Cry Havoc, and Let Loose the Dogs of Culture War
Overturning Roe won’t depolarize America.
“Optimism," said Cacambo, "What is that?" "Alas!" replied Candide, "It is the obstinacy of maintaining that everything is best when it is worst.”
― Voltaire, Candide
The good news is that we didn’t shut down the government in a fit of pique over vaccine mandates. The bad news is that we almost did.
Threats to crater the economy are now simply another day at the office, and political nihilism has become our new norm.
And yet, my friend David French thinks that the coming post-Roe legislative fights over abortion could actually help us lower the temperature of our politics, and even depolarize America.
I so desperately want David to be right about this, but I think it more likely that Windsor Mann is closer to the truth when he expresses skepticism about our ability to deal rationally with our cultural divide.
I should make it clear here that I deeply respect French’s position, and it’s one that I held myself for years.
“If democracy had been permitted to run its course,” he writes of Roe v. Wade “American law and American political culture would look quite different. Yes, abortion would still be contentious, but taking a vital moral question out of the hands of the American public created an open wound on the American body politic.”
So, he thinks it is a “a profound mistake to assume that overruling Roe is the most politically and culturally disruptive path forward.” To the contrary “after a period of shock and rage in progressive America,” he argues, the fall of Roe might “actually help depolarize America.”
By returning the abortion question to states, overturning Roe could de-escalate national politics, de-escalate the judicial nomination wars, and perhaps cause voters to focus more on political races closer to home. It’s not as if the case presents the court with a choice between stability and instability. The instability is already here, and it’s been building for almost 50 years.
He makes an important point that is actually backed by decades of data. Americans, it turns out, are less polarized about abortion than they are deeply conflicted.
The American Enterprise Institute’s Karlyn Bowman has compiled a comprehensive review of polls from the 1970s to today… and it is revealing. “Opinion about abortion is complex,” she writes. “Americans appear to be simultaneously pro-life and pro-choice.”
In other words, Americans are consistently inconsistent on the issue.
Significant numbers of people say abortion is an act of murder. They also say that the decision to have an abortion should be a personal choice. These are contradictory sentiments, yet many people hold them at the same time. Many see no reason to resolve the tensions in these positions. They believe in the sanctity of life and the importance of individual choice.
Most Americans do not want the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade. They are, however, willing to put some restrictions on abortion’s use. Although the questions are not asked regularly, majorities of Americans favor notification of partners, parental consent for a teenager seeking an abortion, and 24-hour waiting periods. They say abortion should be generally legal in the first trimester but oppose it in the second and third trimesters.
Henry Olsen notes that polls show that “roughly half of the country believes having an abortion is morally wrong, similar to the share of people who say they are pro-life vs. pro-choice.”
But those same studies also find that “between 61 and 68 percent of Americans say abortion should be legal in all or most circumstances, according to polls conducted within the past year by the Pew Research Center, Quinnipiac University and the Public Religion Research Institute.”
“Indeed,” he notes, “roughly half of the country thinks that a woman should be able to have an abortion for any reason, including if she doesn’t think she can afford another child or simply doesn’t want more children.”
All of this nuance suggests that in a rational political world, legislators would craft compromises that would reflect the various shades of public opinion.
But, as you may have noticed, we do not live in that world.
Compromise is precisely what we don’t do in our era of hair-on-fire culture wars. Compromises do not feed the outrage machines that shape our debates.
And we know that, don’t we? For the last 50 years, we’ve watched the extremes dictate the terms of the right-to-life debate, just as we’ve seen the absolutists shut down rational and nuanced approaches to gun control. Our debates over everything from masking to race have become more shrill and tribal. Litmus tests overwhelm reason, and rage drowns out prudence.
And now we get to do abortion.
At least in part, French understands the potential risk. In his most recent book he sketches out “a scenario where rage at a Roe reversal created irresistible momentum for court-packing, and state resistance to the packed court fractured the nation.”
We’re already hearing noises about making changes to the court, but court-packing is unlikely to gain much traction outside of the MSNBC green room.
So that leaves the legislative battles at the federal and state levels. And make no mistake about it, there will be fights about pretty much everything involving abortion.
If Roe is overturned, cry havoc, and let loose the dogs of unrestrained culture warfare.
There will be bills to ban abortions after 15 weeks, like Mississippi’s law. Some will include exceptions for rape and incest, many will not. Other states will want to limit abortion to the first six weeks. Some might even try to ban it altogether. In blue states, legislators will codify Roe’s protections, but some will push for sweeping expansions, including late-term abortions.
And the schism between red and blue America will become wider and starker. While red states impose criminal penalties, blue states will expand taxpayer funding. American women will be living in two very different countries.
There will be protests, boycotts, and calls for sweeping federal legislation. Unified GOP control of Congress and the presidency will inevitably lead to calls to federalize Mississippi-like restrictions. In this environment, the extremes will define themselves by their hostility to compromises of any sort.
(I imagine it playing out like this: J.D. Vance comes out for a ban after 6 weeks; Josh Mandel calls for a ban after 2 weeks; MTG declares that all true conservatives support a total ban; and Madison Cawthorn insists that the true pro-life position demands the death penalty for doctors who perform the procedure.)
Every legislative and governor’s race now becomes a referendum on abortion.
Every congressional and senate race will be a referendum on abortion.
The 2024 presidential race will be a referendum on abortion.
In a sane world, this debate could actually be healthier than what we have now. But does anyone think that we live in a world that particularly values sanity?
Instead of lowering the temperature, overturning Roe guarantees that abortion will continue to be the bloody shirt of our politics for decades.
It’s Still The Economy, Stupid
Must read NYT piece: “A Pollster’s Warning to Democrats: ‘We Have a Problem’”
So if you’re advising a Democratic client running in 2022, what do you tell them?
I would tell them that we have a problem. We’ve got a national branding problem that is probably deeper than a lot of people suspect. Our party thinks maybe some things we’re saying aren’t cutting through, but I think it’s much deeper than that.
What is that branding problem, in a nutshell?
People think we’re more focused on social issues than the economy — and the economy is the No. 1 issue right now.
What drives this perception that Democrats are fixated on cultural issues?
We probably haven’t been as focused on the economy as we should be. I think some of that is voters reading us talking about things that aren’t economic issues. Part of it is just a natural reaction, too: We’re in an economy they feel is tough. It’s hard for them to think we’ve solved problems when they see so many.
1. What Texas Dems Should Learn from Pennsylvania
2. Will the Supreme Court Overturn Roe or Prop It Up with a Compromise?
Which would suggest that the more likely outcome will be a 5-4 ruling killing Roe on the theory that it was an “egregiously wrong” and bad law that America needs to put behind it. A large part of the oral argument on Wednesday involved this point—the question of when the Court should respect its own precedents and when it should overturn them. Along with counsel for Mississippi, Justices Gorsuch and Kavanaugh likened overruling Roe to the fate of Plessy v. Ferguson, the 1896 ruling that deemed racial segregation constitutional under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment (the very provision of the Constitution that undergirds abortion rights). The Supreme Court overruled Plessy with Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, and as Kavanaugh suggested, the latter decision that has stood the test of time as an important turning point in American history.