These days, one of the scariest phrases in the English language has become, “A deeply divided Supreme Court ruled.…” The late-night Wednesday 5–4 decision rejecting the first challenge to the draconian Texas abortion law is an ominous indication of the intentions of what is, in effect, the Trump court.
Roe v. Wade has been the law of the land under 10 presidents from Richard Nixon to Joe Biden. A woman born on the day that Roe was decided would now be 48 years old and, in almost all cases, beyond her child-bearing years. But the odds are high that the Supreme Court will either repeal or further eviscerate Roe before she turns 50—and before the 2022 elections.
Up to now—despite the vocal efforts of abortion rights groups—the issue and the shape of the Supreme Court have mostly galvanized social conservatives. That was true in 2016, even after Mitch McConnell refused to allow Barack Obama to fill Antonin Scalia’s seat. According to the 2016 exit polls, Donald Trump narrowly edged Hillary Clinton among voters who considered “Supreme Court appointments” to be an “important issue” in shaping their electoral decision.
The political logic has been clear. Anger is almost always a greater motivator to vote than smug complacency. For nearly a half-century, anti-abortion activists have been enraged that the Supreme Court tried to take the issue out of politics. Younger abortion rights supporters, on the other hand, have had trouble envisioning what life was like for women before Roe v. Wade.
Although no one on the left ever wished this to happen, the pendulum is fast shifting the other way. Suddenly, instead of abstract discussions of Supreme Court jurisprudence, the news is being filled with first-person stories of women in Texas unable to get abortions even though they are just seven or eight weeks pregnant.
Rhetoric alone is unlikely to change anyone’s position on abortion. Over the years, the predictable arguments on both sides have lost the power to persuade. This is best reflected in the enduring stability of polling on abortion. According to Gallup, which has been charting the issue since the 1970s, roughly half of Americans are in favor of legal abortion with some restrictions. About 30 percent believe that abortion should be legal in all situations. And just around 20 percent want to render all abortions illegal.
For decades, Republican officials have been pandering to that militant 20 percent slice of the electorate. They got away with it politically because most of the extreme restrictions on abortion have been enacted in smaller, GOP-dominated states in the South. But with Florida poised to follow the example of Texas by enacting legislation that would effectively ban an estimated 85 percent of all abortions, we have entered an era when pregnant women will have few options in two of the nation’s three largest states.
Women in Texas are the latest victims of a Republican Party that has veered off into levels of zealotry on abortion unimaginable in the days when Ronald Reagan only gave lip service to the cause. But the remedy lies in our politics as much as long-shot dreams of some kind of reprieve from the Supreme Court. Conversations Thursday with political consultants in both parties led to a surprising conclusion: Abortion will prove to be a more potent factor for Democrats in 2022 if it is put in the larger context of Republican extremism.
The target voter might be a college-educated woman shopping at the upscale Fashion Square mall in Scottsdale, Arizona. She probably voted for Biden in 2020 because she was appalled by the bedlam and bombast of the Trump presidency. In normal times, she might drift back to the GOP over issues like taxes and the economy. But all the signals emanating from the Republicans, from anti-vaccine hysteria to heavy-handed abortion restrictions, suggest to her that the party of John McCain and Mitt Romney now exists in name only.
The hardest lesson for Democrats to remember is that shouting only appeals to voters who passionately agree with you to begin with. There is a distinction between the kind of political language used in fundraising and the more nuanced arguments aimed to swing voters. This is not to deny the legitimate rage at the latest anti-abortion Supreme Court ruling. But the short-term goal (holding the House and Senate for the Democrats in 2022) may require lower-decibel forms of persuasion and voter motivation.
The late-nineteenth-century humorist Finley Peter Dunne revealed political truths in the heavy Irish brogue of the mythical Mr. Dooley, who declared, “Th’ supreme coort follows th’ illiction returns.” But in the twenty-first century, federal and state courts can also shape the election returns.
In late 2003, the highest court in Massachusetts stunned the nation by becoming the first state to legalize gay marriage. Eighteen years later, it is hard to remember what an extreme step this seemed to most Americans. A Fox News poll immediately after the decision found that only 25 percent of Americans favored gay marriage. In November 2004, voters in 11 states approved constitutional amendments stipulating that marriage only involved a man and a woman.
That Massachusetts decision—so vindicated by history—may have cost John Kerry the White House. The 2004 election was decided in Ohio, which gave George W. Bush an 118,000-vote edge. But an anti–gay marriage amendment on the Ohio ballot that year was approved by a lopsided 1.3 million-vote margin. While there is no statistical certainty, a case can be made that gay marriage prompted enough extra turnout from social conservatives to hand the White House to Bush for a second term.
Fourteen months before the 2022 elections, only the fearless and the foolish would dare make binding predictions. In the last six weeks alone, the political mood has been upended by the delta variant, the fall of Afghanistan, and now the Supreme Court asserting its shift to the far right on abortion.
As a result, it is hard to determine what issue clusters will drive voter participation in 2022. But at the moment, GOP extremism seems likely to enhance Democratic turnout among both affluent suburbanites and younger voters suddenly realizing that the right to an abortion is not guaranteed by the court that Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell created.
That is, of course, scant consolation for those whose lives are being upended by the new Texas abortion law. But during a profoundly anxious time for Democrats, the only short-term hope lies with history-defying victories in 2022.