The undoing of Roe v. Wade didn’t just remove civil rights protections from millions of women. It also exacerbated rifts within the American left over the appropriate response to right-wing radicalism.
Despite having had nearly two months since Justice Samuel Alito’s draft was first leaked to anticipate the ultraconservative Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe, Democratic leadership seemed to be caught unprepared. Congressional Democrats were widely mocked for singing “God Bless America” on the Capitol steps to celebrate modest gun control legislation, even as abortion protests raged across the street at the Supreme Court. The White House poured cold water on any suggestions to expand the Court, rebutting progressives like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and even Democratic moderates like New York City Mayor Eric Adams.
The Democratic response to Roe from the top remained muddled and confused for days. On June 27, three days after the Court ruled in Dobbs, House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Vice President Kamala Harris were not on the same page about whether to support a filibuster exception to codify abortion rights, with Pelosi supporting the move and Harris insisting that the votes weren’t there to make it happen.
It took three days after that—almost a week after the Dobbs ruling—for President Joe Biden to state under pressure that he would support a filibuster carve-out to codify abortion rights. Then it began to emerge that the White House had planned to nominate an anti-choice Republican as a federal judge on the day the Dobbs decision dropped, in an apparent deal with Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell to exchange a lifetime judicial appointment for temporary U.S. attorney positions. The bizarre accord seems to have only been scuttled by inconvenient timing, but it nonetheless infuriated Democrats.
Ironically, the official position from the top seemed to align with that of Alito: If people dislike the Court’s decision and want to protect abortion rights, they should vote accordingly. Meanwhile, Democratic legislators would keep trying to make bipartisan deals with Republicans as if everything were still politics as usual.
While Democratic leaders may be forgiven for seeing electoral opportunity in the loss of long-standing rights, and it may make sense to capitalize on the Court’s hubris by trying to maximize turnout in the midterms, there is also a dispiriting effect to all this.
As long as the Senate’s composition and rules remain unchanged, its bias toward small conservative rural states continues, and the pendulum will swing ever more unevenly against social justice. The same goes for the Electoral College, the House, and many statehouses as long as gerrymandering remains in effect. These unfair and undemocratic advantages will continue to push the Court to the far right. With the help of the Federalist Society and a Republican base hypnotized by Fox News, conservative justices will retain their ideological fervor. The Court will reinforce “states’ rights,” strip federal protections like the Voting Rights Act, and bolster conservatives’ unearned structural advantages for minority rule.
This is a vicious circle of bad governance, and voting alone cannot address it unless the politicians commit to making the welcome and necessary structural changes. Without those changes, every election becomes a matter of life and death for marginalized groups, climate protection, social safety nets, blue states under attack, and democracy itself—even as each election becomes increasingly rigged. If the Court implements the independent state legislature doctrine next year, it will become all but impossible for the broad center-left, mostly urban majority of the country to have any say at all in federal policy.
It may well be that the essential structural changes required to preserve majoritarian democracy are impossible to implement, given the current Congress. But if Democratic leaders don’t fight for these reforms, voters will become apathetic and see through the charade. If Democratic leaders don’t acknowledge that Republicans are not well-intentioned colleagues but rather authoritarians bent on democracy’s destruction and the establishment of white Christian male supremacy, then Democratic voters will feel increasingly alienated and apathetic.
It is no accident that when Democratic governors like California’s Gavin Newsom and Illinois’s J. B. Pritzker took the fight directly to Republicans; they were rewarded with good press and speculation about possible presidential runs—even as Biden faced negative headlines like the one at Politico: “Be Absolutely Furious: Dems Want More from Biden After Highland Park.” Yes, Newsom and Pritzker are blue state governors, while Biden is president of a purple country. But the leadership’s approach isn’t working, given Biden’s and Harris’s less-than-stellar approval ratings.
Fortunately, the White House’s political team may be coming around. Biden’s emotional July 8 speech announcing aggressive executive orders to protect abortion rights struck a much more combative tone.
If Beltway Democratic leadership can channel the sentiments of Democratic governors and voters, it will have a better shot of success in the midterms and, more importantly, in the fight for democracy itself.