The Hawley-Bridges Exchange Was Not Constructive

Plus: what Democrats should do about abortion now

Black and white photo of Senator Josh Hawley
Anna Moneymaker / Getty

This is an edition of Up for Debate, a newsletter by Conor Friedersdorf. On Wednesdays, he rounds up timely conversations and solicits reader responses to one thought-provoking question. Later, he publishes some thoughtful replies. Sign up for the newsletter here.

Question of the Week

Should Joe Biden run for reelection? If not, who would you choose to replace him on the Democratic ticket? (If you’re a Republican, assume the Democrat will definitely win the election.)

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Conversations of Note

When Semantics Dominate Civics

Every so often, C-SPAN captures the shortcomings of American civic discourse particularly clearly. On Tuesday, during a televised Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on abortion access and the law, Senator Josh Hawley, a social conservative from Missouri, sparred with the UC Berkeley law professor Khiara M. Bridges, who studies race, class, and reproductive rights. If you follow left-of-center media, you may have heard about the exchange via headlines like these:

HuffPost: “Professor Schools Sen. Josh Hawley for His Transphobic Questions in Abortion Hearing”

Above the Law: “You *Have* to Watch This Law Professor SHUT DOWN Senator Josh Hawley”

New York magazine: “Josh Hawley Called Out as Transphobic in Senate Hearing”

Jezebel: “Berkeley Law Professor Eviscerates Sen. Josh Hawley at Post-Roe Hearing”

Inside a “blue” bubble, it would be easy to assume that Senator Hawley had had a bad day. Yet Hawley, for his part, did his utmost to make sure that same exchange reached as many people as possible. He appeared on the Fox News Channel in prime time to discuss the viral moment, amplified the efforts of numerous right-leaning media figures to publicize it, and tweeted out a video clip to his 894,000 Twitter followers. “The Democrats say what they really think: men can get pregnant and if you disagree, you are ‘transphobic’ and responsible for violence,” he wrote. “For today’s left, disagreement with them = violence. So you must not disagree.” Inside a “red” bubble, it would be easy to assume C-SPAN caught “woke insanity,” as The Daily Wire put it.

How is it that both the populist left and the populist right, though utterly at odds with each other on abortion and trans rights, both considered this same 1-minute-and-50-second-long clip a victory?

Let’s go to the transcript for some insights. As it starts, two people begin a lengthy exchange about women––yet neither finds it useful, for their purposes, to clarify how they define that word.

Senator Hawley: Professor Bridges, you said several times––you’ve used a phrase, I want to make sure I understand what you mean by it. You’ve referred to “people with a capacity for pregnancy.” Would that be women?

Professor Bridges: Many women, cis women, have the capacity for pregnancy. Many cis women do not have the capacity for pregnancy. There are also trans men who are capable of pregnancy, as well as nonbinary people who are capable of pregnancy.

Hawley does not earnestly need clarification. He is grandstanding. He knows what Bridges means by “people with a capacity for pregnancy” and why she uses that formulation: because she wants to be inclusive of trans men, which is to say, people born with female reproductive organs who now identify as men, but who retain the ovaries and uterus that permit them to become pregnant. He pushes for clarification to highlight her choice to use trans-inclusionary language, knowing her diction is discordant to many Americans and controversial in her own coalition.

Why does her approach divide the left? The blue coalition is enmeshed in a fraught disagreement between abortion-rights proponents who believe semantically centering women––the group most disproportionately affected by bans on abortion––is substantively and politically important, and abortion-rights proponents who believe that switching to more inclusive language is morally important and takes nothing away from women.

Hawley saw an opportunity. Having forced Bridges to highlight a polarizing stance that divides her coalition, he sought to press his advantage by characterizing Bridges as saying that abortion isn’t a women’s issue.

Hawley: So this isn’t really a women’s-rights issue, it’s a––

Bridges: We can recognize that this impacts women while also recognizing that it impacts other groups. Those things are not mutually exclusive, Senator Hawley.

Hawley: Alright, so your view is that the core of this right, then, is about what?

This is where Bridges, knowing she is pinned down on hostile terrain, pivots to something likely to unite her coalition, though as we’ll see, it was equally likely to unite Hawley’s coalition:

Bridges: So, um, I want to recognize that your line of questioning is transphobic and it opens up trans people to violence by not recognizing them.

Hawley: Wow, you’re saying that I’m opening up people to violence by asking whether or not women are the folks who can have pregnancies?

Bridges: So I want to note that one out of five transgender persons have attempted sucide, so I think it’s important––

Hawley: Because of my line of questioning? So we can’t talk about it?

Bridges: Because denying that trans people exist and pretending not to know that they exist––

Hawley: I’m denying that trans people exist by asking you––

Bridges: Are you? Are you?

Hawley: ––if you’re talking about women having pregnancies?

Bridges: Do you believe that men can get pregnant?

Hawley: No, I don’t think men can get pregnant.

Bridges: So you’re denying that trans people exist!

Hawley: And that leads to violence? Is this how you run your classroom? Are students allowed to question you or are they also treated like this, where they’re told that they’re opening up people to violence––

Bridges: We have a good time in my class. You should join. You might learn a lot.

Hawley: I would learn a lot. I’ve learned a lot just in this exchange. Extraordinary.

Both participants conducted that exchange in ways that were likely to earn praise from their ideological allies and contempt from their opponents while generating far more heat than light. Bridges shifted into attack mode and characterized Hawley as a dangerous bigot, generating praise from media leftists while guaranteeing that Hawley would be seen by many as a victim of an unfair attack. After all, neither evidence nor common sense suggests that questions like Hawley’s––questions attempting to bait a progressive into publicly saying that abortion isn’t a women’s issue––contribute to trans suicides. (What’s more, no research that I’m aware of connects suicides among any group to discourse of this sort, which is to say, general legislative debate as opposed to bullying an individual. If the journalists at HuffPost and beyond who endorsed Bridges’s claims truly believed Hawley’s words here would contribute to suicides, would they really have helped turn them into a viral video clip, taking something that aired on C-SPAN and deliberately exposing it to a much larger audience?) And for all of Hawley’s wrongheaded antagonism to LGBTQ rights, the locution that he is “denying that trans people exist” doesn’t capture his actual position.

Hawley knows that some people who were born with ovaries and a uterus now identify as trans men. He is averse to simply calling them “men” and to the formulation “men can get pregnant,” at least in part because men, as he defines it, is about sex, not gender. That is to say, men is the word Hawley uses to refer to people born with penises, testicles, and one Y chromosome. In contrast, Bridges is averse to the formulation “only women can get pregnant” because men as she defines it is about gender identity.

I expect both know that Americans have long failed to disentangle sex and gender, and that many people use words like man and woman, boy and girl inconsistently, sometimes referring to sex and other times to gender and still other times to a mix, often without thinking the matter through. If you asked me, “Do you think a man can be pregnant?” I’d answer, “If you define a man as someone with a penis, testicles, and a Y chromosome, no. If you define man as an identity that corresponds to an internal sense of felt gender, then yes. Before I can answer in a way that allows us to actually understand one another, I need you to know how you define man.”

Instead of modeling a constructive exchange by clarifying their own terminology, Hawley and Bridges talk past each other––mutually aware all the while that they are talking past each other––portraying each other as bigoted and crazy, respectively, for failing to mirror the other’s statements about men and women, when in large part the disconnect boils down to different definitions. To find agreements, all they have to do is use more words. Can a person with a beard, ovaries, and a uterus get pregnant? Maybe! Can a person with no uterus and one Y chromosome get pregnant? Never. Hawley and Bridges likely agree on all that and more. Their important disagreements on LGBTQ issues concern rights and liberties, not semantics. As for the ostensible subject of the hearing, “abortion access and the law”? Nothing about that went viral.

Congressional Politics and Abortion Policy

At Vox, Rachel M. Cohen reports on the logic of the approach that Democrats are taking while they still control Congress:

Behind the scenes, a debate among Democratic leaders, strategists, and reproductive rights groups that began with the draft opinion leak is still playing out. Should Democrats hold votes on various angles of the abortion debate that poll well with voters — for example, a vote upholding abortion access nationally in cases of rape or incest, or threat to a mother’s life? These measures likely wouldn’t get 60 votes to pass, but they might get support from a few Republicans, would force others to take potentially unpopular positions ahead of the midterm elections, and could demonstrate majority support for some forms of abortion rights. “I think a rape, incest, health-of-the mother exception gets probably 52 to 53 votes in favor, and from a morale standpoint there’s just a huge difference seeing something with 52 votes in favor rather than 49,” said a senior Democratic aide, one of several aides who spoke on condition of anonymity.

But other prominent Democratic leaders argue that such votes would be theatrical wastes of time, and possibly even counterproductive: They could give moderate Republicans an opportunity to distance themselves from their extremist party, or undermine the case for broadly protecting abortion rights by deeming some abortions more worthy than others.

Josh Barro asks:

Why don’t Democrats bring widely supported abortion rights legislation to a vote — one piece, one issue, one provision at a time — forcing Republicans to either pass it or place themselves sharply on the wrong side of public opinion? The catch-all, one-shot legislation Democrats have brought so far doesn’t achieve this. It’s so expansive beyond the protections once enshrined by Roe and Casey that even the most pro-choice Republicans have felt comfortable voting against it. Why don’t they try something else?

Then he answers his own question:

What Democrats need to do now is promote and enact what protections they can at the federal level, and even more crucially, fight state-by-state to protect abortion rights. Democrats will often be on favorable ground in those fights, since the public is more pro-choice than pro-life, on balance. But to fight that fight, you have to admit that there is no longer a federal right to abortion in the first two trimesters — and that therefore, legislation falling short of that standard is an advance for abortion rights, not a concession …  

Remember: this is about setting a federal floor, not a ceiling, for abortion access. As I said a couple of weeks ago, I think the situation of Democrats not fighting on these margins is untenable and will have to end. Abortion rights are actually important to Democratic officeholders, operatives and voters. Eventually, they will have to prioritize the protection of those rights over the protection of the feelings of professional abortion-rights advocates who don’t want to admit that Roe isn’t coming back.

Shareholder Capitalism vs. Stakeholder Capitalism

Virginia Postrel reminds us of the 1970 essay where Milton Friedman famously argued that a corporate executive’s responsibility is to shareholders––“to conduct the business in accordance with their desires, which generally will be to make as much money as possible while conforming to the basic rules of the society, both those embodied in law and those embodied in ethical custom.” In contrast, stakeholder capitalism urges managers to act for the benefit of customers, employees, suppliers, communities, and shareholders. As it has grown in popularity, however, its proponents have discovered that different stakeholders often disagree intensely.

Postrel argues:

Letting stakeholders take precedence over business objectives is anything but nice. Stakeholder capitalism isn’t just a temptation for managers to pursue their pet interests. It’s a prescription for culture wars, political backlash, managerial paralysis and human-resources nightmares.

Why? I have a theory.

I suspect that, psychologically, most people prefer hearing “You’re not getting your way on this because it just doesn’t make sense for the bottom line” to hearing “You’re not getting your way on this because other stakeholders disagree with you and we rank their preferences higher than yours.”

Postrel continues:

Every effective enterprise has to consider the interests of employees, suppliers, customers and other stakeholders. But not everyone wants the same thing, and sometimes organizations have to make tradeoffs between goals everyone might agree are good. The question is what to do when faced with a conflict. Without an eye on value maximization, it’s too easy for managers to dissipate company resources by pursuing their personal interests. The great value of the Friedman doctrine is that it establishes a coherent standard for making tradeoffs. Maximizing economic value tells you to “spend an additional dollar on any constituency provided the long-term value added to the firm from such expenditure is a dollar or more,” as Harvard Business School economist Michael Jensen put it in a 2010 article.

Stakeholder theory, by contrast, tells you nothing. It assumes you just make everybody happy. And, as Jensen wrote, “Without the clarity of mission provided by a single-valued objective function, companies embracing stakeholder theory will experience managerial confusion, conflict, inefficiency, and perhaps even competitive failure.”

Sometimes it’s actually nice to be able to truthfully say, or to credibly hear, “It’s nothing personal, just business.”

Provocation of the Week

Do today’s leftists and capitalists share an ideological commitment to upending tradition? In Unherd, Paul Kingsnorth writes that in his younger days, the left was correct about the negative impacts of global capitalism, while the right was blind to them. But today, he argues, the left anti-globalism movement that he once knew has all but disappeared, while the most incisive opponents of corporate globalization “are often to be found on the Right,” with its myriad critiques of the ostensibly negative effects that globalization has on local communities, social cohesion, family formation, and working-class prospects.

He writes:

Left-modernism is now the outlook of the professional managerial classes, the top 10% or so of society, and—not coincidentally—the beneficiary class of globalisation. Via transnational corporations, the academic and cultural sectors, NGOs, global and regional bodies and other collectives of usually unaccountable power, this class is rolling out the threefold ideology of globalism within their own nations and beyond. Meanwhile, a national populist movement built largely around a working- and lower-middle-class reaction to this ideology is coalescing around calls for national self-determination, some degree of cultural conservatism, economic protection and democratic accountability.

On the face of it, this is confusing.

Why would transnational capital be parroting slogans drawn from a leftist framework which claims to be anti-capitalist? Why would the middle classes be further to the “Left” than the workers? If the Left was what it claims to be — a bottom-up movement for popular justice — this would not be the case. If capitalism was what it is assumed to be — a rapacious, non-ideological engine of profit-maximisation — then this would not be the case either.

But what if both of them were something else? What if the ideology of the corporate world and the ideology of the “progressive” Left had not forged an inexplicable marriage of convenience, but had grown all along from the same rootstock? What if the Left and global capitalism are, at base, the same thing: engines for destroying customary ways of living and replacing them with the globalised, universalist, technological matrix that is currently rising around us?

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