Free Markets, Free People

Bryan Pick


Recipe for Realignment

Damon Linker at The New Republic has a thoughtful post about how President Obama can win and end the culture war. It goes against the intuitions of most of the Left, but I think he’s figured out something that has eluded almost all of them — a way to unravel some of the most significant bonds that have held the Republican coalition together for the last several decades.

While I think he’s right about same-sex marriage (social conservatives are losing ground steadily), I find his thoughts on abortion particularly cogent.

How could Obama — how could liberals, how could supporters of abortion rights — both win and end the culture war, once and for all? By supporting the reversal or significant narrowing of Roe, allowing abortion policy to once again be set primarily by the states — a development that would decisively divide and demoralize the conservative side of the culture war by robbing it of the identity politics that holds it together as a national movement.

If that sounds strange to you, read the whole thing.

I have said for years that overturning Roe v Wade, and thereby sending the issue back to the states, would effect a political realignment in this country.

Conservatives can’t enact a federal ban on abortion through Congress, RvW or not; whatever Republican politicians may say to win primaries, that would be mass political suicide and they know it. For social conservatives, there is one reachable goal — overturning RvW through the slow process of controlling Supreme Court appointments — meaning conservatives need to control the White House and the Senate for long, preferably unbroken stretches of time. That means that social conservatives expend a disproportionate amount of energy on the very top levels of national politics, allowing them to leverage their energy through GOTV efforts.

But like a dog chasing a car, they don’t have a clear idea of what they would do with it if they got it. If RvW were overturned or significantly narrowed, suddenly abortion would be a state-by-state fight.

It’s much easier to direct their energy into Senate races and presidential elections to win the broad-brush fight against RvW than to convince the state-level electorate on the nitty-gritty details of pro-life policy.

In the vast majority of states, social conservatives wouldn’t be able to put any but the most basic restrictions on the practice – perhaps limiting partial-birth abortions in some, third-trimester abortions in fewer. The options of limiting state funding for abortions, and requiring minors to obtain parental consent or at least knowledge, are both available under current constitutional law.

Virtually no one opposes abortions when the mother’s life is at stake, and while I haven’t looked at the state-by-state poll data, I doubt there’s a state in the union that would ban abortions even in cases of rape and incest. Finally, let’s put something simply: whether principled pro-lifers like it or not, there’s just not enough voter support to really punish women who undergo abortions. Practical pro-life politics would target doctors and institutions, not customers/patients.

And then? Then the fire would die down. Unlike taxes and spending or environmental issues, there are only a few ways to move the ball in either direction on abortion. Once elections make clear the basic outlines of what is achievable on such a narrow issue as abortion, the issue’s potency as a politically unifying force will diminish.

See, when there’s no way to compromise, the radicals control the conversation. So we have two starkly divided camps, each internally united by the near-fiat Supreme Court decision. If specific policy decisions were made by the people and representatives of each state, the camps would begin breaking down visibly based on actual policy preferences, roughly based on gradients of moderation.

At that point, those outside the mainstream have little choice but to begin the hard work of changing hearts and minds, and working through regulation and appropriations. That’s the moderating force of democracy.

The full effects on the national political scene are hard to predict, but they would be wide-ranging.

  • A powerful wedge issue would lose a great deal of potency, allowing people who are otherwise uncomfortable fits in their political coalitions to move between parties, or become less reliable partisan allies of politicians who take a hard line.
  • We would see moderation at both the federal and state levels, although evangelicals and Catholic groups would probably become more energetic for a while at the state level at the expense of federal efforts.
  • And finally, we would do the good work of returning policy and political focus to more local levels of government, and convert a great deal of energy spent on politics into energy spent on private education and outreach.

Whether the parties to this culture war want it to end is another matter.