Republicans are trying to defeat and humiliate their opponents while Democrats are trying to redeem theirs

May 4, 2022

The thing about Roe v. Wade and its imminent demise at the hands of Republicans is that much of the argument and discourse and sweaty content production is soaked through with either bad faith or ignorance of the bare-knuckle dominance politics demonstrated in Samuel Alito’s draft opinion.

In some ways, it’s easier to talk about the blunt politics. Republicans, under the direction of Mitch McConnell in the Senate, played Constitutional Crisis Chicken in order to get their way with the Supreme Court. They were willing to kneecap the court in the short term in order to get their people lifetime appointments, and they have evinced zero shame about it. It’s Vince Lombardi logic: Fuck your rules and norms, because winning is the only thing. And if you think it stops here, I pity you.

Congressional Republicans are lucky to still have McConnell around, because many of the younger Republicans are too overwhelmed by brain worms to get things done without him. While a guy like Madison Cawthorn, who brags about hiring communications staff instead of legislative staff, is emblematic of the conservatives who got high on their own supply and now operate entirely on attention and owning their enemies, none of it works without McConnell and other leaders doing the actual organizing and planning and executing that entrenches their party’s power. And that extends to the Supreme Court. I don’t know their personalities as well as true Court Watchers, but from what I gather, functionally, Alito, Clarence Thomas, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett are all creatures of Republican politics, and their rulings are best understood as extensions of the party's priorities. Neil Gorsuch and John Roberts may be more fastidious about insisting upon their independence from the party, but their interests still neatly overlap with the others, and so they vote along with them while grumbling about decorum.

Democrats also have a few people who get off on attention and owning their enemies online, but I think Alex Pareene has it right that the ones who pull levers in the party are institutionalists who fundamentally believe the United States’ major governmental institutions are good, and the path to a better world is convincing conservatives they are wrong about this and that. Therefore, the most consequential asymmetry between most national-level Republicans and Democrats is that Republicans are trying to defeat and humiliate their opponents while Democrats are trying to redeem theirs.

You can see it in Alito’s draft opinion. Without getting into the more technical weeds, one of his primary arguments for overturning Roe is that it “had damaging consequences” and another argument is that abortion is less necessary now than it was in 1973. Plainly, these are bad faith arguments, but it doesn’t matter much because wielding power is the point, not the justification for wielding power.

The arguments don’t hold up to scrutiny because they’re not based in actually trying to make things better for anyone, but rather are designed to prevent rules-followers and norms-respecters from wiggling through an open space to restore abortion rights nationally — or, really, any series of rights that actually spread and support freedom because the people supporting this move aren’t concerned with putting in place a framework in which people can thrive, but one in which people are put in their place. The slipperiness of it all becomes apparent when you substitute in "same-sex marriage" or "discrimination by race" or "interracial marriage" for "abortion". It's the same catch-all argument that because certain people in power used to not approve of others doing something, there's no basis for protecting people from that disapproval, legally.

Alito can try to spin up “damaging consequences” Roe wrought, but he can’t escape the health expert consensus that safe, legal, and accessible abortion is good for women and families. He can suggest fewer people need abortions today than in 1973, but that begs the question of whether the culture around safe, legal, and accessible abortion, which is part and parcel with birth control and women's bodily autonomy, is precisely what has made abortion less necessary today. He can point to our foster and adoption systems as viable alternatives to abortion all he wants, but he’s still trying to skirt saying outright that a fetus is a person deserving of all the same rights because that would complicate things and open the door to asking why our foster and adoption systems are so fucked. It makes me think of that viral post from a United Methodist pastor and how it’s arresting because it challenges both conservatives’ substantive policy prescriptions and their rhetorical sleight of hand in insisting they’re fighting for “the unborn” while flipping the bird to those who are very much alive.

I have no answers right now. Too many Democrats have been conditioned to calibrate everything they do to appeal to middle-aged white people in exurban Ohio for me to have any confidence they’re up to this challenge. People will go to states that allow legal abortions, and the demand will likely be greater than capacity to serve. People will die unnecessarily. I fully expect Democrats to tweet strongly-worded condemnations of that state of affairs.

(Photo: "Protest against Supreme Court overturning Roe v Wade" by Fibonacci Blue. Used under CC BY 2.0 license.)