32. Debating identity politics in the North

Topics like abortion, sex education or same sex marriage have produced some of the poorest public debates this country has seen. In this essay, I discuss strategies for debating identity politics in the difficult context of Northern Mexico.

Public debate in Mexico suffers from many woes, including fake news, hyper division, tribalism, bias in corporate media, etc. The fact that politics (and religion) are commonly banned conversation topics at gatherings is a red flag when it comes to the level of political culture. Matter of fact, to call topics like abortion or sex education public debates is being generous. More accurate they could be described as two sides yelling things as each other (‘ignorant!’) without caring if the other understands them, similar to angry people gesturing in traffic. This essay will offer a strategic reflection on the progressive agenda, which is especially pertinent in Northern states. The two general strategies will first be outlined and later applied to two cases: abortion and same sex marriage.

    Given the sensitivity of the topic I want to outline that this essay is primarily about policy strategy and agenda setting, not ethics. The suggestions I offer are based on political feasibility, not personal moral endorsements for or against any of the discussed positions, which are not of particular personal interest of mine – I promote a populist left that primarily focusses on socio-economic issues. Imagine “IF you want to advance this debate, then…” in front of any of my recommendations. 

The first proposal is to focus on substantive arguments that connect the ethical issues to broader social problems. Instead of both sides engaging in signaling (opposing) values, the debate could advance if we better articulate why allowing or not allowing something is a practical problem for society. This allows the discussion to broaden and both sides to propose alternatives to the concerns of the other, which could lead to progress one way or the other. For this to work, a minimum level of respectability is required to be taken serious, reducing the amount of clowning on both sides, whether that is beating fetus piñatas or proclaiming that disasters are divine justice.

    The second proposal is to use a gradual approach to agenda setting. Gradualism is generally seen as negative within the Left, often with good reasons as it can be used by elites to negate change concerning the suffering of large majorities. However, on ethical issues it is wise to seek as much societal consensus as possible to avoid division, and to actually achieve durable change and respect in conservative states like Nuevo León. Maximizing value expression must be weighed versus political feasibility, which might be more useful to those it affects. Strategically picking which issues to place on the agenda is also a matter of so called ‘policy sequencing’: the implementation of policies can unlock previously undiscussable policy options, since the experience of change itself changes the context of the debate (for example by reducing fear).

We will start with the sensitive topic of abortion, which deserves a serene debate given the topic is painful for everyone involved. It is an inherently hard problem – to the mature mind – because both sides have strong starting positions, one focused on self-determination, and the other on the loss of life. Recognizing the relative strength of each side is a good starting position, rather than engaging in slogans and arguments that predictably won’t change opinions (‘it’s my body’ is replied with ‘It is the fetus you kill’, etc.). Using substantive arguments would imply explaining WHY it is so important that one would be able to do this (or at least not be incarcerated), as well as explaining the societal context in which these acts of desperation take place. Reasons for abortion form a spectrum in terms of moral respectability, with things like rape, danger to the health of the mother, and mental incapacity (of the parents) or economic devastation of the existing family on one end, and eliminating the evidence of cheating on the other. Elaborating the former issues can advance and broaden the debate. Progressives could point to the fact that it is too easy for well off conservatives whose kids are raised by nannies (and whose ‘bastards’ are bought off) to assume that people who struggle could always bear the consequences of pregnancy. Only the wicked would engage in this traumatizing procedure for fun, and the needs that are behind the motives must be addressed if one want to prevent (illegal) abortions. A substantive debate on the problems could also demonstrate the inconsistency of conservative opposition to both abortion and sex education: one cannot avoid the problems that follow from not decriminalizing the first without having the second. Like a Queen in chess that threatens two pieces in at the same time, substantive arguments can push conservatives to allow the progressive agenda to advance one way or the other.

    However, the pro-life position also deserves to be taken serious in a democratic context instead of being swept away in denial (after all, ending life is the objective of the procedure). Note that while this position often has religious underpinnings, it does not depend on it. Leaving aside if it would constitute  manslaughter or not, most people who has heard the live heartbeat of a fetus (or worse, lost one) understand that at least something valuable is lost. But life and more broadly health is lost and threatened all the time in many other ways. A substantive engagement with such arguments involves questioning of the notion and scope of the pro-life position. If one is truly ‘pro-life’, then other factors such as the dangers of illegal abortion, problems with adoption, lack of health insurance due to informal employment, or the health implications of living in a poor family must be taking into account. If social conservatives want society to force individuals to not avoid suffering, they should take responsibility for the consequences and support the drastic expansion of the help society offers to vulnerable families and young people in general. One cannot be pro-family or pro-life and abandon families (and unwanted children) at the same time.

    Besides making debates more substantive, the nature and order of the demands themselves play a role. Consider the following data compiled from 2015 and 2020 Ipsos research reports on attitudes towards abortion. In the data for Mexico of the 2020 poll, 25% of Mexicans is ‘pro choice’; 38% are in favor of abortion in case of grave circumstances such as rape; 18% is in favor in case the mother’s life is in danger and 10% is against no matter what (9% didn’t answer). One can imagine more conservative averages for the North. Things get more interesting if we break this down by sex, which the 2015 poll allows, keeping in mind the totals are lower than 2020:

In favor:Free choiceCircumstancesMortal dangerNever

Two conclusions: A) this debate is often totally misconstrued in a pseudo-feminist narrative of ‘men wanting to control our bodies’, while the main opposition comes from other woman – even in the case of rape. Some feminists might not like this fact, but they might even less enjoy misdirecting their energies. The numbers also raise questions about how to avoid men pressuring/manipulating woman into abortion under full legalization. B) people’s views are not black and white, and there is far more support for conditional decriminalization than for free choice. Given the category of ‘circumstances’ contains the largest group, this is where the real debate will take place, as it is also here that most substantive arguments for abortion are located. Although other laws can hinder this in practice, under the criminal code of Nuevo León, article 331 already specifies an exception to criminalization in case of rape and life endangerment. As mentioned before, a debate on pressing economic or mental circumstances (or how these might be avoided) would be the strategic next step.

The sequence of policies matters both within certain policy lines, as within the progressive agenda as a whole. Therefore my second example consists of what I consider the easiest case to lead with: same sex marriage. Technically people of the same sex can get married in Nuevo León (but not Tamaulipas), but only because the supreme court ruled discrimination against gay people in these cases unconstitutional. This in practice means that the couple needs to obtain a court ‘amparo’ that forces local administration to make an exception. Besides being inelegant, opposition from broader institutions renders the practical use of the benefits of marriage difficult.

    Same sex marriage is a good case for agenda setting because in contrast to abortion it is hard to make substantial arguments against it. People in general oppose gay marriage because they feel their identity threatened, or out of so called family values. While traditional identities have good reasons to feel threatened in this globalizing world, gay marriage won’t impact this – nor make people more gay. Unlike in discussions on everything involving the word ‘trans’, the presence of gay people does not challenge the reality of others nor demands them to follow along. Odd attempts to demand marriage by church aside, gay marriage does not make traditional marriage less special. In fact, it would strengthen rather than weaken the waning institution of marriage, and form rather than break families.

    Yet, substantive arguments for gay marriage are not made often enough, as people generally prefer a manifesto/demands approach. Not having same sex marriage leads to a host of substantial problems for people, including not being able to grant healthcare to family members, complications with (life) insurance, inheritance, taxes, loans, and spousal hires. Not to mention potential problems with work provided childcare if for example the other half of a lesbian couple gets pregnant. Many of these are in essence labor rights issues, and constitute of bosses not giving full benefits to workers by treating them as single. In case conservatives would want to oppose gay marriage at all cost, they have to provide solutions for all of the above problems. In terms of policy sequencing, approving equal marriage would logically proceed other discussions on gay rights, that can go as far as the river of democracy is willing to carry them.

Nuevo León is not like Guadalajara, nor does it need to be. While we can (and often need to)  stretch how far laws can be ahead of culture, in a democratic society there a limits to how far policies can disregard popular opinion and still be sustainable. Progressives run the risk of hindering themselves from changing this culture by aiming too high instead of substantively engaging public opinion where it actually is: in the middle. Political awareness comes from dialogue on real issues and needs, not calling people ignorant. And supporting political factions that actually attempt to push priority issues like same sex marriage and sex education.

Given my strategic recommendations in practice point towards a middle-of-the-road position, I will probably have pissed of both progressives and conservatives. This is fine, as long as they get to talking. The additional benefit of substantial debates is that it helps identity politics (re)connect to the broader concerns within the populist left, and thus improve the internal agenda setting. By reframing cultural demands as social, health or labor rights, the identity Left could reintegrate with the institutions of the mainstream Left (syndicates, for example), rather than be a temporal concern of woke university students. This is the way.