Like loose objects floating in space, words operate as chameleons in our politics. In the reptile world, a chameleon is a small, slow-moving, Old-World lizard with a prehensile tail, long extensible tongue, protruding eyes that rotate independently, and a highly developed ability to change color. In politics, a chameleon is a person who changes their opinions or behavior according to the situation. In linguistics, words have chameleonic qualities. Words float in and out of “Blue” and “Red” areas of our politics and change color and meaning in each area.
Meanings change according to whether the words are in red or blue territory. And not just any ordinary words, but the power-packing words of democracy: truth, freedom, rights. When words turn “Red,” they say, “The liberals are destroying our basic rights as Americans.” When words turn “Blue,” they say, “The conservatives are taking away our rights. They overturned Roe and now they are going after gay marriage and the right to vote.” The use of words in our politics presents a versatile, volatile, and often confused political phenomenon.
Perhaps the most color-shifting term in our political vocabulary is “rights.” The people attempting to reduce rights claim to be the people who are losing rights. These people are most represented by the Right. If a member of the Right says the word “rights,” make sure all your rights are protected by the Constitution, the government, and the military. And to be safe, change your password.
American values are fundamentally progressive, centered on equality, human rights, social responsibility, and the inclusion of all. Yet conservatives have achieved large victories in the culture war with revised meanings for the word “rights.” Like the large ghost in C. S. Lewis’, The Great Divorce, the Right just wants their rights. “I’m asking for nothing but my rights.”
The right quibbles about “rights” while they insist that the government only has one job. Patron saint of the Right, The Rev. Robert Jeffress holds forth: “Look, the godly principle here is that governments have one responsibility, and that is Romans 13 [which] says to avenge evil-doers. God gives government the power of the sword, of capital punishment, of executing wrong-doers. He doesn’t give you and me those responsibilities or rights individually. So there is a distinction between what the Christian individuals’ responsibility is and what government’s responsibility is.” Jeffress claims the goal of the government “is to “protect us and leave us alone to practice our faith.”
The odd reality is that for all of the Right’s insistence that they want the government not to interfere in their personal freedoms, they act like bullies on steroids when insisting that the government interfere in issues like abortion, gay rights, and immigration.
Government is more than protection. It is also empowerment. Geroge Lakoff notes, “[Protection] means social security, disease control and public health, safe food, disaster relief, health care, consumer and worker protection, environmental protection.”
As Martin Marty observed, “The right feels left out of everyone else’s rights movement.” When members of the Right tell you they are fighting for your rights and freedoms, they’re speaking out of both sides of their mouths. While presenting themselves as champions of our rights and liberty, they have been hard at work chipping away at the very rights they pretend to hold so dear.
They are undermining the independence of our judicial system, rolling back our right to privacy, interfering in our health care decisions, taking away local control for our children’s education, and weakening our right to vote. The Right endeavors to destroy our planet by weakening environmental protections and selling out to the fossil fuel corporations that have put global warming on an unprecedented pace.
The Right believes in the right to yield power when they are in power. Their hidden mantra derives from the ancient days of Plato and his reprehensible character, Callicles, “Might makes right.” The Right claims to be Christians, but they are members of a plutocracy — government of, by, and for the rich. As Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson say in Let Them Eat Tweets, “Runaway inequality has remade American politics, reorienting power and policy toward corporations and the superrich (particularly the most conservative among them).”
Somehow the Right had a secret shotgun wedding and married plutocracy to populism. This is beyond a Hatfield marrying a McCoy. This seems impossible, but it has happened. The vows have been exchanged; the marriage consummated; and they will be together until death parts them.
Historically, populism has been the vicious enemy of the plutocrats. A cursory review of populist history shows that for Gilded Age populists, the enemy was constituted as a geographically situated economic and political behemoth. Jacksonian-era enemies such as “the money power” and monopolies were inherited by this movement.
The Right, hiding behind chameleonic qualities, opposes the right to health care, voting rights, and educational rights.
The Right to Health Care
The Right has attempted to strip health insurance from millions of Americans. While screaming for “rights” they are systematically dismantling the rights of all Americans, including the poor among them — the ones who support the Right against their own economic self-interest.
The Right insists that “health” is not one of our unalienable rights. To the Right, health care is a “commodity” not a protective right. The Market will provide health care according to this restrictive view.
But health care is a matter of protection, not a commodity. It is a matter of pain and suffering, of life and death. Many people die, or suffer terrible pain, for lack of adequate health care. No one dies for lack of a flat-screen TV. Protection is a moral mission, for the government, but not for business.
The Right screams about the prohibitive cost of health care for all Americans. In private health care, one-third of the cost goes to profit and administration, while Medicare spends only 3% on administration and none on profits. “Cost” is a marketing ideology, evidence that the right worships the Market God, not the Good Samaritan God of the New Testament.
The Right to Vote
Alabama, a true “Red” state through and through, has defied federal court rulings to add a second congressional district that would create more equality for African Americans in Alabama. Now, the U.S. Supreme Court has rejected Alabama’s emergency bid to block lower court rulings, requiring the state to redraw its seven-seat congressional map to include a second majority Black district.
Memories remain vivid of Governor George Wallace being the archetypal saint of “segregation” back in the Civil Rights days. Alabama has not strayed far from those embedded fixtures of racism when it comes to attempting to restrict the rights of African Americans.
Alabama doesn’t qualify as an outlier in the restriction of rights. Following the racist trial of Alabama, in a 2-1 ruling, a panel of judges at the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Louisiana ruled that U.S. District Judge Shelly Dick was moving too fast in paving the way for a second Black-majority district. The Appeals Court blocked hearings on drawing a second majority Black congressional district in Louisiana.
Nineteen states have passed laws to restrict voting this year. Indications that this is a battle for the soul of the nation, some states have headed in the opposite direction and have lowered barriers to voting. In all, 25 states have enacted 62 laws that expand voting access. For example, California enacted a law to automatically mail ballots to every voter.
With states making it harder for citizens to vote, there is no question that opposing voting rights is a Right policy.
The Right to Education
Education Conservatives want to eliminate public resources as a moral issue. In their view, they are given for free and therefore take away personal responsibility and the incentive to work.
Education is a main example. In conservatively run states, like Wisconsin, funding for public education has been severely cut. The conservative movement against public school education offers the alternative of charter schools, religious schools, and private schools. The CREDO study at Stanford in 2013 found that about 75 percent of charter schools have results that are worse than, or no different from, traditional public schools. Charter schools tend to drain money from public schools and make public education worse on the whole, even for the best public schools. Moreover, charter schools have no accountability to local school districts or the public.
Schools dominated by the restrictions of the Right tend to debunk evolution and science and instead teach creationism and insist on banning books. In typical fashion, the Right frames its restrictive education policies as “free choice.”
The Right wants to dictate approaches to education that have more in common with 1920s pedagogy than 21st-century critical thinking. Attempts to rewrite American history to protect white privilege and the usual resistance to evolution and science make it clear that the Right is determined to restrict educational rights.
So if you take the time to better understand rights, the chameleonic qualities start to disappear — and the Right is exposed as the faction denying rights to others.
Rodney Kennedy has his M.Div. from New Orleans Theological Seminary and his Ph.D. in Rhetoric from Louisiana State University. The pastor of 7 Southern Baptist churches over the course of 20 years, he pastored the First Baptist Church of Dayton, Ohio – which is an American Baptist Church – for 13 years. He is currently professor of homiletics at Palmer Theological Seminary, and interim pastor of Emmanuel Friedens Federated Church, Schenectady, New York. His seventh book – Good and Evil in the Garden of Democracy – is now out from Wipf and Stock (Cascades).