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Abortion, Democracy and The Bogey of Issue Literalism

November 14, 2022 12:41 p.m.
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One regular refrain of the last month of the 2022 midterm was that abortion and Dobbs had faded as a driving issue in the face of economic concerns. Another was that “democracy” was, for most voters, an abstraction without much relevance to more immediate concerns like inflation. That first bit of conventional wisdom always seemed overstated at best. But the election results point to something different that many observers missed in the narrow and perhaps over-literal way these issues were siloed in polls and election commentary: abortion, election denialism and other elements of GOP whackery melded together into a broader fear of Republican extremism that was larger than the sum of its parts.

In this context Dobbs was not just about whether it was a big deal for you personally whether there are clinics nearby providing abortion care. Even for many not immediately impacted by the ruling, Dobbs was like a punch in the face, like a line being crossed that many people didn’t quite realize was possible, despite the fact that those who had been following the legal evolution knew it was coming. Along with election denialism, Jan 6th-type political violence and related eruptions become potent symbols of a movement focused on taking away rights that many people were stunned to see could be taken away. What do you mean you don’t accept the results of the election? You lost. It’s over, etc.

Here’s another way to think about the dynamic. There was a big chunk of the electorate that reacted to Dobbs as an existential assault on their bodily autonomy and fundamental rights. That’s what made a concrete and specific Roe and Reform pledge so potentially powerful as an electoral cudgel. But it also had big traction for a group that wasn’t so directly affected. Here issue literalism got the better of many commentators and I think even many people running campaigns. It wasn’t how focused are you on abortion or how focused are you on “democracy.” For a lot of voters these seem to have melded into one perception which might be characterized as: this is a movement that feels threatening to me and threatening to things I didn’t really realize were even up for debate and I don’t want them in power.

There’s some small irony here in that Dobbs was the product of decades of legal activism. Trump made it possible with his almost unprecedented three Court picks in a single term. But Dobbs wasn’t unique to the Trumpite package in the way election denialism, Jan 6th and revanchist authoritarianism are. Yet I suspect it catalyzed public perceptions of the threat of Trumpism, even as the Dobbs result was one more than a few Never Trumpers had been working towards for decades.

A key factor behind the pattern of incumbent parties suffering in a midterm is that independent voters break hard for the out party. In 2022 Democrats narrowly won independent voters, by four percentage points nationally and by much higher margins in key swing states. That is totally out of whack with almost all mid-terms, where the margin is often double digits in the other direction.

Campaigns are never able to do more that loosely shape trends that are emerging on their own out of the electorate. But those subtle, uneven shapings of the attitudes of the electorate can be very important. In this sense I think one development I hadn’t taken much notice of may have been more significant than I thought. In the home stretch, President Biden started talking about “MAGA Republicans.” At the time this was met by a lot of scoffing among commentators. And I didn’t ascribe any real significance to it. But it clearly gave some people — perhaps no one more significantly than Biden himself — a sort of verbal permission to say that Republicans are the problem. Republicans are dangerous to the country. But it wasn’t “Republicans.” It was “MAGA Republicans.” People could self-sort for themselves just what applied to whom. But since essentially every Republican was running as a “MAGA Republican,” it’s impact was clear and helpful.

As I said, no bit of wordplay or messaging is game changing. But when you can correctly ascertain the direction of things and why that is happening you can sometimes cause shifts on the margins.

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