By Christopher Hall
I’ve found comfort during several political seasons in remembering that as a society, we tend to be against domestic violence. We’ve reached a point in history where there are several different criminal charges that can be brought up in DV situations. Most states have guidelines and standards that create certain quality assurances for intervention programs. While I have my own political views, I can be comforted — win or lose — that victims and perpetrators of domestic violence will be addressed, and societal laws and politicians will work to support such efforts.
Are there differing political positions regarding domestic violence?
Let’s consider the history of intervening in domestic violence. I have spent a prior article discussing some of the challenges of how the United States of America responded to the issue. The nation started on the concept of certain “unalienable human rights” and noted life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness as the values we held to be “self-evident.” At the time, being “equal” meant something very specific: male, white, an adult of age, and own land. “Equality” was only for some people, and there were several justifications as to why these rights were not to be held by all.
Relationships between men and women at that time, and for nearly 200 years after, were rigidly defined. Adult White rich men were the ones with equality so they were the ones to set the standards. Deviation from that standard, and showing care and value for women and children was perhaps looked favorably upon, but wasn’t a requirement. The main focus was on maintaining the ability to control women and children—making them do things they did not want to do, and keeping them from doing things they wanted to do.
During that period, one could argue that domestic violence was indeed a bipartisan issue. Neither side of the political fence held a particular interest in women’s rights, or rights for anyone who did not meet the standards of being deserving of “equality.” Their focus was much different at the time, working on creating independence and empire, establishing a stable government (as 1777 to 1789 were particularly precarious due to the Articles of Confederation), and demonizing Native American peoples.
English Common Law established the “Rule of Thumb” allowing men the ability to apply “moderate chastisement” of their wives with an implement no wider than their thumb. Much of early laws in the United States did not directly address women’s safety, but instead enforced what men were and were not allowed to do to their wives. It wasn’t until 1871 that there was any direct movement to prevent or reduce domestic violence. During the post-Civil War Reconstruction, notions of slavery and freedom became political hot topics.
While analysis of the foundation of domestic violence law focuses on the “Rule of Thumb,” it is important to consider the politics of “English Poor Laws” from the 1500s. The distinction between the “deserving” and “undeserving” is strong within that history, and as far as domestic violence law and societal responses are concerned, women and children as victims of harms were seen as not deserving of protection. Legal responses — and media reporting — to this day find ways to blame victims for their own experienced abuses, finding “loopholes” to justify the harms, and making it easy to drop charges of domestic violence if a victim refuses to testify (and in some cases, courts seeking to charge victims if they do not testify   ).
In efforts to weigh political support against domestic violence, analyzing this history and these foundations are important in understanding conservative and liberal viewpoints of fairness and societal responsibility. Conservatives believe in tradition and hierarchy. Fear is a strong motivating factor, along with purity of moral values (often religious), and individual ability being more important for one’s success in life. Liberals, on the other hand, believe in societal progress and creation of egalitarian systems. Equality and fairness are strong motivating factors, along with purity of environment and body. Environmental surroundings contributing to individual success are considered, and left-leaning people tend to want power and wealth to be redistributed to create what is thought to be a more just system.
Taking these differences in value systems and orientations to differences in societal ethics and morals, each apply differently to domestic violence responses. Conservative beliefs of traditional family roles, and support of patriarchy can lead to responses that come from religious settings (such as Christian churches) and aversion to public airing of circumstances that might be seen as private. Intervention can be seen as a “do what I say” educational approach using materials that lecture and create comparisons to “good” vs “bad” behavior. Use of law enforcement and punishment are important conservative responses that lead to changes and reduction of domestic violence based on ideas of fear as a change agent. Judgments of domestic violence offenders as having moral failings, and the need to shame such individuals into ending their hurtful behavior are also strong desires for right-leaning responses.
Liberal beliefs in societal progress, and in egalitarian systems, focus on the ability of abusers to make changes through guidance and education, and consider the challenges and grey areas of relationship issues and domestic violence. A focus on self-care, and a look at an individual abuser’s environment can be important factors, and non-traditional family systems are kept in mind as a part of where such environments might be respectful and healthy or disrespectful and hurtful. While law enforcement is still often a factor in liberal responses, it is looked at as a way to push people into entering into education/counseling/intervention. Domestic violence can be looked at as an aspect of toxic masculinities, sexism, or other forms of oppressive values and beliefs.
Both sides of the political fence, due to these ideas of ethics and morals, will consistently argue and push for different sorts of interventions, legal responses, and funding for programming. The first major federal focus on addressing domestic violence was the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) which was mostly focused on law enforcement responses and creation of grants to fund hotlines and educational programs. As both conservative and liberal perspectives value the involvement of law enforcement (for much different reasons), the initial voting in 1993 was partially bipartisan. Of the Senate, there were 67 sponsors of the bill with 50 Democrats, and 17 Republicans. In the House, of the 225 sponsors, there were 185 Democrats (including Bernie Sanders as an independent), and 40 Republicans.
This bill was seen as a great success for the United States, and created a global leading stance on addressing domestic and sexual violence. The only major component of the initial bill that was challenged, and later removed as unconstitutional, dealt with civil rights of a victim/survivor to sue an abuser directly. While this limits civil lawsuits in cases of domestic violence, VAWA created a more consolidated response to abuse and violence in relationships across the nation.
However, VAWA was also a part of a greater bill, the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act which created increased incarceration funding (while eliminating inmate education programs), added funding for 100,000 new law-enforcement officers around the country, and VAWA accounted for 16% of the budget of the overall bill.
In the name of bipartisanship, the greater bill included things that both sides wanted. On one hand, law-and-order politics have been a great boon to conservatives since the 1960s. On the other hand, quality-of-life concerns for the oppressed are a part of liberal agenda, and VAWA became a way of addressing domestic and sexual violence within the system in ways it had mostly been ignored before.
Vice President Joe Biden was the initial sponsor for VAWA, and has been proud of that aspect of the bill even if he and other Democrats have expressed reservations about where the bill has been directly associated with increased incarceration, sentencing minimums (such as a federal “three strikes” policy), and overstepping of police authority. Domestic violence advocates have questioned the wisdom behind much of the funding for law enforcement but little to no resources provided for restorative justice, transitional housing, and methods of creating prevention and treatment/counseling options. In the rush to legitimize systematic responses to domestic violence, there has been a question if we as a society went too heavily into punishment, and not enough into opportunities for treatment, empowerment, and cultural change.
Politically, we find ourselves in an interesting situation where conservatives have had their desire for law and order (to assuage their fear of crime) met by liberals enacting law to protect victims/survivors. Both sides come down hard on abusers who commit acts that have historically been seen as private affairs against people who are considered less important or valid than their aggressors. Democrats felt a sense of success behind validating the experiences of the downtrodden victims of violence, but only upon reflection noticed the side effects of their compromises in the name of law and order.
Biden noted his desire to create “holistic” reforms, and while initially focused on easing penalties for drug offenses in the name of better treatment options, added in the idea of addressing family violence as a part of this. Unfortunately, the reforms have been far from holistic. VAWA has evolved, somewhat, from its initial setup – adding in some “second chance” clauses – but it has not addressed aspects of racial disparity, issues of mandatory sentencing guidelines, has not included victims/survivors in decisions about legal responses and penalties, and has not provided funding options for prevention and education.
Included in the 2013 update were provisions to protect LGBTQ+ victims, and ability for Native American Tribal Authorities to more directly respond to non-tribal offenders on reservations. These provisions were hotly debated by Republicans, and a bill that had once been mostly bipartisan, fell much more along party lines.
The question of domestic violence as a political issue is that it is inherently partisan. It is a issue about values and beliefs, not about mental illness or addiction. The ethics and morals against domestic violence are going to be held by both sides, but unfortunately the values and beliefs about how to address it are vastly different. Liberals take action to try and help those who are hurt, and try to offer changes and education to those who are doing the hurting. Conservatives take action to stop those doing the hurting, while narrowly defining who is worthy of assistance and support out of fear of being “unfair” toward men, and helping those who are undeserving (this also serves to support the social hierarchy).
For those with right-leaning ideas, treatment and potential for change is not as important as getting those offenders out of the picture, by both shaming and claiming “batterers never change.” Even if our reflection and experience with treating offenders through shaming them demonstrates such responses are ineffective and potentially inflict greater damages on individuals and communities, there has been a rise in shame-based responses to crime in general over recent years.
President Barack Obama, taking a liberal approach to leading the nation, successfully implemented changes that worked toward equal treatment for the LGBTQ community, created the White House Council on Women and Girls, and ushered in the Affordable Care Act to address health insurance disparities for the poor. His policies and responses have supported domestic violence work as it has been conducted with VAWA funding, and added in additional protections for communities that had previously been ignored and invisible to systematic responses.
With an incoming president who has a history of admitting to inappropriate sexual behavior with women, has engaged in direct physical assaults of women, someone who has been directly accused of domestic and sexual violence (albeit retracted), and denies that “marital rape” is a thing – where will we tread in our responses to domestic violence as our society moves forward? To project potential answers, it’s important to reflect on Donald Trump as a candidate that is in many ways a personification of viewpoints politicians held in the early years of the nation.
Trump is one of those White, wealthy, male landowners who can afford to ignore the perspectives and experiences of groups that are often the targets of hurtful, controlling, and abusive behavior. He would like to keep his personal affairs private, and sees no conflict of interests in having his family continue to run his global businesses while he makes decisions that lead our nation. He is quick to mete out compliments to those he believes are deserving, and viciously attack those who he believes are undeserving. Trump believes in the hierarchy of his control over everyone and everything. He uses fear to motivate others, and believes he is solely responsible for his own success.
Remember that the core ethic and value against domestic violence is common to both sides, but the ideas on to address it are not. We will certainly be bipartisan in condemning violence and abuse in relationships, but moving forward with a conservative-empowered government, our methods of intervention will likely turn in a different direction. Under President George W. Bush, there was a certain focus on religious-based responses to family violence and other national policy issues. With Trump’s take on right-leaning politics, chances are we will begin to lean toward punishment, shaming, and incarcerating offenders. In these responses, we will be more apt to question the stories of victims/survivors, holding those experiencing pain and fear to certain standards of “being deserving” of assistance, and increasing funding for law enforcement while reducing or eliminating funding for treatment options, education, prevention, and resources for both victims and perpetrators.
I know there are people working to end domestic violence on both sides of the political fence. Each side has had various things to contribute to the cause, some that have been successful, some that have not. Domestic violence is an inherently political issue, and those of you working in intervention need to know where you stand, both politically, but also within your values, ethics, and morals in doing this work and what you are trying to accomplish when you say you are working to end domestic violence and create a safer state of family.