The Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which overturned Roe v. Wade’s guarantee of a right to abortion, marked the triumph of a decades-long conservative legal crusade. Close to a year later, however, and Dobbs has begun to look like the Republican Party snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.
The GOP’s restrictionist abortion platform appears to have played a major role in its subpar results in the 2022 midterms, even as spiralling inflation seemed sure to boost the party’s fortunes. In the months since, its vulnerability on reproductive rights has continued to play out in a number of statewide contests — most recently, in the commanding victory of pro-choice liberal challenger Janet Protasiewicz in Wisconsin’s State Supreme Court election.
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All of this has proven frustrating to those who are convinced, with some reason, that the GOP should be winning — not only because of Biden’s economic woes but because of the Democrats’ commitment to unpopular positions on culture-war topics, from transgender athletes to racial preferences. How can the Republicans be bleeding votes on one culture-war issue when they hold a decisive advantage on so many others?
The answer, in part, is that there is no longer just one culture war, but (at least) two distinct battlefields with different terrains — let’s call them Culture War 1.0 and Culture War 2.0. Culture War 1.0, exemplified today by the abortion debate, dates to the conservative backlash to the sexual revolution in the Seventies. It has seen the cultural Right fight a series of losing battles — with the overturning of Roe v. Wade last year standing as an exception that proves the rule. Culture War 2.0, consisting of a varied array of race and gender-related conflicts that have consumed public life in recent years, dates back barely a decade, but it did not truly come to the fore until the convulsions of 2020.
The GOP’s attraction to this second iteration are obvious. The positions increasingly embraced by the Democratic coalition on the relevant cluster of issues — for example, that a woman is anyone who identifies as such, that biological sex is not real, or that present discrimination is needed to counteract past discrimination — are broadly unpopular outside certain affluent, highly educated settings. Moreover, those leading the charge against the new liberal consensus are often disaffected liberals and establishment centrists, which suggests there is a potential for the Right to make inroads beyond its traditional base. Abortion, in contrast, is of greatest concern to religious voters, who make up a rapidly declining share of the electorate.
So, why do the Culture War 1.0 politics of abortion remain so resilient within the GOP, even as it threatens to torpedo the party’s chances in many contests? The answer lies in the difference between these two battlefields. Consider Florida governor and likely presidential contender Ron DeSantis’s recent decision to sign a bill limiting abortion to the first six weeks of pregnancy. DeSantis has capitalised more than any politician to date on Culture War 2.0 issues, having declared war against critical race theory and gender ideology in schools, and against the progressive turn taken by corporations like Disney. These aggressive moves have polled well in Florida, even beyond the Republican base, and helped propel him to a midterm victory last year that set him apart from the mediocre performance of his party.
Why, then, has DeSantis embraced abortion restrictions, which poll poorly in Florida and have proven a losing issue even in solidly conservative states such as Kansas and Kentucky? In a recent commentary on DeSantis’s decision, political scientist Eric Kaufmann voices an exasperation shared by many Culture War 2.0 advocates: why would the GOP’s rising star make such a “withdrawal of political capital” given that barely a third of Florida voters support the measure? According to Kaufmann, the pursuit of abortion restrictions reflects the preferences of the anti-abortion GOP donor and activist class — whose support would obviously be vital in a presidential primary — over and against those of moderate swing voters.
Kaufmann hints at an alternative approach centred around a Republican version of what some Democratic strategists dub “popularism”: ignore the moral manias of activists and insiders, and foreground proposals that poll well with the electorate — such as ending affirmative action and banning the teaching of critical race theory and gender theory in schools. A number of major Republican pundits have lately offered a similar assessment; as Ann Coulter exasperatedly tweeted: “Stop pushing strict limits on abortion, or there will be no Republicans left.”
But the weakness of popularism, whether Democratic or Republican, is that it emphasises polling at the expense of organisational and institutional dimensions of power; that is, it conceives of politics as a contest between aggregate individual opinions. Political success, for the popularist, comes from identifying positions that appeal to the largest number of individual voters and highlighting them to draw these voters in on election day.
This might seem obvious, but what it misses is the fact that any political coalition is made up of what are derogatorily called “interest groups” — not atomised individuals weighing their stances on a laundry list of issues (the model of citizenship implied by public opinion surveys), but individuals embedded in social formations with shared interests and preferences, and a particular positioning in relation to institutions: churches, parties, NGOs, the media, and so on.
This basic reality accounts for many phenomena that often seem mystifying in our polling-obsessed political culture. What accounts for the many policies that command broad support according to surveys but have no chance of being enacted? The answer often given is that the preferences of the wealthy and powerful override those of the broader electorate, and there’s surely something to that. But in the case of abortion — as opposed to, say, marginal tax rates — there is no obvious reason why rich donors would favour outright bans, or on the opposite side, the maximal liberalisation of abortion laws. The question, here as elsewhere, is how partisans of a particular cause that isn’t overwhelmingly popular have managed to organise and cultivate support in order to achieve their desired ends.
The anti-abortion cause remains politically potent within the GOP because it has emphasised the slow, unglamourous work of building networks of single-minded activists and establishing institutional power where it mattered. The fact that it achieved a key goal despite its relative unpopularity — polling prior to Dobbs suggested fewer than a third of Americans supported overturning Roe — is the crucial sign of the movement’s formidable force.
And yet, Culture War 2.0 will likely prove irresistible to GOP candidates in general elections in the coming years, as the need for culture-war appeals clashes with the unpopularity of Culture 1.0 issues with moderate voters. As The New York Times recently reported: “Polling suggests that the public is less likely to support transgender rights than same-sex marriage and abortion rights” — the same goes, as Kaufmann notes, for teaching critical race theory in schools and racial preferences in admissions and hiring. Surely, given losses like Wisconsin, such a pivot would be prudent.
But in the long run, Culture War 2.0 may prove a paper tiger, because beneath its polling strengths and prominence in the news cycle, it lacks organisational depth, clear institutional ambitions, and even coherent political objectives. Organisationally and institutionally, it heavily consists of political influencers of various sorts: podcasters, YouTubers, Substackers, and the like. To the extent the movement includes people engaged in contests over power, rather than the battle of ideas, these tend to be imperfect proxies for a generalised opposition to contemporary liberal ideology. Overturning Roe, for instance, strikes at the heart of a practice the anti-abortion movement views as evil. In contrast, bans on teaching critical race or gender theory in schools, transgender athletes competing in school sports, or even youth gender transition only chip away at the object truly targeted by Culture War 2.0: the nebulous “woke” ideological complex, which, due both to its vague contours and speech protections, cannot itself be banned.
All of this is compounded by the fact that Culture War 2.0’s broad coalition is internally incoherent in its long-term aims — in what it hopes will supplant progressive hegemony. It includes people who desire colour-blind policies and adherents of “race realism”; people who want to abolish gender and people who want to reinforce traditional gender roles. The strength of Culture War 2.0 — its broad base of support — is thus also its weakness.
That is not to say any of this is permanent. Culture War 2.0, as already noted, is new; the movements under its umbrella could theoretically evolve into forces as durable, well-organised, and ruthless about the pursuit of institutional power as the anti-abortion movement was over the decades leading up to Dobbs. But the incentives of the media and political landscape differ immensely from the period when Culture War 1.0 took shape: winning the news cycle and achieving maximum virality now take precedence. The anti-abortion movement, incubated in a different cultural landscape, learned to ignore most of this in its single-minded pursuit of a clearly defined, difficult objective. Rather than dismissing insiders, donors and interest groups, those attempting to build any political movement would do well to follow suit.