Wednesday, July 6

Ending Roe v Wade is just the beginning | Thomas Zimmer


The supreme court is set to overturn Roe v Wade, this much has been clear since a draft opinion authored by Justice Samuel Alito was leaked earlier this month. An attempt to safeguard abortion rights via national legislation was blocked by a united front of Republicans plus Democrat Joe Manchin in the Senate last week. As a result, we must expect abortion to be banned in roughly half the country soon.

It is very hard to overstate how significant this moment is. The US is about to join the very short list of countries that have restricted existing abortion rights since the 1990s – the overall trend internationally certainly has been towards a liberalization of abortion laws. And it’s also a basically unique development in US history: while the supreme court has often upheld and codified a discriminatory status quo, it has never actively and officially abolished what had previously been recognized as a constitutionally guaranteed right.

The overturning of Roe v Wade and Planned Parenthood v Casey constitutes the culmination of half a century of conservative legal activism, and rejecting Roe has been a key element of conservative political identity for decades. But the impending end of Roe will still not magically appease the right. Attempts to institute a national ban are likely to follow. The people behind this anti-abortion rights crusade consider abortion murder and the epitome of everything that’s wrong and perverted about liberalism – they will tolerate the right to bodily autonomy in “blue” America for only as long as they absolutely have to.

And the conservative vision for the country goes well beyond outlawing abortion. In his opinion of him, Justice Samuel Alito rejects the legal underpinnings of many of the post-1960s civil rights extensions that were predicated on a specific interpretation of the 14th amendment. He targets the very idea of ​​a right to privacy, employs an extremely narrow view of “substantive due process” and claims that the 14th amendment protects only those rights not explicitly listed in the constitution that are “deeply rooted in this nation’s history and tradition” . Alito applies an arbitrary standard – one that birth control, marriage equality and even desegregation clearly don’t meet. The fact that he adds a throwaway paragraph claiming that these rights, all based on the very understanding of the 14th amendment Alito so explicitly rejects, are not in danger, shouldn’t put anyone at ease.

Alito’s opinion precisely captures the essence of the supreme court’s role through most of history, and certainly today: an institution siding with tradition over change, with existing power structures over attempts to level hierarchies, with the old over the new. That’s the spirit the “deeply rooted in history and tradition” standard seeks to enshrine as dogma: established hierarchies are to be revered and protected, anything that threatens them is illegitimate. It’s a dogma that is utterly incompatible with the idea of ​​a fully functioning multiracial, pluralistic democracy in which the individual’s political, social and economic status is not significantly determined by race, gender, religion, or sexual orientation. For conservatives, that’s exactly the point, and it is how Alito’s opinion fits into the broader assault on the post-1960s civil rights order: it’s all part of a multi-level reactionary counter-mobilization against multiracial pluralism.

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It is only in this context that the whole weight of what this supreme court is doing is revealed. The conservative majority on the court operates as an integral part of a reactionary political project. Alito’s opinion should be a stark reminder of what that project is all about – and why the end of Roe is very likely to be just the beginning of a large-scale reversal that seeks to turn the clock back significantly. Conservatives could not be clearer about what their goal is: their animating vision for America is 1950s-style white Christian patriarchal dominance.

The evidence is in what Republicans have been pursuing on the state level. We are seeing a wave of red-state legislation rolling back basic rights and fundamental liberties, intended to eviscerate the civil rights regime that has been established since the 1960s – and banish, outlaw and censor anything that threatens white Christian male dominance. The reactionary counter-mobilization is happening on so many fronts simultaneously that it’s easy to lose sight of how things are connected. ban abortion and contraception, criminalize LGBTQ+ people; install strict guidelines for education that are in line with a white nationalist understanding of the past and the present, censor dissent; restrict voting rights, purge election commissions. These are not nonsense actions. The overriding concern behind all of them is to maintain traditional political, social, cultural, and economic hierarchies. It’s a vision that serves, first and foremost, a wealthy white elite – and all those who cling to white Christian patriarchal dominance. It’s a political project that goes well beyond Congress and state legislatures: this is about restoring and entrenching traditional authority in the local community, in the public square, in the workplace, in the family.

In all these areas, the assault on democracy and the civil rights order is escalating. Longstanding anti-democratic tendencies notwithstanding, the right has been radicalizing significantly in recent years. Why now? The more structural answer is that America has changed, and the conservative political project has come under enormous pressure as a result. The Republican hold on power has become tenuous, certainly on the federal level, and even in some states that had previously been solidly “red.” The right is reacting to something real: the political, cultural and most importantly demographic changes that have made the country less white, less conservative, less Christian are not just figments of the reactionary imagination.

And recent political and societal events have dramatically heightened the sense of threat on the right. The first one was the election and re-election of the first black president to the White House. Regardless of his moderately liberal politics, Obama’s “radicalism” consisted of being Black, a symbol of the imminent threat to the “natural” order of white dominance. The right’s radicalization must also be conceptualized as a white reactionary counter-mobilization specifically to the anti-racist mobilization of civil society after the murder of George Floyd. In the Black Lives Matter-led protests of 2020 that – at least temporarily – were supported by most white liberals, the right saw irrefutable proof that radically “un-American” forces of “woke”, leftist extremism were on the rise, hellbent on destroying “real” America.

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The American right is fully committed to this anti-democratic, anti-pluralistic vision – which they understand is a minority project. Abortion bans, for instance, are not popular at all. About two-thirds of the population want to keep Roe and believe abortion should be legal at least in some cases; a clear majority supports a law legalizing abortion nationally. Meanwhile, a complete ban – a position many Republican-led states are taking – is favored by less than 10% of Americans.

Conservatives are acutely aware that they don’t have numerical majorities for their project. But they don’t care about democratic legitimacy. And the Republican party has a comprehensive strategy to put this reactionary vision into practice anyway. In Washington, Republican lawmakers are mainly focused on obstructing efforts to safeguard democracy. It’s at the state level where the rightwing assault is accelerating the most.

It all starts with not letting too many of the “wrong” people vote. That’s why Republican lawmakers are introducing hundreds of bills intended to make voting more difficult, and have enacted such laws almost everywhere they are in charge. All of these voter suppression laws are ostensibly race-neutral and non-partisan. But they are designed to have a disproportionate effect on voters of color, or on young people – on groups that tend to vote Democratic. If too many of the “wrong” people are still voting, Republicans want to make their electoral choices count less. gerrymandering is one way they are trying to achieve that goal, and it has been radicalizing basically wherever the GOP is in charge.

As that might still not be enough to keep the “wrong” people from winning, Republicans are trying to put themselves in a position to nullify their future wins: we are seeing election subversion efforts up and down the country – an all-out assault on state election systems. Republican-led state legislatures are re-writing the rules so that they will have more influence on future elections, election commissions are being purged, local officials are being harassed, people who are a threat to Republican rule are replaced by Trumpist loyalists. In many key states, Trumpists who aggressively subscribe to the big lie that the 2020 was stolen are currently running for high office.

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Republicans understand that such blatant undermining of democracy might lead to a mobilization of civil society. That’s why they are criminalizing protests, by defining them as “riots”, and by legally sanctioning physical attacks on “rioters”. The right also encourages white militants to use whatever force they please to suppress these “leftwing” protests by celebrating and glorifying those who have engaged in such violent fantasies – call it the Kyle Rittenhouse approach. Finally, Republicans are flanking all this by a broad-scale offensive against everything and everyone criticizing the legitimacy of white nationalist rule – past, present and future – by censoring and banning critical dissent inside and outside the education sector.

Ideally, the supreme court would step in and put a stop to the escalating attempts to undermine democracy and roll back civil rights. But the conservative majority on the court is actually doing the opposite, providing robust cover for the reactionary counter-mobilization. This has established an enormously effective mechanism of how to turn the clock back to the pre-civil rights era: Republican-led states will abolish established protections and count on the supreme court to let them do as they please, even if it means overthrowing precedent . That puts the onus on Congress to enact legislation nationwide that would guarantee civil rights and protect democracy – legislation that has little chance to overcome Republican (plus Sinema/Manchin) obstruction. And so we keep spiraling further and further back, with the next round of state-level reactionary legislation always guaranteed to be right around the corner. The exact same dynamic has undermined voting rights across “red” states. This is how civil rights perish and democracy dies.

Even now that the conservatives on the supreme court are about to end the right to abortion, I know such a statement strikes many people as extreme, or at the very least as alarmist. They won’t go that far, will they? But by portraying their opponent as a fundamentally illegitimate faction that seeks to destroy the country, conservatives have been giving themselves permission to embrace whatever radical measures they deem necessary to defeat this “un-American” enemy. We are in deeply dangerous territory precisely because so many on the right have convinced themselves they are fighting a noble war against unpatriotic, godless forces that are in league with pedophiles – and therefore see no lines they are not justified to cross. The white reactionary counter-mobilization against multiracial, pluralistic democracy won’t stop because the people behind it have some sort of epiphany that they shouldn’t go that far. It will either be stopped or succeed in entrenching white Christian patriarchal rule.

  • Thomas Zimmer is a visiting professor at Georgetown University, focused on the history of democracy and its discontents in the United States, and a Guardian US contributing opinion writer




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