Historians Disagree with Alito: Roe Didn't Create PolarizationBooks
tags: Roe v. Wade, abortion, polarization
The idea that American politics became bitter and divisive because of Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion, is a cherished bit of right-wing folk history, akin to the idea that Robert E. Lee opposed slavery or that the purpose of the Electoral College was to protect small states from the tyranny of big states. Like any political use of history, its purpose is to justify the use of power to achieve a desired end—in this case, the overturning of Roe and the elimination of women’s right to decide whether and when they have a child.
In his draft opinion overturning the decision, Justice Samuel Alito laments that Roe “sparked a national controversy that has embittered our political culture for half a century.” In classic Alito fashion, the justice contradicts himself later in the opinion, arguing that the justices cannot consider how society would be affected by Roe being overturned, insisting, “We would have no authority to let that knowledge influence our decision.” Alito’s defenders and fellow travelers have echoed this reasoning. The New York Times columnist Ross Douthat described the decision as “an inflection point where the choices of elite liberalism actively pushed the Republic toward our current divisions, our age of chronic strife.”
Roe is an important part of the story of polarization in American politics, but it is not its genesis. “The idea that Roe kickstarted polarization is a really dramatic oversimplification,” Mary Ziegler, a law professor at UC Davis and the author of the forthcoming Dollars for Life: The Anti-Abortion Movement and the Fall of the Republican Establishment, told me. “If people are genuinely upset about polarization, presenting Roe as the source of that denies that a lot of other people had responsibility. There were a lot of politicians, activists, media figures, and lawyers who deepened the divide on abortion and benefited from it.”
The notion that Roe is solely or largely responsible for polarization and bitterness in American politics is an ideal just-so story for anti-abortion advocates who wish to celebrate its destruction, but that story bears little resemblance to history as it actually occurred—it is an argument that rests on wiping the 1960s from public memory as easily as you delete a botched photo from an iPhone. The right-wing counter-mobilization against the Supreme Court had already begun as early as the Brown v. Board of Education decision striking down segregated schools, and the parties had begun sorting into more coherent ideological blocs as a result of the realignment of conservative Southern Democrats into the Republican Party. Abortion was already a divisive issue when Roe was decided, but in the immediate aftermath of that decision, activists on each side of the issue cooperated on proposals to support mothers more than they ever have since. The “bitterness” of the abortion debate is not a cause of polarization, but its result.
“At an elite level, the parties remained internally divided on abortion until the early 2000s—30 years after Roe and the emergence of polarization on most other issues,” Nolan McCarty, a Princeton University political-science professor and a co-author of Polarized America, told me. “Within Congress, partisan divisions were much clearer on taxes, regulation, and labor policy than on abortion.”
The conservative Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan wrote last week that “other high court decisions that liberalized the social order—desegregation of schools, elimination of prayer in the schools, interracial marriage, gay marriage—were followed by public acceptance, even when the rulings were very unpopular.” Saying the Supreme Court’s decisions on school prayer and integration were followed by “public acceptance” is a little like saying that the South welcomed the election of Abraham Lincoln.