Tag Archives: Thomas Edsall

When The Issue Isn’t Really The Issue

Thanks to the effort by Texas to totally ban abortion, the issue of reproductive choice has once again taken center stage in America’s interminable culture war.  But as Thomas Edsall has recently pointed out, a purported issue isn’t always, or necessarily, the real issue.

I always read Edsall’s essays in the New York Times, because he draws on both the history of whatever issue he is exploring and on a wide range of scholarly research in order to craft his conclusions. This particular piece is no different. As he tells us,

As recently as 1984, abortion was not a deeply partisan issue.

“The difference in support for the pro-choice position was a mere six percentage points,” Alan Abramowitz, a political scientist at Emory University, told me by email. “40 percent of Democratic identifiers were pro-life, while 39 percent were pro-choice. Among Republican identifiers, 33 percent were pro-choice, 45 percent were pro-life and 22 percent were in the middle.”

By 2020, of course, that situation had changed, with 73 percent of Democrats taking the pro-choice position (only 17 percent were “pro-life”–the other 10 percent were in the middle). That year, 60 percent of Republicans claimed to be pro-life; 25 percent were pro-choice, and 15 percent were in the middle.

If Edsall was commenting only on the growth of the partisan divide, that would be interesting but hardly surprising. What was surprising was the association between opposition to abortion and–wait for it–racial attitudes.

Whites who score high on measures of racial resentment and racial grievance are far more likely to support strict limits on abortion than whites who score low on these measures. This is part of a larger picture in which racial attitudes are increasingly linked with opinions on a wide range of disparate issues including social welfare issues, gun control, immigration and even climate change. The fact that opinions on all of these issues are now closely interconnected and connected with racial attitudes is a key factor in the deep polarization within the electorate that contributes to high levels of straight ticket voting and a declining proportion of swing voters.

I have previously posted about the origins of the anti-choice movement. Historians of religion have located those origins in conservative rage over the denial of tax benefits to the Whites-only academies that had been established to avoid integration. They had politicized abortion in order to motivate Christian conservative activism while dodging the less-palatable race issue.

There are other, less surprising associations: according to one scholar cited by Edsall, people who are active in the “pro life” movement are more likely to be committed to a patriarchal worldview in which control of reproduction, and female sexuality in particular, is important to the maintenance of  the gender hierarchy they support.

Women have noticed…

Edsall offers historical evidence that the issue of abortion has “evolved”–lending credibility to the claim that it is a proxy for a worldview that encompasses far more than religious convictions about reproductive choice.

Fifty years ago, the Southern Baptist Convention meeting in St. Louis approved what by the standards of 1971 was a decisively liberal resolution on abortion:

Be it further resolved, that we call upon Southern Baptists to work for legislation that will allow the possibility of abortion under such conditions as rape, incest, clear evidence of severe fetal deformity, and carefully ascertained evidence of the likelihood of damage to the emotional, mental, and physical health of the mother.

Edsall cites historian Randall Balmer for an observation often made by people critical of the anti-abortion movement: “the beauty of defending a fetus is that the fetus demands nothing in return — housing, health care, education — so it’s a fairly low-risk advocacy.” As pro-choice folks frequently point out, what is called a “pro-life position” is often merely “pro-birth,” since so many of the people espousing it are uninterested in feeding, clothing and educating the child once it emerges from the womb.

And of course, there’s the recent spectacle of anti-choice folks claiming “my body my choice”as justification for refusing vaccination. (Not only is that hypocritical inconsistency infuriating,  a woman exercising reproductive choice isn’t infecting her neighbors…a distinction that clearly eludes them…)

Edsall’s essay explains what, for many pro-choice advocates, has been a conundrum: why are opponents of abortion not seeking wide accessibility to birth control? Surely they should want to avoid  the unplanned, unwanted pregnancies that lead to abortion, so why are some of the most fervent “pro-lifers” actually opposed to birth control?

Edsall and the scholars he cites have provided support for the answer many of us have suspected. For far too many of these “warriors for life,” the issue isn’t really the issue.

 

The Animosity Coalition

I almost always learn something from reading Thomas Edsall’s “Guest Essays” (formerly known as “Op Eds”) in the New York Times. He usually surveys and cites several academic researchers with expertise in whatever subject he’s investigating, and–as a recent essay demonstrated–he sometimes comes up with a nice turn of phrase.

Edsall’s topic was the “animosity coalition.”

In 2016, Donald Trump recruited voters with the highest levels of animosity toward African Americans, assembling a “schadenfreude” electorate — voters who take pleasure in making the opposition suffer — that continues to dominate the Republican Party, even in the aftermath of the Trump presidency.

Schadenfreude electorate.” Perfect!!

Edsall doesn’t mince words about the composition of that electorate, pointing out that Trump played to the dark side of American politics, constructing an “animosity coalition” composed of “the alienated, the distrustful, voters willing to sacrifice democracy for a return to white hegemony.” As he says, segregationists have long been a permanent fixture of American politics, although shifting between the two major parties.

And that brings us to an essential insight that answers what has been a vexing question, at least for me. 

Edsall quotes Liliana Mason for the insight–which is that their solidification of control over the Republican Party has mades White supremacy seem to be  a partisan issue. Mason points out, however, that members of what she calls the segregation faction have been around much longer than our current partisan divide. In fact, she says, “they are not loyal to a party — they are loyal to white Christian domination.” (emphasis mine)

There is a faction in American politics that has moved from party to party, can be recruited from either party, and responds especially well to hatred of marginalized groups. They’re not just Republicans or Democrats, they’re a third faction that targets parties.

Mason’s conclusions are echoed by other researchers, who have found Trump supporters exhibiting attitudes about racial groups, immigrants and political correctness that rival partisanship and are “negatively related to support for mainstream Republican candidates.”

That insight explains something that so many of us have found baffling: why would elected Republican officials and Republican candidates for public office–many of whom clearly know better– dutifully echo Trump’s bigotries and support his Big Lie? 

The usual theory is that this represents a combination of fecklessness and ambition. Among those who do know better are individuals who lack a moral center–who see which way the GOP winds are blowing for GOP primary voters–and who are prioritizing their personal electoral prospects above their moral and patriotic duties. They are “playing to the base.”

What the cited scholarship adds to that explanation is an important insight: the “base” to which these candidates are pandering isn’t even a Republican base–at least, not as political scientists define a party’s base. It’s the voters who were unhappy with Trump, or with their particular House or Senate candidates, but who nevertheless loyally voted Republican, who are members of the base.

In other words, voters for whom an R or D next to a name on the ballot is dispositive constitute a political party’s true base.

That is not a description of the “animosity coalition” that effectively controls today’s GOP. Those voters have shifted parties before and they would do so again, because their allegiance is to White Christian dominance. As a result, Republicans who need their votes can’t rely on the old political calculation (“where would they go? to the Democrats? Not likely!”) because significant numbers of these voters really would desert candidates who they perceive as insufficiently reactionary/racist.

Julie Wronski, a political scientist at the University of Mississippi — a co-author, with Mason and John Kane of N.Y.U., of a just published paper, “Activating Animus: The Uniquely Social Roots of Trump Support” — put it this way in reply to my emailed query:

The Trump coalition is motivated by animosity toward Blacks, Hispanics, Muslims and L.G.B.T. This animosity has no bearing on support for any of the other G.O.P. elites or the party itself. Warmth toward whites and Christians equally predict support for Trump, other G.O.P. elites, and the party itself. The only area where Trump support is different than other G.O.P. support is in regards to harnessing this out-group animus.

For as long as Trump remains the standard-bearer of the Republican Party, Wronski continued, “this animosity coalition will define the party.”

The animosity coalition is composed of folks whose only real goals are to protect White Christian privilege and “own the libs.” 

In Edsall’s felicitous phrase, they are the “schadenfreude” electorate.