Will the Republican Party’s Embrace of Messianic Politics Destroy the Party or American Democracy?

Posted in: Politics

On a range of issues, the Republican Party has embraced a kind of messianic politics. That politics is impatient, absolutist, purist, and redemptive. The political messianist divides the world into those who are “faithful” and those who are “heretics,” and pushes to achieve their ends with little regard for what it takes to get there.

Many Republicans now seem determined to get their way by advancing the messianic project even if they alienate large swaths of the American public. Their desire to do so is not the same as loyalty to Donald Trump. It reflects instead a set of extremist ideological commitments on issues ranging from abortion to gun rights to transgender identity.

Those commitments are fueled by a dualistic division that generates intolerance and anger. They also explain the Republican Party’s growing hostility to a politics of compromise, the lifeblood of democracy.

The latest polls and reports from focus groups suggest that Republicans may pay a substantial political price for their messianic commitments.

Let’s take a look at a striking example of such commitments in the context of what one writer has called the Republican Party’s “runaway train on abortion.”

Not content to let the dust settle after the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision so they could figure out how to navigate the complex, post-Dobbs political landscape, anti-abortion activists moved quickly to stop abortion all over the country. They have not hidden their desire to label the fetus a person and thus remove reproductive choice from women everywhere.

In the wake of Dobbs, Hadley Arkes, the Director of the James Wilson Institute on Natural Rights & the American Founding, posted a manifesto on the conservative Catholic website First Things. He warned that Dobbs “will be seen as a pro-life proclamation even as abortions proceed at a massive level in the blue states.”

Arkes lamented “that the Court does not move to put the critical anchoring point in place as it sends the matter back to the states: Namely, that as we draw on the objective facts of embryology, that offspring in the womb has never been anything less than human from its first moments, and not merely a part of the mother.”

He added, “If that predicate were put in place, there would be a clearer understanding of what makes it deeply justified for the laws in the states to cast their protections over the child in the womb. And what makes it warranted in turn for Congress and the federal courts to act when the protections of the law are withdrawn from a whole class of human beings in the states.”

In September 2022 Sen. Lindsay Graham took a small step in Arkes’s direction when he introduced a bill in the Senate to establish a nationwide ban on abortion after 15 weeks.

Even earlier, Republicans had proposed legislation that went well beyond even Graham’s radical proposal.

Time Magazine reports that in 2021 “A federal fetal personhood law was…introduced…in both chambers of Congress. The Life at Conception Act, which would extend fetuses and embryos a constitutional ‘right to life’ beginning at the moment of fertilization, has 164 cosponsors in the U.S. House of Representatives.”

At the start of this year, the movement to completely ban abortion had gained a foothold in a dozen Republican-dominated states, though some of their efforts are being challenged in court. Those states included: Alabama, Arkansas, Idaho, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, and West Virginia.

In Arizona, Republican Governor Doug Ducey enacted an abortion ban before he left office that gave “an unborn child at every stage of development all rights, privileges, and immunities available to other persons, citizens, and residents.” That law has been challenged in court.

In Indiana, a Republican lawmaker objected to an anti-abortion bill that included exceptions for rape and incest. “This bill,” he said, “justifies the wicked, those murdering babies, and punishes the righteous, the preborn human being.” He preferred a fetal personhood law with no exceptions.

These are just a few examples of the rush to righteousness that characterizes today’s Republican Party.

And then came the April 7 decision of Trump-appointed federal district judge Matthew Kacsmaryk, which suspended the Food and Drug Administration’s approval of mifepristone, an abortion-inducing drug that has been on the market for more than two decades.

In language that could have come right out of the Arkes playbook, Judge Kacsmaryk referred to the fetus as an “unborn human” or “unborn child” throughout his decision.

The very first footnote in his decision explained:

Jurists often use the word “fetus” to inaccurately identify unborn humans in unscientific ways. The word “fetus” refers to a specific gestational stage of development, as opposed to the zygote, blastocyst, or embryo stages…. Because other jurists use the terms “unborn human” or “unborn child” interchangeably, and because both terms are inclusive of the multiple gestational stages relevant to the FDA Approval, 2016 Changes, and 2021 Changes, this Court uses “unborn human” or “unborn child” terminology throughout this Order, as appropriate.

Last week Axios offered evidence of the political costs that Republicans may pay for their drive for messianic purity. It reported the results of “two online focus groups… with 14 Pennsylvanians who voted for Donald Trump in 2016 and Joe Biden in 2020. They were a mix of seven registered Republicans, four Democrats and three independents.”

Axios notes that “Half of the voters were ‘pro-life’ — but they did not support the decision by a federal judge in Texas that the FDA’s approval of mifepristone is invalid and therefore should no longer be available….All but two of the 14 participants thought the judge’s decision on mifepristone was an egregious display of partisan overreach.”

According to the focus group moderator, “Swing voters’ message was unambiguous: If the GOP wants to win back Pennsylvania, it had better moderate on abortion, avoid strident anti-wokeism, and distance itself from former President Trump’s outlandish claims about his prosecution.”

Resistance to the Republican drive for purity and righteousness on the abortion issue also is suggested by the fact that “Gallup polls show Americans’ support for abortion in all or most cases at 85% (which is) higher than when polling began in 1975 (76%), and the Pew Research Center finds 62% of adults believe abortion should be legal, compared to 60% in 1995….”

Pew found that after Judge Kacsmaryk’s ruling, “53% of adults say medication abortion—that is, the use of a prescription pill or a series of pills to end a pregnancy—should be legal in their state, while fewer than half as many (22%) say it should be illegal. About a quarter (24%) say they aren’t sure.”

Abortion politics also played a significant role in the 2022 midterms and in this month’s state supreme court election in the swing state of Wisconsin where it helped propel a pro-choice candidate to a substantial electoral victory.

Messianism of the kind exemplified in the post-Dobbs extremism of the Republican Party fuels fear, anger, and hatred toward others who do not subscribe to its orthodoxy. In the end, it not only endangers Republicans’ political prospects, but also breeds exclusion, intolerance, and domination, each of which threatens democracy itself.

As former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall once warned, “Democracy… cannot flourish amid fear. Liberty cannot bloom amid hate. Justice cannot take root amid rage.”

Posted in: Politics

Tags: Republican Party

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