Social Conservatives After Roe

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The potential overturn of Roe is likely to shake up political coalitions in this country. Many predict that either party’s decision to push unpopular policies will redound to the advantage of the other party, especially among moderate voters and in the suburbs. Maybe so. Taking unpopular positions is, after all, unpopular. But I think the more interesting controversy will take place within the Republican Party, between the pro-life voters who have long called the party home and some of the party’s more recent acquisitions in the Trump era.

Barstool Sports is hardly a Republican institution. I doubt its founder, Dave Portnoy, thinks of himself as a Republican. But I also doubt that a large number of people who have chanted “Let’s go Brandon” at football games and the like think of themselves as Republicans, either. As Matthew Walther said, Portnoy represents a tendency in American life, whose members Walther called “Barstool conservatives.” Those voters are not inherently political people but have become increasingly politicized, especially by the Covid-19 pandemic and government responses to it. Portnoy and those like him might not think of themselves as Republicans, but they pulled the lever for Donald Trump, and are now part of the GOP coalition. 

And what does Portnoy think about the potential overturn of Roe? “To go backwards, it shows how f—ed up politics are…if [abortion] is an issue, I vote Democrat.” He also said that Republicans should agree with him on this issue, since it’s just “some religious people” trying to impose their view on the “90 percent, anybody who’s normally thinking.” And, he added, abortion bans would increase the power of the government to regulate people’s lives and decisions, which the GOP claims to be against.  

Portnoy was one of President Trump’s first and loudest supporters in popular culture. I was in high school for the 2016 election and the campaign preceding it. There were a number of outspoken Trump fans at school, and if you had asked them why they supported Trump, especially in the primary, none would have said “because he will make sure to appoint justices to the Supreme Court who, given the chance, will overturn Roe.” They were not family-values Republicans, and had no desire to be. The cultural issues that moved them were not the ones that inspire the religious right.

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They became Republicans anyway, because of Donald Trump. In the past, Portnoy and those like him viewed the Republicans as insufferable moralists, busybodies intent on condemning other people for their choices, and generally no fun. But because Trump was so clearly not those things, he allowed the Republican Party to escape this reputation among people who had no strong attachment either to Paul Ryan’s budgets or the tenets of social conservatism. And the Democrats’ becoming the party that tells you what to do and condemns you as immoral if you don’t has only sealed these Barstool voters’ attachment to the GOP—the party of the libertines, the party of live and let live, the party of telling censorious elites to shove it.

And now this strange alliance appears on the verge of breaking apart.

While the prospect of Roe‘s overturn has prompted Portnoy to express surprise that any normal person would support restrictions on abortion, Republicans, especially at the state level, talk about imposing more restrictions and even bans. Those moves might prove electorally unpopular. While polling on abortion is a mess, it shows pretty consistently that only about 15 to 20 percent of the population favors a total ban on abortion. Not even a majority of Republicans favor a total ban. It’s hardly a united base. 

But the split isn’t just about policy. It’s about an attitude. The appointment of the justice who would overturn Roe, and subsequently implementing whatever state-level abortion restrictions are possible, would be the first major win in a long time for the kind of social conservative more interested in policy related to moral issues than “owning the libs” about, say, content moderation on social media. The former group’s numbers have been declining, which is why the GOP has moved away from the moral issues to issues like content moderation on social media. Social conservatives have nevertheless preserved the pro-life cause; popular opinion hasn’t shifted on abortion the way it has on something like gay marriage, and, quite simply, abortion is the issue social conservatives care most about and have expended the most effort trying to fight.

Maybe Portnoy and late-arriving Republicans like him are ignorant of the history and influence of the pro-life movement. Trump made these Barstool voters political, so I wonder how much attention they were paying to politics before Trump came along. Even if Trump’s nomination seemed to promise liberation from religious cranks and moralizing scolds, on this issue, the old Republican Party isn’t dead. 

If you hated the religious attitudes and moralizing of the Republican Party, Trump allowed you to overlook those things. But the potential for the greatest social-conservative victory in a long time has brought those features back to the forefront. The pro-life movement is shot through with religious cranks and moralizing scolds, a fact responsible for many of its best tendencies and many of its worst. I say this (mostly) affectionately, since I myself am both a religious crank and a moralizing scold. 

Where will the GOP go from here? I suspect that, for social conservatives, the overturn of Roe could lead to a series of defeats. I don’t just mean that their pursuit of unpopular policies will probably be bad for them and the party at the ballot box. I mean that social conservatives could lose their grasp on the Republican Party.

Some of this can be attributed to the nature of coalition building. Most GOP voters who care strongly about abortion would still vote for the GOP even if the two major parties had identical stances on abortion. Those voters typically agree with the GOP’s policies on other issues. The idea that the abortion issue has resulted in some large number of pro-life leftists holding their noses and voting Republican is simply not true. There are about 50 of those people, half of whom I know personally. Most of them do not vote for either party. 

But if Portnoy and friends think abortion is a deal-breaker, whether out of sincere belief or a self-interested desire to maintain a certain sexual culture, they could easily leave to GOP. When a party can take voters for granted, they don’t have to offer them much. The GOP could get away with not doing much for pro-lifers, but not so for the “Barstool conservatives.”

The other issue, as their inaction makes clear, much of the GOP leadership simply doesn’t care that much about the life issue and would rather not talk about it. Addressing it is something they had to do to appease some of their voters, but now the bills are due. A friend who worked in the office of a high-ranking Republican in Congress told me that the office was not uniformly pro-life, and, of those staff who were, he was the only one who cared strongly about the abortion issue. For many Republican members, if they can get away with leaving the abortion issue aside and focusing on their true mission of being corporate shills, they will do so.

The national GOP might like the status quo. Not so for the state parties, where the true believers are. The wave of proposed abortion legislation produced by state Republican legislature reveals as much. And, of course, the institutional network social conservatives have spent 50 years building up isn’t going to simply disappear. But I worry they’ll be increasingly marginalized. There will be more Todd Akins and Richard Mourdocks to come; they will cost the GOP winnable elections and will be blamed for it. Defending new abortion restrictions will give legislators plenty of opportunities to put their feet in their mouths and leave themselves open to obvious attacks. 

The transformation of social conservatism after Obergefell from a movement focused on a few specific moral issues into a catch-all collection will make it easier for the GOP to get distracted. Are abortions, changing standards of who gets to be a fashion model, and whatever Elon Musk might do with ownership of Twitter all issues of equal importance and moral weight? No, obviously not. But a GOP media apparatus that yells about each of them in the same way and to the same effect creates that impression.

The pro-life movement is about to find itself in the position of the dog that caught the car. It was easy to keep everyone on board by pointing to Roe and saying, “We’re against that.” Coming up with positive ideas is harder, and it is not yet clear how far many people who call themselves pro-life will be willing to go. It is called the March for Life for a reason; the “March for a Ban at Six Weeks With Various Exceptions” doesn’t have the same ring to it. In addition to debating the merits of total abortion bans versus incremental restrictions, other divisive issues within the GOP—such as family-policy measures like paid family leave—won’t necessarily become less divisive just because one faction claims them necessary to create a better post-Roe world. The emergence of divisions in what has, up to now, been a surprisingly unified movement might just make it easier for GOP leaders with money and power and new Barstool conservative voters to ignore the abortion issue and get back to cutting taxes.

Steven Larkin is a writer from the state of Maine. His work has also appeared in the Week, the Catholic Herald, and other publications.

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