Michelle Goldberg and Ross Douthat on what comes next for Democrats and Republicans.
Roe Gave Us Modern Politics. Who Are the Parties Without It?
Michelle Goldberg and Ross Douthat on what comes next for Democrats and Republicans.
Back in January, producers from our team went to Washington, D.C. to cover the March for Life, the annual anti-abortion protest.
Do you guys think that Roe is going to fall this year?
We hope so.
We hope so. We’re actually very hopeful it will, very hopeful it will.
We pray to God.
Yeah, we are praying that it will.
Every year since 1974, the year after Roe v. Wade was decided, activists have gathered around the anniversary of the decision to protest abortion and offer their vision for an America without it. There’s this understanding in the pro-life movement that our work won’t stop when we abolish abortion. We don’t succeed by banning abortion. We succeed when every woman feels so loved and supported abortion becomes absolutely unthinkable.
We’re out here trying to offer people nonviolent alternatives — so that could be financial support, emotional support — to choose life. We can’t just be pro-life sitting in our houses. Like, we need to go and help these moms. Like, let’s connect with adoption agencies, see what they need. How can we support moms who don’t have car seats or need diapers or —
This year at the March for Life, something was different. There was a feeling that nearly 50 years of organizing was about to finally pay off.
(CHANTING) I believe that we love life. I believe that we love life. I believe that we love life.
I’ve been in this movement for 10 years now. And the momentum and the excitement in there is just — it’s really awesome to see. And I’m really excited for the next generation and their heart for the movement, because there’s a whole untapped potential of people that just need to hear this message of hope.
There were also counter-protesters there, pro-choice folks. They could feel the change too.
(CHANTING) Thank god for abortion. Thank god for abortion.
Yeah, I was here two years ago. And two years ago, it wasn’t quite the same stakes as it is now. They’re celebrating. I heard them earlier. They’re well aware that they’ve worked 50 years to get to this point of a post-Roe America.
And now that’s the America we’ve got. Nearly two weeks ago, the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. The new decision, Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, marks a watershed moment for both parties. Because if abortion drove voters on both sides of the polls for decades, what drives them now?
It’s not going to stop with only 23 states overturning. They’re not going to be happy with this. They’re going to go for the — they’re going to go for the abortion pill, they’re going to go for contraception, they’re going to go for gay marriage, they’re going to go for adoption from gay couples. Like, they’re going to go for it all. You know, there’s no stopping it once it starts unfolding.
I’m Jane Coaston it’s “The Argument.” And today, after Roe, what comes next for the politics and the culture it defined for half a century? To talk about it, I’m joined by Times Opinion columnists Ross Douthat and Michelle Goldberg, who’ve been debating abortion, on the pages of the paper and with each other for years. Ross, Michelle, thank you both for being here.
Hi, Jane. Thank you.
Thanks for having us.
So before we get into it, I wanted to ask you, Michelle, and then Ross, how you’re feeling now, now that we’ve been sitting with this decision for a little bit.
Yeah, I mean, I was obviously prepared for this decision. The leak ensured that we were all prepared for it. I was making my schedule according to it, you know, telling people, well, yeah, I can do this unless they overturn Roe v. Wade on that day.
I’m still much more gutted than I expected it to be. I feel like I’ve been punched in the stomach. The degree of despair I feel about this country, the kind of uncertainty of the dystopian future that we’re hurtling into, it’s just — I mean, it’s grief, it’s fear, it’s rage, despair. I’m hoping that the despair doesn’t last because it’s very demobilizing. It’s kind of what Gramsci said — pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will. I just need to find the optimism of the will part.
And Ross, how are you feeling?
I mean, there isn’t — I’m happy. You know, I became pro-life, I guess you could say, when I was a teenager. And to be against abortion in the age of Roe v. Wade is to have this kind of, essentially, a version of what Michelle feels in reverse — this sense of deep alienation from the formal interpretation of your country’s constitution, this sense that, according to the people charged with interpreting that constitution your moral convictions are ruled out of bounds, are, at some level, considered un-American.
So in that sense, whatever happens with state laws or national laws, it makes a big difference to a lot of people’s relationship to this country to have the abortion debate return to the Democratic process, where even if you lose the debate, you actually have the debate and lose it in the way that Democratic societies are supposed to conduct debates about issues on which people deeply, deeply disagree.
Michelle, do you think that this is an indication of democratic backsliding? I feel as if, if you supported the Dobbs decision, that this is an indication of more democracy.
Right, no, and I understand that. And I understand that’s basically Ross’s argument, that Roe versus Wade took this essential issue out of the realm of Democratic contestation. And so I think it’s a complicated — the interplay of majoritarian and minoritarian institutions here is genuinely complicated because, on the one hand, you can see the Dobbs decision as another instantiation of minority rule, where the Supreme Court justices who were appointed by presidents who lost the popular vote were able to impose a very unpopular regime on the country. At the same time, you’re right.
And I think, in many of the states where abortion is about to become illegal, that’s not the popular view, but in some it certainly is. And we can sort of talk about how democratic state legislatures really are, because there is gerrymandering there just as there’s gerrymandering in our national legislature.
That’s why I think it’s important to talk not just about democracy but liberal democracy, right, because there’s two parts to liberal democracy. There is the possibility of majority rule on many major issues, but there’s also protection for minorities, right? It’s sort of why we don’t put, in general, people’s fundamental human rights up for popular referendum, or why we didn’t. And I feel like what we have now is this Supreme Court where it just feels like people whose vision of liberty in American life is so antithetical to my own, just like stomping on my face forever.
One thing I keep thinking a lot about is that, in some ways, Roe offered a holding pattern for many people for about 50 years on this issue. And we will not be returning to the democratic process at the federal level, we will be returning to the democratic process such as it exists at the state level.
But Ross, the challenge here will be that the Democratic processes will not necessarily be reflective of the will of American voters, even at the state level, who have very complicated views on abortion. Many people think that abortion should be legal, but they think it should be legal within these certain parameters and not legal in these other parameters, but that’s not the regime that they will be getting.
In a state like California, they will be having a far more liberalized abortion regime. So after 50 years, what does it even mean to get back to democracy on this issue?
I’m very hesitant to venture any predictions, precisely because the issue has been in a very different sphere for 50 years and we don’t know what happens when Michigan state legislative elections get fought on abortion. We don’t know what the politics of that looks like. And we don’t know whether state-by-state abortion regimes are sustainable. I would like to think that they are, but all of America’s political issues have been nationalized by various forces to some degree. And it’s completely possible that a state-by-state system won’t hold and you’ll end up with, essentially, some kind of national law passed in Congress.
But in terms of voters getting what they want, there are a few states where public opinion does favor an abortion ban. They’re mostly in the deep South. Louisiana and Mississippi would be the examples. Those states will get serious abortion bans. There’s a lot of states that are in between, so-called purple states. Like in Florida, if they passed a law that banned abortion in Florida, they would probably lose the next election.
And it’s not going to be as simple as, look at public opinion in a given state, and that’s what you will get. And Michelle’s right. There are a few states that are gerrymandered to a degree that gives Republicans an extra advantage.
On the other hand, if pro-life laws work as badly as lots of pro-choice people think, then abortion could be the wedge issue that lets Democrats retake power and redistrict successfully in North Carolina or Wisconsin. There’s a lot of unknowns.
But I think, in general, if it stayed with the states, the majority in California would get the abortion laws they want and the majority in Mississippi would get the abortion laws they want. And I live in Connecticut, which has liberalized its abortion laws, and now has, essentially, what I consider a fairly barbaric abortion law, but that’s my state. I’m a conservative in a liberal state. So anyway, I’ll just trail off there.
I’m of two minds on this, because I go back and forth thinking about how to protect the rights of the majority and how to protect the rights of the minority. I keep thinking about, if we did do court cases based on polling, yes, this ruling may not have been made, but also Loving v. Virginia would have failed immediately.
I recently learned that — my parents got married in 1979, a mixed-race couple — and interracial marriage reached 50 percent acceptance after 1993. So I’m curious as to, on an issue like this, how do you think about the role that the Democratic process plays here? Or can it play a role?
Well, I think that the reason that Democrats — or, I shouldn’t speak for all Democrats. The reason I and many people I know feel such intense despair is not just because a right that they cared about deeply is no longer protected, but because it seems like the Democratic process is short-circuited at every turn.
So it’s obvious that the Supreme Court was a countermajoritarian institution. The presidency had previously not, in our lifetimes, before the first George W. Bush election, had not been a countermajoritarian institution.
So now you have, again, presidents who can win without getting the popular vote, appointing judges who can then, in turn, impose their will on the rest of us. I don’t think that I see — and I don’t know other people who see kind of any avenue for democratic redress under the current system.
And I also think it’s obvious that the anti-abortion movement is going to, the next time they have a trifecta, go for some sort of national ban. Maybe they’ll start at 15 weeks, which a lot of people think that that sounds totally reasonable. Like France, it’s 14 weeks, and we still think of them as a liberal society. But in France, it’s 14 weeks, but then if something goes wrong with your pregnancy, there’s no problem getting an abortion.
You mentioned France. And I keep thinking about how, for people who fought for the overturning of Roe v. Wade, they did not fight for a 14-week ban, a 15-week ban, they fought for the abolishment of abortion. So Ross, I’m curious, what happens to people who voted purely on the issue of overturning Roe. Does anything change in the Republican Party now that the dog has caught the proverbial car?
Well, I mean, basically what the pro-life movement has done is sustain about 25 percent to 35 percent of the country that’s pretty strongly against abortion and a lot of sort of disquiet among the conflicted middle ground, people who would probably support a 12-week ban, a 15-week ban, a 20-week ban, but want abortion to be legal in the first trimester.
So whether you’re talking about a swing state or even a reddish state like Florida, or whether you’re talking about a debate in the United States Senate, I think it’s pretty unlikely that pro-life activism and pressure alone is going to get you to sweeping bans absent a larger change in public opinion. And I think the only way that you get that change in public opinion is if, basically, states that have restrictions on abortion seem to flourish and don’t seem to produce terrible outcomes for women and children. And —
Wait, can I ask you a question, Ross?
Like, what makes you think that is a possibility? I mean, again, given the states that are banning abortion and sort of what their provisions are for women and children, what their health care systems look like, what their maternal mortality rates look like, what their prosecutors’ incentives are, what makes you think that there aren’t going to be terrible outcomes?
I mean, I think it varies with the state. I think that, if you’re talking about states like Mississippi and Alabama, which have really limited fiscal capacity to begin with — in addition to their having libertarian-leaning Republicans in charge who don’t like spending money, they also just don’t have a lot of money to spend. And that’s where you need actual national efforts to spend more money on women and children.
I think for states, you know, there are pro-life states that are in better shape and are better governed. If you look at a state like Utah, which is sort of the cliched example because it’s full of Mormons, but it still is a real example. Utah has very low child poverty, very low abortion rates, I think, overall. There isn’t a lot of evidence that you can’t have low maternal mortality rates while also having restrictions and bans on abortion, but you have to spend money in order to do it.
And I don’t know what the politics looks like. I don’t know — tomorrow, the Republican Party takes the Senate. Do Republicans embrace, for instance, Mitt Romney’s big family assistance plan as part of a post-Roe world?
Do you think that’s a possibility?
Oh, wow. Michelle, I have the same question.
I don’t know. The reality is that there is a constituency within the Republican Party that is pro-life, socially conservative, and economically moderate and open to spending more money. And at times, that faction has been in charge. George W. Bush’s administration really did spend a lot more money on social welfare programs in various ways, but it’s only one faction within the party. And in theory, the end of Roe gives that faction more leverage because, for the first time, they can credibly say, we might go vote for Democrats now if you aren’t willing to be more capaciously pro-life. But maybe it doesn’t work that way. Maybe the culture war controls everything.
I want to jump in here, because what I think so many people are responding to this with is that the family policy that Mitt Romney might support, I think that, for so many people, they were saying, well, they could have done that by now. And I feel as if this is an example, again, of when you have a Republican Party in which social conservatives who might be willing to vote for more spending to help people with babies and children are in the same party with fiscal conservatives who will absolutely not do that.
For the last couple of decades, the fiscal conservatives have won out on these issues, with the idea of you don’t want to pay for somebody else’s kids.
There is this inherent argument that just is wafting over it. Like, we are going to witness hypocrisy and we are going to see it. And when we see Republicans saying, again and again, now it’s time for the family-focused policies, I think that there are a lot of people who are saying, this will not be one the party takes up Mitt Romney-esque family policies, because if they were going to, they would have already.
Well, one, again, in a landscape where, if you are pro-life, your primary goal has to be national control of the federal judiciary. And this is something religious conservatives have lamented for generations. Your leverage over other issues is more limited because you can’t vote for the other party because you know how their justices would rule. So that leverage that other factions in the Republican Party have over social conservatives just diminished. So that is one change.
The other issue is that lots and lots of social conservatives, going back to the 1970s, when lots of pro-lifers were more liberal in other policies — not on abortion — is that the interaction between the welfare state and abortion rates is a matter of extreme debate.
It’s not at all clear that more spending on welfare, per se, reduces the abortion rate. There are some studies and arguments that suggest that, again, this is an old right-left debate about the welfare system. But to the extent that a welfare system is badly designed and effectively degrades social and communal ties, then it can contribute to an increase in the abortion rate. So that is also part of the debate within conservative circles when it’s about something like Romney’s plan or something else.
But I think having it be possible to ban abortion actually changes that debate somewhat too, because you’re already then using the strongest lever you have to reduce abortion rates. And so the fear that a little extra spending is going to have some negative downstream consequences, I think, becomes a somewhat weaker fear.
Wait, can I lay down a marker here? I haven’t seen a huge amount of conservative angst over the fact that the abortion rate, after falling for many, many years, rose again during the Donald Trump presidency. It seems to me — and I could be wrong — that the anti-abortion movement cares much more about whether abortion is legal than whether abortion is happening. It’s important to them, as Ross said at the beginning of this conversation, to have the state somehow endorse or legitimize or at least accept their views than it is how many blastocysts and embryos are disappearing into the ether.
And so I think that we’re going to see soon enough. And my bet — and we’ll find this out — is that rather than a right-wing turn towards a more robust welfare state or kind of more communitarian policymaking, we are going to see even more punitive policies. We’re going to see a focus on who can be criminalized. We’re going to see more investigations of miscarriages. We’re going to see doctors in jail. Many of these states that ban abortion for any reason except for the life of the mother — life of the mother is not a well-litigated or well-codified idea.
So if you have a 50 percent chance of death, is that enough? Is that enough for a doctor to feel like they can operate without fear of having their life destroyed? So we’re going to see a huge amount of cruelty, of death, of families losing a parent. I also think we’re going to see a lot of people being shocked that this law applies to them, because I think there’s probably a lot of people who think, well, I would never have an abortion.
And it’s not going to occur to them that — this happened to a friend of mine. And she’s written about this, so I don’t feel like I’m sharing her story untowardly. She was pregnant with twins, was first nervous, but had gotten herself excited about having twins, found out that one of them had a terrible congenital abnormality, and if she carried them both to term, it threatened both twins. So she had to make a decision between having a selective abortion that would probably save the life of the second twin or taking her chances and losing both of them.
And there’s going to be women who are in situations like that who are going to be stunned when they realize that that choice has been taken out of their hands because they didn’t realize that this debate applied to situations like that, and it very much does.
I think, in general, the pro-choice movement is going to have to learn from the anti-abortion movement. I think they’re learning some of the wrong lessons because part of the anti-abortion movement strategy was indeed very in-your-face and confrontational and maximalist. But the part that succeeded, I think, was both this very persistent long march through the institutions over decades, but also, in some cases, incrementalism. It was kind of not passing abortion bans until the political space was ripe for them.
If they overturn Roe, what do you think happens? What do you predict?
Mayhem. I mean, riots. Oh, yeah. I mean, people really look at this as their religion. Like this is my body. You know, you’re going to kill me. I mean, people — it would be very earth-shattering.
I mean, like a civil war, or you know, January 6, all that stuff — just mayhem, that’s what I predict.
(CHANTING) Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go, let’s go, let’s go, let’s —
Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for our sins, now and at the hour of our death. Amen. Hail Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou amongst women —
I want to turn to the bigger question, which is what’s next for abortion in America. And Michelle, you said that you thought that Democrats and people who are supportive of the right to choose should learn something from the anti-abortion movement. What do you want them to learn?
I would say a number of things. I mean, one is, even though the legislatures are stacked against us, I think the importance of a relentless focus on state legislatures, even in the face of repeated losses, because the anti-abortion movement, there was a number of moments when they thought they were going to overturn Roe v. Wade, and they didn’t, and they kept going.
I also think an emphasis on creating converts instead of heretics. I mean, it’s certainly true that the anti-abortion movement can impose very strict litmus tests, but it also will mobilize behind people that it doesn’t agree with 100 percent or thinks it doesn’t agree with 100 percent — like Donald Trump, even though it turns out that they did, that they were very much aligned — in order to get what they want.
I was just watching this documentary called “Battleground,” which is a pro-choice filmmaker following around — most of the documentary is her following around these women leaders of the anti-abortion movement. And there’s this one scene that I keep thinking about where they’re doing this online training for “Students for Life” of how to argue with pro-choice people online. And they’re kind of trying to lure young pro-choicers into, like, comment-section debates.
And I just think this is so different than what the left does in general, you know, where the attitude is so often like, why should I have to debate you? Or why should I have to adopt a sort of vocabulary that is intelligible to you? I think that there’s going to have to be some rethinking about the way the movement interacts with people who might be sympathetic or at least persuadable but aren’t on board with the entire reproductive justice agenda.
Could I answer the question you asked Michelle —
— about learning. And I’ll try and do it on both sides, very quickly.
We’ve talked a bit about the need for the pro-life movement to focus on family policy, that sort of conventional wisdom among the kind of pro-life people I hang out with. I think it’s also important for pro-lifers to recognize the part of the pro-choice argument that you can accept while being anti-abortion, which is that there is a zone of privacy that you don’t want the state transgressing. You don’t want to live in a society where miscarriages are being constantly scrutinized. Certainly the pro-lifers I know don’t want to live in that society. But it hasn’t been, I think, something that — the pro-life mind has not been focused on those issues.
I also think the points that the pro-choice side makes about the fuzzy line around, you know, what constitutes a life-threatening pregnancy and the need to have doctors who are not constantly worried about prosecution in those cases is also a thing that the pro-life side needs to take seriously. So that’s what I think the pro-life side should take from the pro-choice side.
I think the pro-choice side — you know, what Michelle was describing, this tendency, on the pro-choice side, to say, we shouldn’t even have to have this argument. The difference between the pro-life side and the pro-choice side, one difference, is that the commanding heights of American media and academia are pro-choice, so that you can live your life in sort of the American intelligentsia and hardly ever encounter sort of sustained pro-life arguments, like what pro-lifers actually think.
And I think you see this in the reactions to the ruling and the reactions from people who are sort of liberals who don’t think about this issue a lot. It’s like this sort of novelty that there are people who are against abortion. And there is, I think, a failure of imagination that goes to the pro-choice side’s struggle to win over people in the middle, right, where it’s like, oh, the pro-life side, wait, they actually believe in the humanity of the fetus? No, surely they just want to control women, and impose Gilead, and so on right.
Well, you have to be able to make that imaginative leap on an issue where so many people are in the middle if you’re going to win over those people. You have to be able to see why it would make a difference to a lot of Americans that, if these laws are passed in these states, hundreds of thousands of people will be alive. There are already thousands of people alive, right now, in Texas who would have been aborted. And that’s the heart of the pro-life argument and you with that argument if you’re going to win over people to your side of the case.
Well, I’m sure we’re going to be returning to debate the future of post-Roe politics in the U.S., but for now, let’s leave it there. Michelle, Ross, thank you so much to both of you for taking time to talk with me today.
Thank you, Jane.
Thank you, Jane. Thanks, Michelle.
I call it the reason why. At times, I thought I would be a better pro-lifer if I were born —
(SINGING) Well I, went down to the governor’s house and I took back what they stole from me. Took it back.
Took it back.
Well, I went down to Indiana, Missouri, Arkansas, Arizona, Texas, Mississippi, Ohio —
Ross Douthat and Michelle Goldberg are Times Opinion columnists. Before you go, I want to tell you about a new audio project from New York Times Opinion. A few months ago, we asked readers to leave us a voicemail and tell us about a time they had to decide whether or not to have an abortion. We received hundreds of stories, and now you can listen to some of them on The Times Opinion website. We’ve also linked to it in the show notes for this episode.
“The Argument” is the production of New York Times Opinion. It’s produced by Phoebe Lett, Elisa Gutierrez and Vishakha Darbha, edited by Alison Bruzek and Anabel Bacon, with original music by Isaac Jones and Pat McCusker. Mixing by Pat McCusker. Fact-checking by Kate Sinclair and Michelle Harris. Audience strategy by Shannon Busta with editorial support from Kristina Samulewski. Our executive producer is Irene Noguchi.
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For nearly 50 years, the issue of abortion has driven voters of all persuasions to the polls. But now that Roe v. Wade has been overturned and the question of reproductive rights has been returned to the states, America’s political parties are going to have to figure out how to metabolize that energy in the years ahead. To discuss what comes next for Democrats and Republicans alike, host Jane Coaston is joined by Times Opinion columnists Ross Douthat and Michelle Goldberg. As colleagues, they’ve been debating abortion with each other, on this podcast and in the pages of the paper, for years.
[You can listen to this episode of “The Argument” on Apple, Spotify, Amazon Music, or Google or wherever you get your podcasts.]
So in today’s episode, they convene again to share their thoughts on this watershed moment in America’s political history. “The reason I, and many people I know, feel such intense despair is not just because a right that they cared about deeply is no longer protected, but because it seems like the democratic process is short circuited at every turn,” Goldberg says. But Douthat feels that may just be a good thing for the future of American democracy, especially for states. “Whatever happens with state laws or national laws, it makes a big difference to a lot of people’s relationship to this country to have the abortion debate return to the democratic process,” he says.
Mentioned in this episode:
“The Abortion Stories We Don’t Hear” audio project
“The End of Roe Is Just the Beginning” by Ross Douthat in The New York Times
“Lessons From the Terrible Triumph of the Anti-Abortion Movement” by Michelle Goldberg in The New York Times
(A full transcript of the episode will be available midday on the Times website.
Thoughts? Email us at [email protected] or leave us a voice mail message at (347) 915-4324. We want to hear what you’re arguing about with your family, your friends and your frenemies. (We may use excerpts from your message in a future episode.)
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“The Argument” is produced by Phoebe Lett, Elisa Gutierrez and Vishakha Darbha. Edited by Alison Bruzek and Anabel Bacon. With original music by Isaac Jones and Pat McCusker. Mixing by Pat McCusker. Fact-checking by Kate Sinclair and Michelle Harris. Audience strategy by Shannon Busta with editorial support from Kristina Samulewski. Our executive producer is Irene Noguchi.
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