Many years ago, a political operative who served the cause of social conservatives gave me an off-the-record tutorial.
At the time, he and his colleagues were in the middle of what had been predicted to be a toughly contested race. It didn’t turn out that way—largely because he and his team orchestrated a negative campaign against the Democratic candidate, using push polls and other unscrupulous tactics to spread rumors that were demonstrably not true.
“We consider this a just war,” he told me. “In a just war, you fight in ways that you ordinarily would not because the goal and the cause are just.”
In other words, the end justified the means.
I’ve thought about that long-ago conversation a lot since the U.S. Supreme Court formally delivered its ruling overturning Roe v. Wade, the landmark decision that recognized reproductive rights and freedom for women in America 49 years ago. Dobbs vs. Jackson Women’s Health calls into question just every high-court decision regarding personal liberty and autonomy over the past half-century.
Overturning Roe has been the highest aspiration of social conservatives for decades. They see abortion as the ultimate evil in America. They were willing to do anything and everything to combat that evil.
A just war in which the end justified the means.
That is why they locked in on a strategy that concentrated their power to the parts of the federal government least susceptible to majority opinion—the U.S. Senate and the Supreme Court. Doing so gave social conservatives power they never could have gained at the polls.
It also is why then U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, rewrote the rules nominating Supreme Court justices, then rewrote them some more and then rewrote them yet again to deny a Democratic president’s nominee even a hearing and push through three nominees by a Republican president. McConnell, in service of the “just war,” wanted to pack the court.
Which he did.
Last but most important, because social conservatives saw their fight as a just war, their nominees to the U.S. Supreme Court felt entitled to deliberately mislead both the Senate and the American public about their stances regarding Roe.
Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett all testified that they considered Roe settled law. Then, just as soon as they slipped on their robes, they voted to unsettle it.
The consequences of this new decision will be far-reaching and lasting.
Perhaps the only parallel to this in U.S. history is the infamous Dred Scott decision in the 1850s, which turned every American man, woman and child into a slave hunter regardless of his or her personal beliefs. Like the Dobbs decision, it curtailed rather than expanded personal liberty.
It also made the Civil War almost inevitable.
The immediate political impact also will be significant. This ruling isn’t likely to help the Republican Party.
Everyone who opposed abortion already was voting for the GOP. Conservatives who support reproductive rights and rights of personal conscience now have a choice to make. They must decide whether they care more about their economic interests or the liberties of more than half the nation’s people.
In states and districts around the nation where the margins separating victory and defeat already are razor-thin, that could make a difference.
Also important is the damage that this decision and all the machinations that led to it will do to our institutions.
Because the social conservatives in Congress, in legislatures and the courts manipulated and misled their way to this moment, millions of Americans now have little reason to trust them on any question.
Congress and the courts are supposed to be our vehicles for resolving differences.
Not exacerbating them.
The late Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes, a onetime Republican presidential nominee, famously declared the Dred Scott decision to be the high court’s great “self-inflicted wound.”
Hughes’ words could apply to this ruling, as well.
Because that’s the problem with wars, just or otherwise.
They tend to lay waste to everything they touch.
That’s where we are now.