One of the original culture war conflicts may be poised for a resurgence – with potentially explosive political consequences.
The Supreme Court’s recent decision to consider the legality of Mississippi’s restrictive law prohibiting abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy could trigger the most serious and sustained political debate over the procedure since the final decades of the 20th century. And that could dramatically widen the already gaping demographic and geographic fissures between red and blue America.
Public opinion over abortion today is much more polarized along party lines than it was in the first decades after the Supreme Court established a nationwide right to it in the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. Reflecting those divisions, red and blue states are poised to hurtle in radically different directions if the court grants them more leeway to regulate abortion by retrenching, or even reversing, the Roe decision through its ruling in the Mississippi case.
The battle over abortion that erupted in the 1970s helped trigger a decades-long political realignment that has re-sorted the two parties’ coalitions more along lines of cultural attitudes than class interests. But since the Supreme Court reaffirmed the Roe ruling in 1992 in another landmark decision, that debate has been largely abstract and distant, with relatively few Americans seriously believing that the right to abortion could be revoked, pollsters say.
A new Supreme Court ruling providing states greater freedom to restrict abortion access, which could come before the 2022 elections, would dramatically change that equation by making the debate far more tangible.
“It’s one thing to say it’s a symbolic issue that signals what team you play for,” says Robert P. Jones, founder and CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute, a nonpartisan group that studies Americans’ attitudes about cultural issues. “But it’s another thing to say this is something that is actually going to affect people’s lives on the ground, their health, their ability to plan their families. All of these are very concrete ways in which this issue could come out of the abstract intellectual debate into the streets in a way we haven’t seen” for decades.
Put another way, while many of today’s most volatile social issue disputes involve statements of values that will touch vanishingly few Americans in their daily lives – very few people, for instance, will ever have to decide whether to bake a cake or take the photos for a same-sex wedding – the potential for significant new restrictions, or even bans, on abortion would amount to a culture war with more widely felt consequences.
A politics of culture, not class
Abortion was part of the explosive complex of issues that shifted the axis of American politics during the 1960s and 1970s. During the first decades after World War II – the years of electoral dominance for what became known as the Democrats’ “New Deal” coalition – the principal dividing line in the electorate was economic: Most people above a certain level of income and education voted Republican and most below it voted Democratic.
But starting in the mid-1960s with civil rights and voting rights for African Americans – and then continuing with fierce debates over crime, welfare and changing attitudes about family, sex and the role of women in American life – the central dividing line between the competing coalitions started to shift, with Democrats drawing more voters who approved of the ways society was changing and Republicans more of those who felt threatened by it. Abortion contributed to that process when the Supreme Court, in its January 22, 1973, Roe v. Wade decision, established a constitutional right to abortion in every state.
The first backlash to the Roe decision came primarily from groups representing US Catholics. Initially through the mid-1970s, many White evangelical Protestant ministers, who were just beginning their own activism in conservative politics, resisted allying with Catholics (with whom they had bitter, centuries-old religious differences) to oppose abortion. But as the decade proceeded, the desire to build the broadest possible coalition of cultural and religious conservatives prompted leaders from Catholic political strategist Paul Weyrich to evangelical minister Jerry Falwell to link arms behind the anti-abortion cause in the hope of assembling what they called a “moral majority.” Faced with “the imperative of fighting the liberals on every front,” wrote historian Rick Perlstein in his recent book on the late 1970s, “Reaganland,” “political necessity begat theological flexibility” among the awakening evangelical activists.
But the shift from a political system primarily based on class to one that revolves mostly around culture still took decades to fully unfold, and for years after the Roe decision Democrats won support from many culturally conservative voters, just as Republicans did from those with more liberal social views. The result was that initially the right to abortion divided both parties’ coalitions.
“It really cut across party lines for a long time,” says Alan Abramowitz, a political scientist at Emory University.
Figures provided to me by the Gallup organization underscore his point. Since the mid-1970s, Gallup has been asking Americans whether abortion should be legal in all circumstances, legal in certain circumstances or always illegal. In an April 1975 poll, the results among Republicans and Democrats were virtually identical, with around one-fifth of each saying abortion should always be legal, half saying it should be so in certain circumstances and the rest saying it should always be illegal. In a May 1981 poll, a few months after Ronald Reagan won election on a platform of opposition to legal abortion, slightly more Republicans than Democrats believed abortion should be legal, either always or in certain circumstances, Gallup found.
Results Abramowitz analyzed for me from the University of Michigan’s American National Election Studies, a long-standing election-year poll, point toward the same striking conclusion. In his losing 1980 race against Reagan, Democratic President Jimmy Carter won almost exactly the same share of the vote among those who said abortion should never be available as those who said it should always be legal; those who said abortion should never be legal actually gave Carter more support than those who said it should be allowed rarely or sometimes.
As Abramowitz notes, this cross-cutting pressure on abortion within each party “was reflected in the kinds of people who were getting elected. For a long time, you would get quite a few pro-choice Republicans and pro-life Democrats.” That was displayed during Reagan’s presidency when conservatives mounted their most serious legislative attempt – arguably to this day – to eliminate the right to abortion. That effort culminated in a June 1983 Senate vote on a “Human Life Amendment” to the Constitution that would have overturned Roe and allowed states again to ban abortion. The amendment, which needed support from two-thirds of the Senate, failed, drawing only 49 votes in favor, with 50 opposed. In a pattern almost unimaginable today, 15 Senate Democrats, many of them from the South,