In this world there are only two tragedies. One is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it. So said Oscar Wilde.
Well, the Republicans in the US got what they wanted. They wanted to overturn the 1973 Supreme Court decision in Rove v Wade which stated that the 14th amendment to the US Constitution (the right to privacy) nullified any legislative attempt by any of the states to restrict abortion.
Up to January 2021, President Donald Trump and Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell connived to block Democrat nominations to the Supreme Court and expedite their own.
Those Republican nominations were intellectually and jurisprudentially under-nourished – a blot on the proud history of the US Supreme Court, as evidenced by polls showing record lows in approval ratings of the court.
The resulting stacked court overturned Roe v Wade enabling states to ban abortion with heavy criminal penalties for providers. And they started to do so.
The born-again far-right Christian minority said Praise be the Lord. Trump took the credit.
What a wonderful tragedy for the Republicans. In Wilde’s words they got what they wanted. And in the mid-term elections last week it spelt a disaster for them, and a joyous relief for everyone else.
The aberration of a newly elected President not copping a shellacking but retaining and possibly increasing his party’s majority in the Senate and getting almost of its numbers in the House invites inquiry.
I put it down to trauma. Let me explain.
Over the past 100 years only two other newly elected presidents have managed to do what Biden did this November.
Newly elected Democrat President Franklin Roosevelt increased Democrat numbers in the Senate and the House in 1934. He did so because the US was in the midst of the trauma of the Great Depression. Voters felt vulnerable and insecure and here was a president who after decades of Republican do-nothingism had a program (the New Deal) to lead the US out of its economic catastrophe. And he did it.
Then in 2002 Republican George W Bush increased Republican representation in both Houses in the wake of the catastrophic 9/11 attacks. It was a result begotten of trauma.
And so was Biden’s result this month. The trauma was the overturning of Roe v Wade in June, leaving every woman of reproductive age in America vulnerable to the proclivities of mainly male religious zealot Republican legislators in the states. And it is precisely because abortion is such a vexed issue that you don’t want those mainly male domineering legislators near it.
The overturning of Roe v Wade was high-level trauma to those women and to those close to them. They rightly felt personally affronted and threatened.
But that was five months ago. And so, a lot of commentators and political pundits (mostly male of post reproductive age) thought that the issue had faded and predicted a “red wave” of Republican victories. Silly them.
In five out of five state referendums on abortion the pro-choice side won easily. Also, the abortion issue was significant in state elections for legislatures and governorships. After all, with the overturning of Roe v Wade, that is where the power to restrict abortion rights now lies. And the turn-out in those elections was historically high.
When an affront is that personal and that threatening, it does not dissipate on some political zephyr in the revolving news cycle. It is ingrained and lasting. And powerful enough to bring many otherwise politically apathetic women to register to vote and to vote not for the Democrats, but against the Republicans.
Indeed, it is so lasting that the Democrats could build a new base on it.
To do that the Democrats have until January while they still have a majority in the House to do something to enshrine reproductive rights. And when that something is done it will always be vulnerable to Republicans overturning it, which would require them to one day get majorities in both Houses and the Presidency – a very good reason for women in the future to vote against Republicans in all three sorts of elections to defend their rights.
There are perhaps two Australian equivalents to trauma-induced long-term voting allegiances. One was conscription in the 1960s and early 1970s. It turned the hitherto Coalition-supporting voters with university education to Labor. The other was and still is universal health insurance.
The power of the abortion issue in the US has to be seen in the context of the mid-terms being held in a poor economic environment with surging inflation. Bill Clinton’s mantra that it is just “the economy, stupid” is only valid up to a point. It can be easily overshadowed by other events that hit home personally.
The other traumatic event that negated the red wave was the January 6 attempted coup in 2021. The majority of Americans are proud of their democracy, the essential part of which is to accept the people’s choice and permit a peaceful transfer of power.
That is why voters rejected Trump-anointed election deniers in the critical Senate races that gave the Democrats a majority. It also resulted in significant victories to Democrats in elections for state legislatures and state office holders. After all, in the US the states run elections, including federal ones and voters clearly did not want the foxes in charge of the electoral hen house.
Again, the affront to democracy did not fade in the ensuing 22 months.
The electoral fall-out of these traumas will remain while ever Republicans fear Trump and Trumpism and put up candidates in that vein. Bear in mind many Trump-endorsed election-deniers riding on the delusional slogan Make America Great Again did get elected, but on the basis of other results you would have to say, “If that is your base you better get a new one.”
Crispin Hull is a former editor of The Canberra Times and regular columnist.
Crispin Hull BA, LLB (Hons) | Property Convenor | ANU School of Legal Practice Lawyer of the Supreme Court of the ACT, on the Register of Practitioners kept by the High Court of Australia