Tuesday, June 28, 2022

A Backlash to Dobbs Depends on How Much It Affects the Middle Class

In the Atlantic on Monday, David Frum argued that the rise and fall of the Prohibition movement provides a useful historical parallel to the likely trajectory of abortion politics in the United States a century later. Prohibition sentiment grew steadily for decades after the Civil War, culminating in the nationwide banning of alcohol sales in 1919 via constitutional amendment and congressional legislation. Once imposed, however, the policy proved sufficiently unpopular that Prohibition was not only repealed within 14 years via a second constitutional amendment, but the entire national debate over the legality of alcohol was also permanently resolved. According to Frum, last week's Supreme Court decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health could well play an analogous role to the enactment of the Volstead Act: an apparent breakthrough victory for restrictionists that will turn out to presage a more enduring retreat.

This seems unlikely. Abortion and alcohol are sufficiently different—as are the 1920s and 2020s, for that matter—that the comparison feels imperfect in many respects. Yet Frum makes a perceptive observation that is crucial for anticipating how much of a backlash the banning of abortion is likely to provoke, even if the end result is not the fading conflict and stable compromise he envisions. As the piece explains, a powerful source of mobilized opposition to Prohibition came not merely from the immigrants and laborers whose reputation for intemperance (and resulting social disorder) had been the principal justification for its initial imposition, but also from influential middle-class metropolitans, accustomed to living mostly as they pleased, who became annoyed by the newfound restrictions on their own autonomy once the policy swung into place.

Now that a legal ban on abortion is moving abruptly from hypothetical objective to practical reality in much of Red America, the question of how it will be implemented becomes newly salient. The younger and lower-income women who are the primary population of abortion seekers, but who are not especially politically mobilized, will inevitably be the most directly affected by the Dobbs decision. But the stricter the enforcement regime, the more its effects will climb up the ladder of age and social status to reach citizens with greater political power and firmer standing expectations of deference from the world around them.

Will married thirty-something women of the bourgeoisie be left with permanent physical damage as a result of medical complications that could have been avoided with access to abortion procedures? Will their miscarriages be subjected to criminal investigation? Will they be denied fertility treatments, such as in-vitro fertilization, that involve the destruction of embryos? Will they be sent to prison for procuring illicit mifepristone pills, or face lawsuits for driving their daughters to clinics across state lines? The more the answer to these questions is yes, the more that dissatisfaction is likely to build across these women's well-connected social networks and provide fodder for news media stories and campaign commercials that portray them as victims of injustice.

Frum expects red-state officials to implement uniformly aggressive enforcement measures, which leaves him relatively confident in predicting a powerful backlash that will steadily undermine the strength of the pro-life movement. But our legal system gives substantial discretion to individual officials in charging and sentencing defendants. It's quite possible that abortion prohibitions on the books will be most strictly enforced among populations with the least political power. When combined with the fact that (unlike the Prohibition case) the regions of the country where opposition to restriction is the highest are, at least for now, free from being directly subjected to the same legal constraints, such selective implementation might keep popular opposition from becoming sufficiently strong to disrupt the close balance of electoral power between the two sides that has already endured for the past 30 years.

Moreover, many of the authorities now in position to enforce the new restrictions are not themselves conservatives. The local district attorneys and judges elected in pro-choice communities, such as most large metropolitan centers, will face strong personal incentives to use their discretion to minimally enforce the law, especially against politically sympathetic subgroups. Over time, red-state legislatures may respond to this shirking by transferring enforcement responsibilities from local to state-level officials elected by majority-Republican constituencies. But the questions of who will get punished how for what are, at this stage, unresolved and unclear, with a palpable tension arising between the substance and the politics of the abortion issue: strict enforcement of the bans would work to the electoral advantage of the pro-choice movement while lax enforcement would be relatively favorable to the political interests of the pro-life cause.

Until we have a better sense of how the post-Dobbs world will actually operate in practice, forecasting the larger consequences of the decision remains very difficult. But history can be a reliable guide in one respect. The amount of political risk incurred by proponents of a new policy often reflects how much the highly efficacious members of the American upper middle class view the change as disrupting the lifestyle of people like themselves.

Wednesday, April 27, 2022

New Interview at The Signal on the Biden Presidency

I recently spoke with Graham Vyse of The Signal about the state of Joe Biden's presidency in the spring of its second year. We covered Biden's depressed approval ratings, the political implications of the continued COVID-related economic disruptions, what makes Biden different from Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, and why his presidency so far has disappointed some of the people who voted for him in 2020. You can read a summary of our conversation here.

Thursday, April 14, 2022

Why Disney Couldn't Stay Out of the Culture War

In late March, Florida governor Ron DeSantis and his fellow Republicans who control the state legislature enacted a law that prohibits “classroom instruction by school personnel or third parties on sexual orientation or gender identity" in "kindergarten through grade 3 or in a manner that is not age appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students." The bill, dubbed the "Don't Say Gay" law by liberal opponents, has attracted substantial national attention over the past few weeks. Given both DeSantis's potential national political ambitions and the prospect of parallel legislation passing in other Republican-governed states, it's likely that this issue won't fade quickly.

Activists on the left have achieved increasing success in persuading major corporations headquartered in red states to publicly oppose conservative legislation in the areas of race, gender, and culture—such as the decision by Delta Air Lines and the Coca-Cola Company to criticize a Republican-enacted law changing voting practices in Georgia after Donald Trump's narrow defeat there in 2020 (the passage of which also resulted in the relocation of the 2021 Major League Baseball All-Star Game from Atlanta to Denver). Since the Walt Disney Company is surely the major American corporation best identified with the state of Florida, Disney was destined to become a similar target of pressure once the anti-"Don't Say Gay" effort became a national liberal cause. As a result, the company has found itself in a partisan entanglement that it had very much wished to avoid.

Regardless of where one might personally stand on this issue or any other, it seems natural to expect major corporations to avoid taking sides on controversial political topics—especially those that don't directly affect the financial bottom line. Isn't it just smart business to avoid alienating even one potential customer? And yet the trend of companies weighing in on culture-war issues—and, crucially, on the left side of these issues—is on the rise, even though they have faced threats of reprisal from conservatives for doing so. Disney offers an illuminating case study that demonstrates why this is happening.

Since the locus of conflict here is a law passed in the state of Florida, we might be forgiven for thinking of Disney in this particular case mostly as a theme-park company—albeit a theme-park company that operates the largest single-site employer in the United States. But Disney is really an entertainment conglomerate that, in addition to its famous company-branded tradition of animated features, encompasses ABC and ESPN television, several major film studios (including Pixar, Lucasfilm, and Marvel Studios), and the streaming services Disney+ and Hulu. It makes most of its money not by selling tickets to the Magic Kingdom but by producing and distributing "content," to use the unpoetic term of the age.

The generators of this necessary content reside in an artistic and creative community that is both overwhelmingly liberal on cultural issues and increasingly attuned to day-to-day political developments via social media platforms and other channels of information. Disney needs to care about its reputation among these people, or it risks losing talent—both direct company employees and the outside writers, actors, producers, and directors with which it does business—to its industry competitors. And so any market pressure to avoid publicly opposing measures like DeSantis's law, lest it alienate conservative consumers, inevitably bumps against a different kind of market pressure: to avoid being perceived as unsupportive of the culturally liberal ethos that enjoys general consensus in Hollywood and, increasingly, among well-educated professionals elsewhere.

It's not surprising that Disney has handled this issue with palpable uncertainty and lack of ease. The company initially stayed quiet as the bill advanced through the Florida legislature, declining to join an open letter of opposition signed by 150 other corporations. But when some of its own employees began to protest against Disney's official silence, its CEO responded with an apologetic company-wide email message that called the legislation a "challenge to basic human rights." After DeSantis signed the bill into law, an official Disney statement announced that "our goal as a company is for this bill to be repealed by the legislature or struck down by the courts."

Yet the furious ensuing response from some conservatives confirmed Disney's instinct that the issue presented political risk in both ideological directions. DeSantis mocked the company as "woke Disney" while suggesting that various state-level exemptions and tax breaks that favor its financial interests might be repealed in retaliation—a threat echoed by some of his legislative allies. Christopher Rufo of the Manhattan Institute accused Disney of a "campaign to embed left-wing sexual politics into its children's programming" and even suggested that it was a haven for sex criminals. Disney is now a frequent target of criticism from conservative media outlets, which seem to be taking particular delight in ridiculing the company's well-guarded "family-friendly" brand reputation.

The Disney case is not unique. As the culture war continues to rage, corporations, like other major institutions led by well-educated professionals with progressive social sensibilities, will increasingly align with the values of the Democratic left. This development, in turn, is bound to introduce new tensions into the relationship between big business and its traditional political allies in the Republican Party—especially as Republican politicians continue to take a more populist tack in the era of Trump. While it may be good business sense to proclaim that "the customer is always right," corporate leaders are finding out that in politics, "you can't please everybody" is a much more fitting axiom.

Tuesday, March 01, 2022

State of the Union Address Review: Biden Tries to Cheer Up the Country—and His Party

In the early weeks of Joe Biden's second year in the presidency, the nation he governs is by some important measures moving in the right direction. Job, wage, and economic growth are all positive; the prevalence and deadliness of COVID-19 is (at least for now) fading rapidly; and there are no ongoing domestic crises or major scandals. But the national mood has become increasingly sour over the past year, a pessimism reflected in Biden's declining job approval ratings and an emerging Republican advantage in midterm election polls.

Biden's State of the Union address contained a familiar sequence of policy proposals and details—the "laundry list" approach to speechmaking that is especially beloved of leaders in the Democratic Party, where many different constituencies all demand recognition. (And it won't be hard to find complaints that he didn't say enough about this or that pet liberal priority, as if these speeches are capable of exerting transformative effects on the policy agenda of the American public.) Biden's own communication instincts were reflected in his emphasis on economic issues over cultural matters; his aversion to overly abstract or metaphorical oratory; and his regular claims to stand for bipartisanship, pragmatism, and common sense. 

Biden's State of the Union address did not "make news" in the sense of revealing a major new initiative or governing approach; even the planted media hints from earlier in the day that he would be signaling a redoubled focus on deficit reduction or inflation-taming seemed to oversell the novelty of the speech. What the address seemed to represent, most of all, was something like a national halftime pep talk. "I want you to know that we are going to be okay," Biden said while discussing the Russian invasion of Ukraine, though this sentiment seemed to apply to his message on the economy, COVID, and domestic policy as well. Rather than invoke the constitutional purpose of the annual address near the beginning of his remarks, as most presidents do, Biden saved his "report . . . that the State of the Union is strong because you, the American people, are strong" for his conclusion of his speech, adding, "we are stronger today than we were a year ago and we will be stronger a year from now than we are today."

While the White House would be happy to convince anyone of this view, there's little doubt that a particularly important audience for Biden's words are the members of his own party, who are less enthusiastic about the Biden presidency than they once were and whose energetic mobilization will be necessary to avoid a national Republican sweep in the fall midterm elections. Biden cannot count on the personal devotion or symbolic importance that his immediate predecessor enjoyed. His voters will not reward him for merely picking a fight on camera with a reporter or mocking an opponent at a rally; they expect much more tangible returns on their support. 

And so even the opening language in tonight's speech that detailed the Biden administration's efforts to assist Ukraine and punish Russia, for all its appeal to national and political unity, had a clear second meaning that extended to later passages on infrastructure and COVID. You can be proud of your president, they said; all things considered, he's doing okay. So cheer up a little, America—and cheer up a lot, Democrats.

Thursday, January 13, 2022

There Will Probably Be Presidential Debates in the Future...But It's OK If There Aren't

News broke on Thursday that the Republican National Committee was threatening to require its future presidential nominees to pledge to boycott general election debates organized by the Commission on Presidential Debates, which has produced the debates every four years since it was formed by representatives of both major parties prior to the 1988 election. This threat, conveyed in a letter to the debate commission from RNC chair Ronna McDaniel, is being made amidst a set of demands for changes to the commission's membership and policies (the complete letter is available here). Republican dissatisfaction with the debate organizers has been apparent since at least 2016, and is in some ways a manifestation of the Trump-era party's larger suspicion of political institutions that are not under its direct control.

It's possible that this means there will be no fall debates in 2024 for the first time since the 1972 election. But we're still far from that point—despite some headlines suggesting otherwise—for a number of reasons.

First, the RNC is making demands that, in principle, the debate commission could find a way to satisfy, including an earlier start to the debate schedule, term limits on commission members, and public neutrality of commission members toward the candidates. The commission will be understandably reluctant to look like it's acquiescing to threats from one of the parties; on the other hand, in the end it would rather hold debates than not hold them. Nothing in McDaniel's letter looks like an ultimatum that would be impossible for the commission to address in some form.

Second, the parties lack control over the presidential nominees once they have been formally selected at the national conventions. Party organizations can require all kinds of signed pledges or commitments from candidates, but they lose the ability to enforce them once the nomination is granted. (If Donald Trump wins the Republican nomination in 2024, and then decides he wants to attend the fall debates, would he let a previous pledge to the RNC stop him?) Responding to McDaniel, debate commission co-chair Frank Fahrenkopf—himself a former RNC chair—noted that the commission communicates and negotiates directly with the campaigns themselves, not the national parties: "we don't deal with the political parties [and] never have . . . we work only with those candidates for president and vice president who meet the criteria" for participation.

Finally, winning the presidency is the primary purpose of the national party committees, and has been since these committees were formed in the 1800s. Once the national ticket is selected, parties pursue this goal by becoming the loyal agents of their candidates. If participating in a debate boosts the campaign's chance of victory—perhaps the nominee is running behind in the polls and needs an opportunity to shake up the race—it would be entirely out of character, as well as an act of political malpractice, for the party to attempt to deny the candidate such a strategic option or to publicly criticize him or her for taking it.

This post is not intended to be an expression of reassurance. Honest Graft is a long-standing source of skepticism questioning the value of televised debates, swimming against an endless tide of debate-hyping voices in the news media who insist on treating as sacred civic rituals a series of events that have seldom proven edifying or substantively valuable in practice. If no debates occur in 2024 because the RNC, the debate commission, and the Republican nominee all choose inflexibility over compromise, American politics will not suffer. But—for better, or maybe for worse—we're still a long way from that point right now.