says issue offers political rewards, Washington Post, 4 April 2005

(2) Political Fallout Over Schiavo, CBS News, 23 March 2005

(3) “Compromise Bill” Re: Terri Schiavo Signed Into Law

(4) “Compromise Bill” Re: Terri Schiavo Signed Into Law

(5) “Compromise Bill” Re: Terri Schiavo Signed Into Law

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Topics Politics


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