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One Year on From Dobbs: The Dangers of Radicalizing Minority Rule
Reactionaries are pursuing a deeply unpopular political project. They might still succeed – because they are committing to ever more authoritarian forms of minoritarianism.
A little over one year ago, on 24 June 2022, the Supreme Court issued a decision in Dobbs vs. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, overturning Roe vs. Wade and thus abolishing the federally guaranteed right to abortion in the United States. No one should have been surprised. Not only had a draft opinion been leaked several weeks earlier. This ruling also constituted the culmination of half a century of conservative legal activism, and rejecting Roe has been a key element of conservative political identity for decades. Conservatives could not have been clearer about what their animating vision was – and once they had the votes, they struck.
Though it may have been unsurprising, it is still important to point out how unusual this was: With Dobbs, the United States joined 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. It’s also a basically unique development in U.S. history: While the Supreme Court has often upheld and codified a discriminatory status quo, it had never actively and officially abolished what had previously been recognized as a constitutionally guaranteed right.
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Since Dobbs, the reactionary assault on reproductive freedom, on women’s rights to bodily autonomy and self-determination has only escalated. Republican-led states have dramatically restricted the access to abortion for tens of thousands of women – through outright bans or laws that pretend to include reasonable exceptions, but never do.
What is next? Attempts to institute a national ban are guaranteed to follow. The people behind this crusade consider abortion murder and the epitome of everything that’s wrong and perverted about liberalism; conversely, they understand abortion bans as a crucial tool to restore patriarchal control. Reactionaries will tolerate the right to bodily autonomy in “blue” America for only as long as they absolutely have to.
There is, however, a glass-half-full reading of the situation: By radicalizing the quest to roll back the post-1960s civil rights order, Republicans keep descending further into deeply unpopular territory. It is true that the nation is divided on abortion – but it is not nearly an even split. Abortion bans are not popular at all. About two thirds of the population wanted to keep Roe at the time it was overturned, and by about a 2:1 majority, Americans still believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases, certainly in the first three months of pregnancy. Meanwhile, a ban under basically all circumstances – a position many Republican-led states are taking – is favored by only a tiny fraction, maybe slightly above ten percent, of Americans.
If anything, these numbers actually underestimate how much of a political liability Dobbs is for the Republican Party, because the Supreme Court’s decision also made abortion a much more salient issue among Democrats who may have held a general pro-choice position before, but probably didn’t care all that much either way. Since Dobbs, however, the percentage of Democrats who regard abortion the key issue that defines their political choices has increased drastically.
Abortion, to put it simply, is not a winner for the GOP.
As long as elections are still being held in this country, this is a problem for the Republican Party. And it is not confined to this one topic. On key issues like gun violence and book bans, the GOP getting further and further away from where the majority is. That puts Republicans in a serious predicament, because those culture war topics were supposed to distract people from the fact that their socio-economic agenda has little support outside oligarchic circles.
The situation is compounded further by the fact that Republicans are also sticking with Trump. The latest indictment – and the fact that leadings Republican officials have been perpetuating the idea that president Biden and his henchmen in the Department of Justice are conducting a witch hunt – has actually solidified Trump’s status as the favorite in the Republican primaries. Meanwhile, it likely further undermines the party’s chances in a general election, as we can expect Trump to mobilize the same anti-MAGA coalition in the 2024 presidential election, at least in blue and purple states, that has come out to vote against Republicans since the 2018 midterms.
Dobbs: A Pyrrhic victory for the Right?
Was Dobbs, the triumph of conservative jurisprudence and crown jewel of the reactionary counter-mobilization against the post-1960s civil rights order, actually a Pyrrhic victory for the Right?
For many Liberals, Democrats, and people on the Left, the answer seems to be unequivocally yes. It has become something of a mantra in the (small-d) democratic camp to emphasize how Republicans have finally gone too far. This notion is shared across a relatively wide political spectrum. Left-wing Jacobin magazine declared in December that 2022 “was the year Republicans got too weird for America.” Similarly, political strategist Simon Rosenberg, who Jacobin readers might describe as someone who is closer to the Democratic establishment than the Left, argues that “The sense that Republicans have gone too far, have gone a little crazy is the single most powerful force in American politics today.” The idea that Republicans are incapable of not shooting themselves in the foot by doubling down on their unpopular agenda forms the basis for a certain confidence in the anti-MAGA camp that Trumpism is failing, that democracy is somewhat inevitably on the path to victory. “Republicans,” Simon Rosenberg believes, “have entered a political doom loop – they have in fact become far too extreme.”
I am quoting Rosenberg not to single him out for criticism (he’s certainly gotten a lot of things about the electorate right in 2022, in particular). There is a lot to this “the GOP is losing because it has gone too far” line of argument, and it is shared by many left-leaning commentators. And yet, I find myself uncomfortable with a narrative that suggests impending doom for the Right as a consequence of embracing extremism. Rather than seeking solace in the idea that the rightwing assault on democracy can’t succeed because it is so unpopular, I would like to put the emphasis on reckoning with the dangers of this kind of radicalizing minoritarianism, the damage it is likely to cause, and how it might win.
America is indeed changing. Due to political, cultural, and most importantly demographic developments, the country has become less white, less conservative, less Christian, more multicultural, more liberal. All this is putting a lot of pressure on reactionaries whose vision for society revolves around upholding discriminatory hierarchies of race, wealth/class, gender, and religion. If the Right were committed to democracy and the principle of majoritarian rule, there would be no need to have this conversation. But reactionaries don’t care about democratic legitimacy – only about what they believe is the natural and/or divinely ordained order, about what they define as “real America.” The Right is fully content to install authoritarian minority rule.
In this particular moment, two of the most dangerous ideas in the political discourse – closely intertwined and pervasive among centrists, liberals, and lefties alike – are that Republicans will necessarily moderate once they realize the majority is against them and that the Right won’t go *that* far. People in the pro-democracy camp need to resist the false comfort of the demographic destiny fallacy: Any variant of “We have the numbers” won’t cut it. Conservatives understand the numbers better than anyone else, and they have an all-encompassing strategy to succeed anyway.
Let’s remember, first and foremost, that the political conflict is not simply a game of chess where we can patiently rejoice while the opponent is making reckless moves that we know will doom them. In real life, these moves are wreaking havoc. Is time on “our” side? Even if that is the case, this “game” has real consequences for millions of people in the here and now. Republican anti-abortion laws have significantly undermined the quality of maternal health and women’s health care in general. And lawmakers have deliberately created a chaotic legal situation that has led to a climate of fear and uncertainty and a general “deprofessionalization”, as Don Moynihan describes it – a term that aptly captures “a loss of the capacity of health providers to have autonomy over their actions” and the inability of health professionals “to act according to the wishes and best interests of their patients.”
In practice, this new post-Dobbs reality has already led to horrible, needless suffering for thousands of women. And it has stripped about half the population of the United States of fundamental rights, making them into second-class citizens who do not possess what no one would ever dare to question for men, their bodily autonomy and right to self-determination. As Moira Donegan emphasizes, even though we have only lived in this new post-Dobbs reality for a very short period of time, the dignity of millions of women has been irrevocably harmed. One of the fundamental problems with liberal progress narratives that emphasize the long arc of history or the universe in general is that they tend to downplay the fact that millions of lives are affected, shaped, and determined now, regardless of what might someday be.
Red America vs Blue America: Falling apart
All that being said, I am not trying to deny that purely in terms of the political medium- to long-term outlook, Republicans are in trouble. As a political strategy, Trumpism peaked in 2016 and has been on the decline since, as the share of non-college whites in the electorate has been decreasing. And yet, every iteration of the “We have the numbers / Time is on our side” argument is based on both a misjudgment of the structural context of a political system defined by counter-majoritarian distortions as well as the failure to grapple with the depth of ideological commitment on the Right.
Let’s run through some of the main problems with the “Extremism is destined to lose” interpretation of U.S. politics. First, the political geography of the United States makes the situation a lot more complicated than the “It’s a numbers game” confidence generally acknowledges. It is true that the Republican position on guns and abortion, specifically, has only minority support even in red states. But in the 2022 midterms, a lot of people in Republican-led states who rejected abortion bans still voted for the GOP – because overall, they preferred the reactionary idea of a “traditional” white Christian America over the vision of multiracial pluralism they believed the Democrats stood for. While the nation as a whole is moving away from conservative preferences, many red states are still getting redder. It’s a stark reminder of how much the country is falling apart and that we are looking at fundamentally incompatible visions for what America should be.
America is increasingly divided into a blue part that accepts the country’s changing social, cultural, and demographic realities vs. a white Christian patriarchal red part that is led by people entirely devoted to rolling back those changes. From a liberal, blue-state perspective, it might be tempting to abandon red-state America: Let Republicans ruin those states and turn them fully into reactionary backwaters! But remember that the “blue states vs. red states” narrative too often obscures the fact that America’s political geography is actually mostly shaped by an urban vs. rural divide. What are we telling the people who live in blue urban centers in the midst of red states: Tough luck? A lot of young people, especially, will vote with their feet and move away. But many will be left behind: Those who aren’t able to uproot their entire existence – often precisely the people who will suffer most from white reactionary politics.
A comprehensive minoritarian strategy for a system designed to contain democracy
The fact remains that the Republican position is becoming increasingly tenuous – certainly on the federal level, and even in many “red” states. The problem, however, is that even in well-functioning representative systems, power relations will necessarily lag behind cultural and demographic change – and the American political system is actually deliberately set up in a way that disconnects these changing demographic and cultural realities from political power. The system wasn’t designed to accommodate multiracial, pluralistic democracy and consistently awards disproportionate power to a shrinking minority of white conservatives. In any realistic scenario, due to a combination of the current system’s anti-majoritarian distortions and the GOP’s many aggressive anti-democratic initiatives, Republicans are basically guaranteed enough power to obstruct and prevent functional Democratic governance at the federal level. Nationally, Democrats might still have a decent chance to win the popular vote by enough that it actually translates into an electoral college majority. But as we are seeing right now, that’s not nearly enough to halt the accelerating rollback of the post-1960s civil rights order.
The path towards the abolition of the right to abortion in Dobbs offers a case study in how the conservative movement has navigated the political system and maximized its chances despite pursuing broadly unpopular goals. The Right’s approach stands in stark contrast to the “popularist” dogma that is currently shaping a lot of the thinking and strategizing in Democratic establishment circles. “Popularism” is a topic that deserves its own deep dive soon. Broadly defined, it holds that Democrats should de-emphasize what’s unpopular and focus instead on what polls well in order to win elections. Sounds plausible? Well, sure, in a vacuum. What it means in practice is that Democrats are supposed to focus on what’s popular with a specific group of voters: The swing voters, or cross-pressured voters – those in the middle Democrats need to win. It means focusing on the sensibilities of “moderate” white people, mostly. In effect, “popularists” are broadly opposed to emphasizing “culture war issues.” They say they are *for* racial and social justice – only opposed to talking about or actively tackling matters of racism, patriarchal domination, and bigotry, because, again, they lack popularity with the key demographic.
Republicans, on the other hand, did not overturn Roe by steadfastly observing the commands of popularism. The reactionary crusade against abortion rights has never been able to change public opinion, to convince the public. The Right instead devised a long-term path that went far beyond an electoral strategy – by setting up a complex judicial infrastructure, inventing legal doctrines, figuring out how to channel radical popular energies and combine them with an elite political / intellectual reactionary project, and by bridging the gap between fundamentalist Christian mobilization and the mainstream of Republican Party politics.
All along the way from Roe to Dobbs, conservatives never concerned themselves with the will of the majority, or wavered in their commitment to an increasingly unpopular cause. As a matter of fact, Republicans have been singularly focused on subverting majoritarian rule. Their comprehensive strategy to undermine democracy has focused on the state level, where the reactionary assault on democracy has fully escalated.
It all starts with not letting too many of the “wrong” people vote. That’s why Republican lawmakers have introduced 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 nevertheless 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: Since the last presidential election, in particular, we have seen election subversion efforts up and down the country – an all-out assault on state election systems. Republican-led state legislatures and GOP governors 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 MAGA loyalists.
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 and vigilantes to use whatever force they please to suppress these “leftwing” protests by celebrating and glorifying those who have engaged in such violent fantasies. 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 stop the escalating attempts to roll back civil rights protections emanating from the state level. But the rightwing majority on the Court is actually doing the opposite, providing robust cover and actively pushing the reactionary counter-mobilization. And so, we keep spiraling further and further back. This is how civil rights perish and democracy dies.
Committed ideologues will not moderate easily
After the reactionaries on the Supreme Court ended the right to abortion, professional anti-“alarmists” on the Center and the Center-Left turned out piece after piece on how there really was no reason to panic, how Libs and Lefties needed to relax and stop with the unseemly demonization of the holy Court, how conservatives would be much more amenable to accepting the newly created status quo now that they had achieved what they really wanted. Some of this was just posturing by a machinery of self-proclaimed “reasonable” people whose sole purpose is to prove to the world how above-the-fray they are by incessantly mocking “the Left.” And much of it was also based on the idea – so pervasive among moderates, centrists, and liberals – that conservatives are merely, and at least somewhat justifiably, pushing back against certain “excesses” of “woke” leftism, and that they will stop once those excesses are kept in check.
That’s dangerous nonsense. As always, instead of paying attention to the deliberately obscuring and sanitizing echoes of what is happening on the Right that are regularly platformed in the opinion pages of leading mainstream papers, it is clarifying to listen to what the forces behind the reactionary counter-mobilization are saying. After Dobbs, the overwhelming message from all corners of the Right was: We are not done yet – or as the religious reactionaries over at First Things put it: Dobbs was just “the end of the beginning” and a “resounding first step.” Nothing more.
Rightwingers have been determined to keep going, because they don’t accept *any* deviation from what they consider the natural and/or divinely ordained order of traditional white elite patriarchal rule. That’s why no civil rights victories are ever fully secure, not even the ones with which conservatives seemed to have made their peace. The renewed and escalating assault on lgbtq rights is the best, most pressing evidence that nothing is ever “settled” for the Right. There is no appeasing them. They are not looking for consolation prizes, they are not interested in sacrificial lambs or partial victories, they are also not seeking exit ramps and don’t merely want to keep face. They really mean it.
The realization on the Right that their vision of what America – “real America” – should be is shared only by a shrinking minority is not going to be a source of moderation. It is actually what fuels the rightwing radicalization against democracy. It forms the basis on which every aspect of the political conflict has acquired existential importance on the Right: As the nation is supposedly on the brink of destruction, there is no more room for compromise or restraint. In this view, every election loss only proves the larger point: that the fundamentally illegitimate forces of pluralism and leftism have already been allowed to advance too far, that more ruthless measures are urgently needed to stem the tide.
It is not only the conspiratorial corners of the Right that have radicalized themselves into an anti-democratic frenzy. The most unrelenting calls for escalation are emanating from among those who accept the fact that a numerical majority voted for Joe Biden, yet see the 2020 election result as an outrageous subversion of the will of “real Americans” who have become the minority in a country which they are supposedly entitled to dominate. We find the rational for further radicalization against the “Un-American” enemies within most clearly articulated in the reactionary intellectual and pundit sphere, where it has become fashionable to argue that “We need to stop calling ourselves conservatives” and that “Conservatism is no longer enough.”
No more conserving, preserving, certainly not in the colloquial sense. American conservatism, as I tried to dissect in a series of long pieces a few months back, is now taking a much more aggressively hostile stance towards the current order and the institutions that define it. It is this specific attitude, this aggressive disposition towards liberal democracy and anything derided as “leftwing” and “woke” that characterizes today’s Right more than anything else.
They will go *that* far – unless they are stopped
If this is truly the case, doesn’t it describe an electoral dead end and a strategy guaranteed to result in Republicans relinquishing power for decades? Well, it depends on how far they are willing to go. Much of the confidence that the Right won’t be able to get away with this, that reactionaries can’t win because the demographics are getting worse for them every year, is implicitly based on the assumption that there’s a line they won’t cross, that there are certain anti-majoritarian measures – violence and coercion, specifically – they won’t seriously consider. But I see little indication that’s the case.
Whether or not minority rule can be upheld largely depends on how far the ruling minority is willing to go to uphold it, how far into authoritarianism they are willing to venture. If the ruling minority is willing to keep curtailing the rights of opposing groups, to further restrict their ability to take part in the political process, to mobilize state power and to enable paramilitary/vigilante forms of violence, minority rule can absolutely be sustained. Maybe not indefinitely – but for a long time to come.
Will they really go *that* far? By portraying their opponent as a fundamentally illegitimate faction seeking to destroy the country, reactionaries have been giving themselves permission to embrace whatever radical measures they deem necessary to defeat their “Un-American” enemy. The American Right is committed to what they fully understand is a minoritarian political project – while also claiming to be representing the true will of the people.
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 – and therefore see no lines they are not justified to cross. The reactionary counter-mobilization against the drive towards egalitarian 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 imposing white Christian patriarchal rule on the country.
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