The central political drama that has come to dominate the 2022 midterm elections was vividly illustrated about a week ago, in a curious 5-minute report on Twin Cities Public Television, profiling the closely fought contest to choose ... Minnesota's state auditor.
Likely the most obscure of statewide officials, the auditor's principle duty is the important but unexciting task of monitoring the financial reports of local governments and pension funds.
But it turns out "abortion is a major factor" in the race, according to DFL incumbent Auditor Julie Blaha, who told TPT reporter Mary Lahammer that when voters learn her GOP challenger Ryan Wilson "was president of the Federalist Society [in college], a group that worked against abortion rights ... people can see a clear difference."
"If you care about abortion," Blaha went on, "you're going to notice that the entire DFL ticket is going to protect your right to choose."
The future of abortion law is an altogether relevant issue for candidates seeking many offices, from governor to attorney general to Congress to the Legislature. But its surfacing as a "major factor" even in the auditor's contest drives home the reality that the right-to-choose is just about the only subject Democrats anywhere seem eager to discuss this year. And who can blame them?
Last week's Minnesota poll showed the economy, crime and abortion to be the preoccupying issues on Minnesota voters' minds — and suggested that among those three concerns only abortion is working in DFLers' favor. So they are understandably working it overtime, even though the poll also shows that Minnesotans' views on abortion itself, like Americans' overall, are mixed and conflicted, especially outside the urban core and among men and voters older than 50.
Republicans, meanwhile, such as gubernatorial candidate Scott Jensen, are feeling forced to invest precious resources in more or less lame attempts to distance themselves from sweeping anti-abortion positions they were proud to proclaim only a few months ago.
Such muffling efforts, underway among Republican candidates coast to coast, weren't exactly augmented by South Carolina's GOP stalwart Sen. Lindsey Graham's introducing a federal abortion restriction bill that has no chance of becoming law anytime soon. This may be evidence of the depth of Graham's conviction on the issue; it is also, in these circumstances, political malpractice in the first degree.
What's clear is that the U.S. Supreme Court, in its landmark Dobbs decision overturning the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision's guarantee of abortion rights after nearly 50 years, has handed Democrats a golden political opportunity just when they needed one. No doubt the depth of many progressives' conviction on abortion rights makes it difficult for them to take undiluted pleasure in this gift — while fear that a Dobbs backlash may help prolong Democrats' control of Congress, or at least of the Senate, maybe even of the White House come 2024, not to mention hurting GOP chances in many state races, may prevent some conservatives from fully savoring their historic court victory.
But all these mixed and mixed-up sentiments should serve as reassurance that democracy isn't quite dead in America just yet. The mark of free political competition is that absolutely no triumph and no disaster can ever be complete or final.
The fall of Roe after 50 years under siege from the modern conservative movement is an eloquent case in point. Ours is an era notably characterized by what's often called the left's "long march through the institutions," which has led to the firm establishment of an "equity" or "social justice" (aka "woke") ideological agenda, at least rhetorically, across great expanses of the academic world, government bureaucracy at all levels, the nonprofit landscape and much of corporate America, particularly in the culture-shaping tech sector.
But what's made our age so politically pugnacious is that the American right has also been on the march for decades, pretty much ever since the handing down of the Roe decision in 1973 kindled the conservative movement as a popular political (rather than mostly intellectual) cause — at least as much as any single event did. No goal has been more important to the modern right than reshaping in an originalist, conservative image the American judiciary and American legal thought.
Celebrating not just the Dobbs decision but other recent "turning point" conservative Supreme Court victories on religious freedom, gun rights, executive power overreach and more, Charles Kesler, editor of the Claremont Review of Books, recently wrote: "[I]t took conservatives a long time to realize just how prepared, principled and persistent they would have to be to close [one] chapter and open a new one in American jurisprudence."
The chapter, or era, the modern conservative legal movement reacted against was the decadeslong legal revolution under the Warren and Burger courts beginning in the 1950s — fast fading from living memory now — during which a long series of bold rulings transformed American law regarding civil rights, criminal procedure, the place of religion in American life, obscenity, government structure and much more, and climaxed in Roe's nationwide legalization of abortion.
Many saw more good in that liberal legal upheaval than Kessler and many other conservatives did (almost everyone applauds the end of segregation). But the legal/cultural pendulum had swung rather far by the mid 1970s, and was destined to swing back.
As Kesler notes, it took persistence. Since Roe was decided half a century ago, Republican presidents have placed 11 justices on the nine-member U.S. Supreme Court (Democratic presidents have seated five). But only with Donald Trump's three nominations did conservatives finally achieve a majority willing to overturn Roe.
Perhaps that is because the chief legal defense of Roe has long been the essentially conservative argument that long standing precedent should be respected even if it's legally wrong. Almost no one defends the Roe decision on ordinary constitutional grounds, citing anything in the text, structure or history of the U.S. Constitution, or anything in the traditions of our society, that supports an absolute right to abortion no legislature may meaningfully limit. At all events, the new conservative majority has swept precedent aside and delivered to America a live abortion debate whether we're ready for it or not.
Morally, as opposed to legally, the abortion policy issue is baffling and painful. Count me among the conflicted. An unwanted pregnancy constitutes an irreducibly tragic collision of essential rights. Where a woman's unalienable right to govern her own body ends and a developing human being's right to live begins is a moral riddle only compassion and compromise can begin to address. A "compromise" consisting of different laws in different states — varying rights to life and bodily integrity depending on geography — seems as unsatisfying as any other proposed solution.
But perhaps it is the American way of splitting an unsplittable difference.
D.J. Tice is at email@example.com.