Beyond Political Neutrality: Towards A Complex Theory of Rights in the Modern Democratic State

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As of late, women, racial and ethnic minorities, gays and lesbians, and other similarly situated groups have begun to make right-claims that once again test liberal notions of neutrality and raise significant questions concerning whether or not full equality and autonomy is possible in modern democracies. This study focuses on the impact of race, class, gender, sexual orientation, and other markers of difference on the realization of rights in the modern democratic state. This dissertation uses three case studies, which separately and together demonstrate attempts to realize full freedom and autonomy through practices of direct democracy, the California Referendum Initiative; appeal to the courts, the issue of Gay Marriage; and the creation of public policies and landmark legislation, the Violence Against Women Act. The findings of my research suggest that at all levels of government, race, class, gender, sexual orientation and other markers of difference shape the realization of rights in the modern democratic state. In this study, I extend the insights offered by critical race scholars by proffering a complex theory of rights that is able to account for the impact of identity and culture to the realization of rights and rights-claims made by individuals and groups in the public sphere. Employing a complex theory of rights, the findings of this study confirm that there are a variety of factors that influence the realization of rights in the modern democratic state. Chief among them are: (1) A notion of the good operating in society that is connected to deeply entrenched societal values and norms and that privileges the dominant culture; (2) the structures and institutions that govern society are enmeshed in race, class, sexuality, and ethnic hierarchies; (3) the accumulated advantages gained through historic practices of exclusion, conquest, and enslavement; (4) the representation of the dominant group and subjugated groups in the public sphere through texts, the media, and discourse; and (5) whether or not individuals or groups are recognized as bearers of rights under the law.