By: Dan McLaughlin – nationalreview.com –
As the run of losses for pro-lifers in statewide referenda after Dobbs has extended to Ohio and other red states, there have been a lot of different explanations proffered. Our old friend David French offers a new one in the New York Times: It’s the fault of Republicans resisting Covid interventions such as government vaccine mandates. This is unpersuasive, and, worse, it distorts reality.
“The pro-life movement is in a state of electoral collapse, and I think I know one reason,” French writes:
I don’t think the pro-life movement has fully reckoned with the political and cultural fallout from the libertine right-wing response to the Covid pandemic . . . millions of [pro-lifers] were . . . loudly refusing the minor inconveniences of masking and the low risks of vaccination — even if the best science available at the time told us that both masking and vaccination could help protect others from getting the disease. Even worse, many of the same people demanded that the state limit the liberty of others so that they could live how they wanted. Florida, for example, banned private corporate vaccine mandates . . . And this is the party that’s now going to tell American women that respect for human life requires personal sacrifice? (Emphasis added).
There are four problems with this line of argument. First, it lacks evidence about the electoral impact of Covid anti-interventionism on abortion referenda. Second, it assumes a post-Covid politics at odds with reality. Third, it is asymmetrical, looking at only one side of that debate. Fourth, it suggests that the problem with Republicans today is that they ought to be more authoritarian, not more pro-liberty.
Why Life Lost in Ohio
There is no shortage of contributing reasons why pro-lifers lost in Ohio, some of them predating Covid, some following Dobbs, and others specific to the strategy, tactics, and resources of the referendum. Ten major factors come to mind:
- Americans were — let’s face it — never as pro-life across the board as we would have liked. Majorities nationally and across many states were, and still are, willing to vote for pro-life candidates who enact pro-life laws. Majorities, if the question is put to them precisely, still oppose later-term abortions, support restrictive regulations on abortion, and otherwise take the pro-life side of arguments on the basis of eyeball-test moral intuitions. And a sizeable minority has long been more consistently pro-life than that. But it has always been difficult to find majorities that fully value the life of the unborn as fellow members of the human family. French doesn’t cite any basis for thinking that there has been a sizeable shift on this front since pre-Covid; the difference is simply that Dobbs ushered in an era in which statewide popular referenda on abortion have real legal consequence, so these things are being tested afresh.
- Status quo bias is a powerful thing: A lot of people are fundamentally small-c conservative and will vote against whatever they see as dramatic change. This is why Roe continues to have a toxic imprint on our culture even after the end of its 49-year reign of judicial imperialism. If judges impose their vision long enough, the people get used to it. That’s precisely why it’s been such a high priority to the pro-abortion movement to get referenda on the ballot as swiftly as possible before people grow accustomed to a pro-life beachhead.
- The Republican coalition, and even the conservative movement, has always included some people who were more libertarian and/or libertine than socially conservative. If this were not the case, it would not be politically necessary for social conservatives to seek fusion with people who place a higher priority on liberty than on virtue or community. Some of those people will be with us in electing candidates, but dissent on referenda.
- Republican parties vary from state to state. In some states, such as Kansas and Ohio, there is a strong, ancestral party identification that sweeps in more moderate voters for reasons that date back to the mid-19th century. That means that party identification doesn’t always map precisely with social conservatism.
- Majorities matter in a democracy, but so do intensity and turnout. We know this particularly from issues such as guns, on which pro-gun-rights voters turn out with great focus and enthusiasm whenever they perceive their rights as threatened even by incremental change. Pro-lifers may have had turnout advantages in the past, but following the model of defenders of gun rights, proponents of abortion in the past decade or so have successfully ideologized their movement in absolute terms, especially among a subset of younger voters. That has not necessarily grown the number of Americans who support legal abortion, but it has grown the voting base of those who are pro-abortion absolutists and active about it — a key factor when referenda are on the ballot in something other than a high-turnout general-election environment.
- Voters generally tend to support exceptions to abortion bans for children conceived due to rape and incest. This is in no way a principled analysis of the status of the child, but instead is due to a concern that not killing the child is unfair to the mother, who did not conceive from voluntary choice. That presents political problems for laws with no such exceptions, even though rape and incest cases typically represent fewer than 1 percent of abortions. The Ohio heartbeat bill had exceptions for the substantial and irreversible health issues of the mother, as well as the standard exceptions for the life of the mother and for ectopic pregnancies (where there is no prospect of saving the child), but no rape or incest exception. Proponents of the Ohio initiative, which extended much further than that narrow issue, exploited the absence of those exceptions extensively in their messages. The same thing happened in Michigan.
- Leadership matters. Every governor who signed a pro-life law was reelected in 2022, including Ohio’s Mike DeWine. Lack of leadership was less of an issue in Ohio’s referendum, where the state’s pro-life legislature, Governor DeWine, Senator J. D. Vance, and other prominent local officials made major efforts to promote a no vote. But combine the parlous state of the party’s national leadership in the Trump era with the leadership vacuum in other states with referenda (such as Michigan and Kansas), and you have a recipe for a lot of defeats.
- Money matters. In Ohio, as in other such referenda, the pro-life side was massively outspent. That affects turnout, and it affects persuasion, especially with a confusing, multi-part referendum and lots of controversies around the marginal cases. The Republican Party and the conservative and pro-life movements have been generally struggling with fundraising in the past two years, much of it downstream of the disillusionment and division created by Trump, the populist alienation of the donor class, and the siphoning off of funds to Trump’s personal uses such as legal defense. Getting outspent makes it much harder to get a fair hearing from the voters.
- The Ohio referendum was very confusing. As our editorial noted:
The referendum covered multiple different topics, some of them only marginally related to abortion, such as “contraception, fertility treatment,” and “miscarriage care.” This led to extensive debate and litigation over how to describe the referendum on the ballot, ultimately requiring the intervention of the Ohio Supreme Court to strike some language it found “misleading.” An Ohio Northern University poll found significant changes in support for the referendum based upon how it was described. WDTN in Dayton found that “Ohio voters are still confused by the language of Issue 1.” Even the New York Timescomplained that “the abortion ballot question in Ohio is confusing voters,” which it naturally blamed on “misinformation” from pro-lifers.
That confusion gave a decided advantage to the side with more money, more organization, and more enthused turnout from extremist zealots.
- The media matter. The political press is overwhelmingly on one side on this issue, acting as a force multiplier for the side that already has the money and is already doing everything in its power to confuse the voters.
Taken in combination, there are more than adequate explanations for pro-life defeats in referenda that one need not go scrounging for explanations in Covid policy.
The Post-Pandemic World
The second problem with French’s analysis is that it looks at the intense debates that occurred on Covid interventions from 2020 through 2022 and simply assumes that the pro-intervention side (which supported vaccine mandates, mask mandates, lockdowns, school and business closures, and social-distancing requirements) came away the decisive victors both on policy grounds and in the public mind. This is quite unsupported.
Those debates were broad and extensive, touching upon many different areas of life: keeping kids out of schools, separating families from dying loved ones, precluding proper weddings and funerals, closing businesses, firing people for refusing vaccines, shuttering houses of worship, and even preventing outdoor prayer gatherings. Any honest accounting of what happened should recognize that just about everybody got some things wrong — the people who were most certain were most likely to get more things wrong — and that lots of people came away, with good reason, with less trust in both medical and governmental authority.
Consider, just as one example, a Pew study from May 2023:
A majority of Americans believe the benefits of the coronavirus vaccines outweigh the risks. . . . At the same time, fewer than half consider the preventative health benefits of the vaccines to be high and more describe the risk of side effects as medium or high than view them as low. . . .
The unprecedented speed of development for the coronavirus vaccines was widely hailed as an achievement for science. But . . . a majority of Americans continue to say the statement “we don’t really know yet if there are serious health risks from COVID-19 vaccines” describes their views very or somewhat well. This view is about as widely held today as it was in August 2021, less than a year after vaccines became widely available.
There was a certain amount of common sense behind efforts to encourage masking, social distancing, and staying home, but there was never really rigorous science behind any of this, and there is little evidence to suggest that government interventions proved particularly effective at anything other than hobbling the economy and retarding the academic progress of children. We have copious evidence since then that public officials pushing these policies were knowingly lying to the public.
Politically, if the public had decisively turned against Covid anti-interventionists, we would expect to see some sign in post-Covid politics other than in abortion referenda, but we have not. Public officials such as Ron DeSantis, Brian Kemp, Kim Reynolds, and Kristi Noem who were closely associated with the anti-intervention posture were resoundingly reelected, even when some were opposed loudly by the head of their own party. By contrast, hardline pro-intervention governors such as Phil Murphy and Kathy Hochul survived by surprisingly narrow margins.
French cites studies saying that resistance to the Covid vaccines cost lives. Certainly, the vaccines were a success story in reducing the mortality and serious illness caused by the virus. But it is a category error to suggest that this means people who resisted the vaccine were selfish and deserved to have the government fire them from their jobs for refusing. To the contrary, the people who died due to vaccine resistance were the unvaccinated themselves. Indeed, French argues that “excess mortality rates were significantly higher for Republicans than Democrats after vaccines were widely available.” That may be recklessness in resisting the nanny state (opposition to nanny-statism on the right long predates Covid), but it is no sign that people imposed costs on others they were unwilling to face themselves; quite the contrary. It is certainly not evidence that they were willing to cold-bloodedly take the life of another innocent human being, as is done in abortion.
On many of the issues that divided Americans over Covid, the anti-interventionists were right. The Covid shots, while helpful, were more useful as therapies; they were oversold as if they had a major effect on preventing infection and spread, as is the case for normal vaccines. That just wasn’t so, but it was abused as a justification to remorselessly throw out of work devoted first responders who had been on the front lines of the pandemic if they declined the shot. Studies have increasingly shown that the advantage of vaccination over natural immunity for people who already had the virus was minimal or non-existent — in which case it was positively abusive to ban people from the workplace for relying on their natural immunity. Moreover, people who overrated the risks of the vaccine may have been wrong, but they were reacting to genuine concerns about their own survival.
A One-Sided Analysis
In addition to just assuming that right-leaning opposition to Covid mandates was baseless and discredited and is now massively unpopular and a drag on the pro-life movement, French’s analysis is entirely one-sided. He asks whether people asserting bodily immunity (“my body, my choice”) in the Covid context undermined their pro-life credibility when saying that bodily immunity reaches its limit when the alternative is killing an unborn child. He never asks whether people who demanded massive government interventions in the name of safetyism also forfeited any of their credibility with persuadable voters on life issues. To the contrary, he reassures his pro-choice readers that he doesn’t doubt their sincerity, only that of pro-lifers:
I’m not arguing that the pro-choice position is inherently libertine. There are many millions of Americans — including pro-choice Republicans — who arrive at their position through genuine philosophical disagreement with the idea that an unborn child possesses the same inherent worth as anyone else. But I’ve seen Republican libertinism with my own eyes. I know that it distorts the culture of the Republican Party and red America.
Siding with Authority over Liberty
Finally, this entire argument puts French in an odd position. When I have disagreed with him in the past, it has typically been because he was coming from a position of trying to uphold a more purist vision of classical liberalism and libertarianism at the expense of, say, the government’s obligation to teach the truth in its own schools, or its interest in not being pushed around by corporations hostile to self-government. He has insisted upon that purism: “Fusionists such as me read the Declaration of Independence and reaffirm that governments are instituted for the purpose of securing our ‘unalienable rights.’ Thus, the protection of liberty is an indispensable aspect of American government.”
Liberty is a precious thing indeed. I tend to side more with the classical liberals on many of these debates myself, but that is precisely why I have more time for people who balked at heavy-handed government mandates during Covid. It was “common good constitutionalists” such as Adrian Vermeule who argued insteadthat the pandemic justified their vision of communal obligations to submit to the dictates of administrative expertise. I am therefore somewhat surprised and disappointed to see French arguing that the problem with the post-Trump Republican Party is too much liberty and too little authority.
French argues that “the Republican Party has become less libertarian but more libertine,” but his only example of the collision in policy terms is Florida seeking to protect individuals from private employers imposing medical mandates — a policy that may not be classical-liberal purism, but is nonetheless a manifestation of small-r republicanism in standing up for the individual. It is true enough that Trump and others in our coalition have proven themselves all too libertine, but do we really think he and they were not like that before 2020, or that libertinism was not heavily concentrated among the sorts of people who (like Trump) were not pro-lifers before 2016?
Blaming the Right’s Covid anti-interventionism or even anti-mask and anti-vaccine sentiment for the defeats of pro-lifers may well be the most flattering way of explaining the issue for New York Times readers, who love nothing more than to be told that pro-lifers are morally unserious hypocrites whose pleas for respect for the lives and dignity of our fellow human beings need not trouble their consciences. But it ill-serves the efforts to understand what actually happened, or to promote a politics that advances liberty without discarding the equally inalienable right to life.
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