How do you unite frustrated segregationists, alienated from the Democratic Party by its civil rights stances, with affluent educated suburbanites into a single, coherent political organization? For decades after the passage of the Civil Rights Acts, Republicans ground away at that puzzle with very limited success until abortion emerged as their volatile solution.
We’ve reached the beginning of the end for this strategy, and its death-throes will be spectacular. Our attention this week has been turned toward Talibanesque laws passed in Alabama and Georgia to harass women and their healthcare providers, but we may be missing the point. The alchemy that converted a platform of naked exploitation into populist gold is about to fail, leaving Republicans to reap the hatred they’ve sown. When the Supreme Court publishes its opinion overturning Roe, the Republican Party will have about ten minutes to live.
Abortion became the signature issue for the Republican Party thanks to one special factor that made it irresistibly attractive – there was nothing they could actually do about it. Imagine being able to win votes with promises that would always fail, with no consequences. Roe made abortion a magic issue, a gift that never stops giving. No promise you made to raving abortion fetishists, no matter how loony or insane, could ever matter. Those who opposed abortion wouldn’t punish you for failure, and sensible suburban voters felt free to dismiss a candidate’s abortion pandering as meaningless. Religious nuts felt heard while influential white voters still felt safe. Cakes could be simultaneously had and eaten. The Supreme Court’s sweeping overreach in Roe turned abortion-baiting into electoral gold.
Roe was crucial to rise of abortion rhetoric as a force in Republican politics, not because the case galvanized abortion opposition – it didn’t – public opinion on abortion has barely budged in the past 50 years. What Roe did to change our politics was to anesthetize abortion rights advocacy and reward extreme anti-choice posturing. Republicans in the 70’s and 80’s were mostly pro-choice, the position that makes the most sense for a generally individualistic, business-oriented political organization. America’s most liberal abortion law pre-Roe was signed by California Governor Ronald Reagan. Barry Goldwater’s wife was a founding member of Arizona’s Planned Parenthood. The Bush family has deep ties to Planned Parenthood, continuing to the present day.
We have forgotten that evangelicals were ambivalent about abortion before it became a Republican political ploy. The Southern Baptist Church endorsed abortion rights in 1971. The Baptist Press ran an editorial welcomed Roe, a position consistent across most evangelical opinion. A survey in 1973 found that 90% of Baptist congregants in Texas thought their state’s abortion laws should be liberalized. One of the attorneys for Norma McCorvey, the “Jane Roe” in Roe v Wade, was a Southern Baptist named Linda Coffee. After Roe, the Southern Baptist Convention reaffirmed its support for abortion rights in 1974. It would take almost a decade for evangelicals to embrace anti-abortion positions, and even longer for them to take those positions seriously. Abortion may be many things, but for Protestants it has never been a religious issue of any significance.
So why did abortion become a consuming controversy in the US while in other countries it remains a barely noticeable issue? Abortion became a political priority only when white Southerners recognized its value as a shield for their white nationalist interests.
Catholic political activist Paul Weyrich and evangelical TV Preacher Jerry Falwell were brought together in the late 70’s by their shared interest in segregated private schools. The Carter Administration had launched a crackdown on the tax-exempt status of whites-only private schools set up to evade school desegregation. Falwell’s “Lynchburg Christian Academy” which evolved into his lucrative Liberty University franchise, was founded as an explicitly whites-only institution. Though nominally integrated a few years later, its financial viability was threatened by the IRS’s campaign to force genuine desegregation.
Turns out, it’s tough to mobilize mass political support for an openly racist campaign. Racism in America has always thrived on deniability. Weyrich and Falwell needed a broader template of issues to cover the real priorities of their Moral Majority. Abortion would take its place along with pornography and school prayer as the front issues for the Moral Majority and for much of the Christian Right. After helping to get Ronald Reagan elected President in 1980, the Moral Majority got their payback in January of 1982 as the Administration abandoned the IRS campaign against segregation academies. As for abortion, porn, school prayer and the rest of the Christian Right platform, the Reagan Administration largely ignored them, since they were politically irrelevant.
Once abortion had been successfully leveraged as a shield to mobilize “race-neutral” support for segregationist priorities, the genie was out of the bottle. Southern preachers now had a lever they could use to mobilize alienated segregationists into a new political force. Abortion rhetoric as a front for white nationalist politics would let Southern pastors lead a mass party-switch in the South.
Pro-choice Republicans had little incentive to fight over the issue. With Roe in place as a backstop against abortion activists, what was the point in fighting over it? Meanwhile, racist Southern Democrats would use abortion has their magic bridge into the Party of Lincoln. Figures like Texas GOP Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison might retain their private pro-choice stance, but they learned to do so very quietly. Defending abortion was a waste of political capital when Roe made that effort redundant and abortion-pandering offered almost unlimited, unaccountable power.
Turns out, abortion voters would tolerate almost unlimited political corruption and abuse as long as politicians retained their rhetorical opposition to abortion and protected white nationalist priorities. Abortion opposition is a get out of jail free card, proof that a politician corrupt in every other way will at least put the interests of white men before all else.
Under the long influence of this corrosive con, all conscience has gradually been stripped from the party. Today, America’s “Pro-Life” party is governed by a low-rent mobster and reality TV star, who used campaign donations to pay off his hookers. Republicans have kidnapped thousands of migrant children from their parents and placed them concentration camps, while borrowing more than a trillion dollars to fund tax cuts for its wealthy donors. The Party of Lincoln is fighting tooth and nail to protect monuments erected to Confederate traitors while gulping down cash donations from Russian and Saudi autocrats as fast as they can swallow them. Republicans are building their own guillotine.
Even if Roe stands, the party is over for Republicans. Anti-abortion extremists have become so calloused and repugnant that pandering to them now has political consequences. More importantly, abortion advocates are finding their voice. For decades the security of abortion rights allowed women to keep private matters private. No one knew how many of the women in their lives had needed an abortion. Abortion opponents had the public space almost entirely to themselves for half a century. Despite that long advantage, today fewer than 20% of voters support the GOP’s position on abortion. There is no state in the union, not even Alabama, in which the abortion policies being pursued by Republicans enjoy majority support. As a pro-abortion majority mobilizes politically for the first time that political disadvantage can only grow.
An even more stark reckoning looms. The moment the Roe Shield is down, the remnant of Republicans’ suburban power base will revolt. Abortion posturing was ignored by suburban voters as the price of their tax cuts, as long as they knew that they’d be personally protected from the power of religious authoritarians. Stripped of the safety provided by Roe, suburban voters will turn on their Talibaptist Mullahs in about 15 seconds. Abortion gave Republicans just enough influence among gullible country bigots to “win” two Presidential elections that they’d lost in the popular vote. It was a narrow, brittle gambit that they over-played to ludicrous extremes. When the game is up, they better leave town fast.
Overturning Roe v Wade would be an extinction event for Republicans. Figures like Kavanaugh and Gorsuch probably understand the strategic importance of Roe enough to pull back from the brink. But then again, long years in power tend to dull the senses. They might just be stupid enough to press that self-destruct button. Republicans built an odious political machine by using abortion to pander to racists, a machine more deeply-hated every day by those chafing under its abuses. Republicans are the about to be the dog that caught the car.