It was the elephants that were the problem. Pyrrhus loved them, of course — he had two dozen of the mighty beasts, outfitted with war towers and dressed to impress. But when it came time for an assault on the city-state of Argos, they wouldn’t fit through the small gates, leading to chaos and delays as the towers had to be taken apart and mounted again on the other side. When Pyrrhus finally realized he was facing stronger opposition than expected, he decided retreat was wiser, but a botched message to his son’s forces out- side the city led them to attack. The Pyrrhic elephants ran into each other on the streets. One fell and blocked a key gate, another went wild when its rider was killed. Amid the chaos, Pyrrhus was knocked from his horse and decapitated.
Keeping elephants in line is traditionally the job of Republican Party leadership. But these days, they are no better at it than poor dead Pyrrhus. The world has changed dramatically for Republicans in the past eight years — and while most media observers focus on Donald Trump as the contentious avatar of this change, the truth is that the battleground has shifted in more ways than just the type of politician who reaps the rewards of social media. Nowhere do we see this more prominently than the shifting winds of the culture wars.
Ryan Burge, an associate professor at Eastern Illinois University, lays out the harsh reality for the American right in a recent Substack post titled “Liberals Have Won the Culture War.” On virtually every issue, from same-sex marriage to marijuana legalization to banning pornography, Americans have moved steadily leftward over the past several decades.
“In 2004, just 12 percent of evangelicals were in favor of same-sex marriage,” writes Burge, using data from the General Social Survey. “By 2021, 35 percent of evangelicals were in favor, including a majority (56 percent) of those between the ages of eighteen and thirty-five. It seems inevitable that a majority of evangelicals will support same sex marriage in the next two decades.”
The one exception to all these trends: attitudes to abortion, where the overall evangelical sample shows the same anti-abortion perspective it has since the 1970s. “The religious right has done a good job of making abortion a life and death issue. Even a lot of secular people buy into the ‘life begins at conception’ idea,” driven in part by ultrasound technology, Burge told me. “Earlier survivability also plays into this. Abortion has effectively jumped out of the culture war; it’s not following the other trends.”
For Republicans, this creates a unique challenge. Democrats are unified on the issue: no meaningful restrictions, at any point in the pregnancy, and as much taxpayer funding as they can possibly get. The GOP’s split on the issue is illustrated by the back and forth at the first presidential debate between former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley and former vice president Mike Pence. The Pence side of the argument is pushing for a fifteen-week ban at the federal level, while Haley wants the matter to stay under the jurisdiction of the states — and worries that bans like Florida’s six-week limit come across as unrealistic and extreme.
It is often the case that denizens of one party inevitably view the other as more organized, cutthroat and capable than their own side. But it is clearly true that Democrats largely know how to manage, guide and coerce single-issue constituencies. Republicans don’t — and now, post-Dobbs, they are finding they can’t.
Republicans in Washington have reacted to the post-Dobbs dynamic in GOP outcomes — including the failures of multiple state ballot initiatives — by throwing up their hands. They talk of the decision as a Pyrrhic victory, or the dog that caught the car. Of course, single issue pro-life Republicans don’t much care if that’s the case. The chairmanships of committees pale in comparison to the possibility of hundreds of thousands of lives saved. If you told the average pro-life evangelical voter that Roe would fall but only Florida and Texas would have meaningful bans, they’d take it in a heartbeat.
Yet it’s true that the pro-life movement, politicians and activists all down the line were astonishingly unprepared for the idea that Roe would be overturned within the next decade. No one would have taken that bet prior to Trump’s election, and only crazy people would have taken it after. Only after Anthony Kennedy retired did it become a possibility — aggressive legal cranks believed it might happen, but politicians doubted. The implications of the passing of Ruth Bader Ginsberg came as a shock to the system.
Pro-life politicians haven’t gotten their legs under them yet. The lesson from ballot box failures is clearly that you can’t play cute on the issue. At this stage, the only senator who endorses the Susan B. Anthony List’s preferred approach of a federally mandated fifteen-week limit is South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham. No one else wants to touch it.
Dobbs was the greatest victory pro-lifers could have hoped for — and many thought would never happen. But now, it seems as if many in the GOP would prefer it hadn’t. Did they not take the March for Life seriously? Did they not realize these protesters were absolutely speaking from conviction? Back in 2017, Louis C.K. opened his comedy special by talking about the issue. “People hate abortion protesters — ‘They’re so shrill and awful,’” he said. “They think babies are being murdered! What are they supposed to be like? ‘Huh, it’s not cool, I don’t want to be a dick about it though. I don’t want to ruin their day as they murder several babies all the time.’” The fact that a secular comic understands more about pro-lifers than your average Republican consultant is not an encouraging one.
Much of the challenge for Republicans has to do with the age of the Ameri- can electorate. Fifty percent of 2016 voters were born before 1965. Now Trump is trying to win over an electorate where that age cohort — through attrition, Covid and the rising numbers of millennials and zoomers — could drop as low as 40 percent. According to some calculations, a third of expected voters next year will have been born after 1980.
On its surface, this is bad for the GOP. But the other side of that equation is that in both 2022 (relative to the 2018 midterms) and 2020 (relative to the 2016 presidential), the biggest positive shift for Republicans was in the thirty-to-forty-four age bracket. Elder millennials, finally having the kids and mortgages they delayed for so long, are drifting right.
The general sense that pro-life voters have is that Republicans are ill-equipped to argue on the issue — that the Haley wing is dominant in Washington, and without the insurance of Roe’s permanent status, people who could tout their 100 percent pro-life ratings at little risk are running scared.
Perhaps this was inevitable given how much this had been an argument about the courts, to the exclusion of real political movement, for almost fifty years. But everything indicates ceding the ground to the left by refusing to talk about the issue is a huge mistake. Governors like Florida’s Ron DeSantis, Texas’s Greg Abbott, Georgia’s Brian Kemp and Ohio’s Mike DeWine all endorsed strong state-level bans after Dobbs — and all had to defend them in re-election runs where they each clobbered well-funded Democratic opponents. Pro-life politicians can win, even if pro-life ballot issues can’t.
Perhaps that’s because those ballot issues require American voters to take a definitive position on something they’d rather not. In his book The Nineties, Chuck Klosterman writes about the different country of only thirty years ago:
No stories were viral. No celebrity was trending. The world was still big. The country was still vast. You could just be a little person, with your own little life and your own little thoughts. You didn’t have to have an opinion, and nobody cared if you did or did not. You could be alone on purpose, even in a crowd.
Today’s social media era doesn’t just affect politicians. It is full of risk and danger for average people as well. The idea that the people should decide which abortion policy is right or wrong — whether it is moral or immoral, what should be allowed in the hardest cases — invests enormous authority in individuals who would rather not have to decide which side to take on a polarizing issue. It’s easier to just keep your head down and say nothing than use the wrong hashtag and have someone in your family never talk to you again.
This is the world Republican political leaders face, and it’s not going to change. So it’s probably best to get the elephants lined up facing the same direction. They’ve got a year to do it — or they’ll face that Pyrrhic end at the ballot box.
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s October 2023 World edition.