In one sense, liberal outrage at the prospect of the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade seems like an uneasy fit with liberalism’s current master narrative, which holds that liberals are defending democracy against the threat of authoritarianism and fighting for the principle of majority rule against a Republican Party that benefits from counter-majoritarian power. After all, overturning Roe would return the abortion issue to the democratic process, after two generations in which abortion policy has been set by a juristocracy, an elites-only vote of 7-2 or 5-4.
However, narratives are adaptable. “In Draft Abortion Ruling, Democrats See a Court at Odds With Democracy” ran a recent Washington Post headline, over a story summarizing some of the arguments (the polls showing public support for Roe, the fact that three of the justices were appointed by a president elected with a minority of the popular vote) being offered to prove that letting states or Congress legislate on abortion is actually authoritarian, not democratic.
I don’t want to argue with these interpretations so much as take note of them, while offering a different view of abortion’s place in the American republic’s discontents. I share some of the anxieties that inform the liberal master narrative these days — about a country too deeply polarized to function, a populist right that’s steeped in paranoia, a decay of the norms that allow republican government to function. But if I set out to write a story about how exactly we got here, I would place the original Roe decision near the center of the narrative — as an inflection point where the choices of elite liberalism actively pushed the Republic toward our current divisions, our age of chronic strife.
When seven Supreme Court justices overturned the nation’s abortion laws in 1973, they were intervening in a debate whose politics were unstable and complex. Both anti-abortion and abortion-rights sentiments cut across both parties, and across ideologies as well — there were anti-abortion liberals, many of them Catholic Democrats, and Republican and right-wing supporters of abortion rights who regarded it as a possible prop to social stability.
It’s likely that the debate would have been nationalized and polarized eventually no matter what. But the Supreme Court decision nationalized abortion politics in a very specific way, removing most abortion regulation from the realm of legislative debate and linking it to the court itself and the office of the presidency. Thereafter, instead of being fought over in the institutions that are designed to channel mass opinion and activist mobilization into stable settlements — whether state legislatures or the Congress — abortion would be bound to the all-or-nothing outcomes of presidential elections and Supreme Court nomination fights.
The predictable result was an increasingly Manichaean politics: You were either for the original ruling or against it — no compromises could be negotiated or local policy experiments conducted — and the issue was distilled every few years to a referendum on presidential candidates and high court nominees, the friend-enemy distinction in its purest form.
Over time, the apocalyptic style that this encouraged in both parties would expand to encompass other issues, such that the role of abortion was partially obscured. But whether it was feminists rallying to a sexual-predator president in the 1990s or religious conservatives throwing over all their ideas about character and decency and piety to back Donald Trump in 2016, when polarization corrupted principle, the Roe debate was usually at the root.
But the nature of the polarization also mattered. A nationalized abortion debate split America along two especially dangerous lines of fracture, class and religion. Although liberals often insist that they are championing abortion rights on behalf of the poor and marginalized, the reality is that poorer and less-educated Americans are more likely to be anti-abortion, while the rich and well-educated are more likely to support abortion rights. Likewise, although those who are anti-abortion stress the secular arguments against abortion, the reality is that Christian beliefs are one the best predictors of anti-abortion sentiment.
So the sorting that defines our politics today — a right that’s working-class, rural and religious, a liberalism of the city and the secular and the managerial class — was accelerated by the divisions over Roe.
And the way Roe was decided made this polarization worse. From the perspective of geography and class, a group of robed lawyers in Washington, D.C., demanding that the country simply accept their settlement on one of the gravest moral questions imaginable is the perfect primer for a populist revolt. What has happened in similar ways with other issues — immigration, most notably — happened with abortion first: The elite settlement failed to settle the issue, and the backlash encompassed not just the issue itself but elite legitimacy writ large.
From the perspective of religion, meanwhile, by constitutionalizing the issue, Roe didn’t just hand a normal political defeat to the anti-abortion side; it seemed to read their core convictions out of the American constitutional order entirely, seeding a religious alienation that continues to bear bitter fruit today. And the timing was particularly unfortunate: When Roe was handed down, both Catholicism and evangelicalism had just passed through periods of reform and modernization that promised a reconciliation between Christian faith and liberal modernity. Then immediately, liberal modernity changed its demands and made them all-or-nothing, making the moral price of admission more than many Christians could reasonably pay.
Finally, and crucially for the deformation of liberalism itself, the price demanded was not just moral but intellectual — because Roe was not a persuasive constitutional decision, but rather the clearest-possible case study in what it looks like when justices legislate from the bench.
This is something that was acknowledged by a few rigorous liberals from the beginning, and the best feminist legal scholarship — including the work of Ruth Bader Ginsburg — always sought a different grounding for abortion rights.
But once you have nationalized and constitutionalized an issue, it is not so easy to adapt your position or your arguments. Having (seemingly) won the policy battle, you are incentivized to avoid hard debates, avoid reopening vexing questions, assume the worst of your opponents and never admit they have a point. And in that sense, the commitments that Roe required of its supporters anticipate the entirety of liberalism’s drift: toward a debilitating mix of expert certainty and incuriosity, moral superiority and ignorance of what its adversaries actually believe.
Nothing in the story I’ve just told means that overturning Roe now will necessarily improve either liberalism or conservatism, reinvigorate democracy or depolarize our politics. You begin from where you are, and where we’ve ended up does not inspire confidence in whatever may come next.
But if Roe does fall, it makes sense that a decision that did so much to divide our parties and delegitimize our institutions would ultimately be undone by the very forces it unleashed: In its beginning was its end.
Ross Douthat is a columnist for The New York Times.