The Texas Abortion Law Means Gavin Newsom Will Survive: The GOP's Missed Chance to Court Civil Libertarians

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One week from tomorrow, California Governor Gavin Newsom will survive the attempt to remove him from office.  The recall effort will fall short, and if it does, Newsom will have Texas – and abortion politics – to thank.

(If I am wrong, I will donate $20 to the charity chosen by my first commenter beneath this post.)

In the nearly half-century since Roe v Wade was decided in 1973, America has plodded through an immeasurable series of skirmishes in the culture wars.  We’ve quarreled over gay rights (starting with the decriminalization of same-sex sex, and evolving into widespread acceptance of marriage equality).  We’ve battled over heavy metal, rap, and country singers who say unfortunate things when they’re drunk. We’ve fought over Teletubbies, the Last Temptation of Christ, the Cuties movie, and Confederate statues.  We’re now working ourselves into frenzies over who gets to use which bathroom, and whether school boards should be examining the genitalia of high school athletes.

One issue trumps all these.  Conservatives who accepted defeat on many of the culture war issues (ask how many right-wingers seriously want to ban gay marriage anymore) refused to accept Roe v Wade as settling the matter on the subject of abortion.  Believing the lives of the most innocent were at stake, they fought and lost and fought again, making incremental progress in state legislatures and in increasingly Republican-dominated courts, working and praying and planning for a Great Undoing of Roe.   This strange Texas law may encourage a most uncivil vigilantism, but it has been upheld for now by five conservative Supreme Court justices. It is a well-earned payoff for decades of indefatigable anti-abortion activism by the relentless American right.

The firewall of Roe has been crumbling for years; it seems unlikely to survive to see its 50th anniversary in 16 months.  By this time next year, perhaps even sooner, more than half the states in this country may have effectively banned abortion.  Abortion access will survive in blue enclaves like California, Illinois, and New York – but for millions of women in red states, travel to a locale where they can receive a safe and legal abortion will be prohibitively expensive.  The new Texas law will make such travel subject to potentially ruinous civil suits for all involved.  The situation for reproductive justice has not been more desperate in decades.

Anecdote is not evidence.  I did, however, talk this week with two friends of mine, both Californians who had been planning to vote to recall Gavin Newsom.  Like many who take a classically liberal, quasi-libertarian line, my friends have been upset by the lockdowns and the prospect of vaccine mandates. They are, like me, parents – apoplectic at the prolonged closure of public schools, and increasingly hostile to teacher unions.  They have very real frustration with what they see as onerous and indefensible impingements on their liberty in the name of public health. 

These friends hadn’t turned in their ballots, however, before the Texas law took effect; when that news hit, each reluctantly voted to keep the solidly pro-choice Newsom in office.  I do not think they are alone.

The GOP’s play for civil libertarians was always a bit deceptive.  In the recall, and in many purplish states where they hope to make inroads, Republican candidates have taken great care to downplay the divisive social issues in favor of emphasizing resistance to vaccine mandates and forced lockdowns.  Liberals like me are ripe for the picking; a lot of us are appalled by what we see as the left’s embrace of cancel culture (a phenomenon many on the left insist doesn’t even exist.) A lot of us are vaccinated, but are deeply wary of government-run surveillance and tracking programs; we are not COVID-deniers, but we have legitimate reasons to fear the remedy more than the disease.  Republican candidates who emphasized a commitment to free speech, free markets, and freedom from surveillance found an interested if wary audience in folks – until Texas.

At the heart of liberty is autonomy.  At the heart of freedom is sovereignty over the self.  None of us have it perfectly, or have it all the time; we are helpless when young and often when old, we need care and community.  The goal is to create the maximum agency for the maximum number.  The debate over vaccine mandates, like the debate over abortion, is an argument about how and when society can say, “In this instance, we have a vested state interest in controlling the inner workings of your body.”    Except for civil libertarians, few if any are willing to say that the state never has that right.  Yet even those of us who are deeply skeptical of vaccine mandates recognize that compelling a woman to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term is a far greater offense against freedom than forcing someone to accept an unwanted injection. 

One friend who voted to retain Newsom put it this way: 

I’m not vaccinated, and neither are my kids.  We’ll fight this as long as we can.  But I’ve had an abortion, and I know that being forced to carry a fetus against your will is much, much worse than being forced to take a shot.  If I have to choose between the people who will force us all to get vaxxed and the people who will make it impossible for my daughter to control her own reproductive life, I’ll hold my nose and choose the vaccinators.

I think a lot of traditional liberals feel the same way.  The Texas abortion ban is popular with much of the GOP’s religious base, but it brings a sudden and decisive end to any Republican overtures to libertarians and centrists interested in pushing back against the left’s assault on unfettered speech.  To be clear, the right has never been a reliable ally for free speech absolutists – but now that those of us in that camp have been so clearly abandoned by the left, we were just starting to get ripe for the picking. 

After last week, we are no longer interested in being plucked.

Those of us still muttering defiantly about free minds, free markets, free human movement across borders, free speech and the freedom to love whom and how we will have no ideological home outside a few fringe parties.  We are clearer than ever, however, that we have no welcome whatsoever in the modern GOP.

——

Lainey Wilson hails from tiny Baskin, Louisiana. And she’s written a fine anthem for restless girls who break certain boys’ hearts.

A home to you is a handed-down farm
Little house on the back of your grandpa's land
Home to me is this old guitar
Yeah, a country song and a beat-up van

Think you're the one that's gonna turn me around
Give me a ring and settle me down
Got a little old on me, don't get me wrong
But, baby, my heart runs wild and free
You gotta know 'fore you fall for me
Like a feather in the wind, I could be gone
You don't give a rock to a rolling stone