US voters have backed abortion rights. But Republicans will fight back
OPINION: Narratives of the ‘resiliency of American democracy’ are premature, even if the Democrats held out well
While pundits insisted that inflation and economic anxiety would likely push voters into the arms of the Republican Party, social issues were on the ballot in this week’s US midterm elections – not just figuratively but also literally, in the form of a handful of ballot measures. And while pro-abortion candidates haven’t won every race, even in Republican strongholds, Americans came out to vote down anti-democratic measures to curtail abortion rights even further.
Voters in both red and blue states reaffirmed their dissatisfaction with the Supreme Court’s wildly unpopular decision to overturn Roe v Wade, a nearly 50-year precedent that had protected abortion access under the umbrella of a constitutional right to privacy.
Despite a strong desire from their voters to see them do so, national Democratic leaders have been unable to codify abortion rights in federal legislation – hamstrung by Republican obstruction and two senators in their own party who refuse to abolish the filibuster in order to allow a progressive agenda to move forward.
But in this election cycle – the first since the undemocratically stacked (and, in my view, illegitimate) Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe – voters in the states of California, Michigan and Vermont took matters into their own hands. They voted by wide margins in favour of state constitutional amendments enshrining the right to reproductive autonomy, potentially setting the stage for a future showdown with the federal government, if Republicans eventually regain the power necessary to move forward on a national abortion ban. Remarkably high turnout helped drive these results in Michigan and Vermont.
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What is perhaps even more striking is that citizens in the heavily Republican states of Kentucky and Montana came out in force to vote against anti-choice ballot initiatives. By about a five-point margin, Kentuckians voted down a proposed state constitutional amendment that would have stipulated that “nothing in this Constitution shall be construed to secure or protect a right to abortion or require the funding of abortion”.
Meanwhile, Montanans have probably narrowly defeated a fear-mongering, culture-warring ballot initiative that would have mandated that any infant “born alive”, including during “an attempted abortion”, be considered a legal person and provided with all necessary life-saving medical care, with criminal penalties for doctors who violate the law.
Proper medical treatment of such infants is already required by federal law, so there is no reason for Montana to make this move, apart from providing a platform for right-wing anti-choice propaganda, with which conservatives (too often successfully) attempt to deflect serious discussion of late-term abortions with false claims that Democrats are in favour of “murdering babies”.
LGBTQ rights – especially those of transgender Americans – did not fare as well this election cycle, with Ron DeSantis, the rabidly anti-trans, right-wing Catholic governor of Florida, handily winning re-election. DeSantis even won Miami-Dade County, which is usually reliably Democratic.
However, LGBTQ equality, which most Americans favour in general, was not on the ballot nationwide in the 2022 midterms to the extent that the right to abortion was. And, while some election results are still outstanding, it is clear that the latter issue played a role in preventing the catastrophic Democratic losses that many pundits expected. High turnout and the youth vote, both surely driven in part by concern for reproductive justice, were key factors in the outcome.
Control of Congress has yet to be determined at the time of writing. Republicans will likely win the House of Representatives, while the Senate remains a toss-up that may ultimately be decided by the race in Georgia between Raphael Warnock, the Democratic pro-choice pastor who occupies Martin Luther King’s former pulpit, and Herschel Walker, the Republican former American football star and ‘Celebrity Apprentice’ contestant whose own staffers have reportedly described him as a pathological liar. With neither candidate winning 50% of the vote, Warnock and Walker will face off again in an early December runoff.
No other high-profile contests went the Democrats’ way in Georgia, where incumbent Republican governor Brian Kemp again defeated Democratic challenger Stacey Abrams. However, Democrats fared far better in much-watched Pennsylvania, winning a Senate seat and the governor’s mansion against Trump-backed candidates.
Most Republicans are prepared to destroy anything genuinely democratic in the American system in order to gain and/or retain power
Based on what we know so far, pundits are already pushing a narrative of the “resiliency of American democracy”. This is a narrative I think we should resist. Most political contests across the country were, as usual, not competitive at all, and the likely Republican victory in the House will in large part be the result of the decidedly undemocratic practice of gerrymandering voting districts.
To be sure, high turnout helped stave off the worst possible outcomes, but we need to remain aware that most Republicans are prepared to destroy anything genuinely democratic in the American system in order to gain and/or retain power; and that the US is saddled with a great deal of anti-democratic institutional baggage. We cannot afford to sweep this problem under the rug.
Going into the elections, the punditocracy’s consensus was that high inflation and economic anxiety would drive voters to support the Republican Party, which Americans irrationally continue to favour on the economy. Exit polls show that 63% of voters aged 18 to 29 backed Democrats, however, and these younger voters seem to be motivated by concerns about democracy and human rights.
Those of us who share such concerns can be proud of our efforts this election cycle, and can take comfort in the clear national preference for abortion rights. Democratic leaders and strategists should see this as a reason to be much bolder in supporting women’s fundamental rights and equality going ahead.
We’ve also seen clear evidence that women’s and LGBTQ rights motivate young Americans – a demographic often rebuked for low voter turnout – to get out and cast their ballots. The extent to which Democratic leadership internalises and acts on these lessons will undoubtedly affect Democratic prospects in 2024.
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