There’s a scene in Amazing Grace — the William Wilberforce biopic — where Wilberforce meets with fellow abolitionist radical Thomas Clarkson. They’ve just had another in a long run of defeats in Parliament on their bills to abolish the slave trade. It’s around 1794 — Clarkson has devoted his life to the abolition of the slave trade. He’s been doing it longer than Wilberforce has, though Wilberforce is the leader of the cause in government. He has finally received a bit of good news: the Revolutionary Government in France has abolished slavery. In England, the public is incensed at France for the revolution — England has been at war with France for over a year. Because of the war — because abolition is now associated with the French Revolution — the cause has stalled out. Explicitly, the Scottish MPs only favor gradual abolition because they fear the spread of the revolution.
“Here we have only defeat. Across the Channel, they bring me nothing but good news. Changes,” he says.
“We change things here, every day, by degrees.” Wilberforce says. “An imperfect order is better than no order at all.”
But the answer is unsatisfying to Clarkson, who wants the change, now. He’s been trying to get it passed since 1785, and while Parliament dithers, the Americans are talking about abolition (though it won’t sweep the whole country), and France has gone and done it. But England, the place he has spent the most time, hasn’t.
Wilberforce refuses. Clarkson drops out of the movie for a while at this point. In real life and the movie, he retired until 1804, when he and Wilberforce resumed the campaign — passing the Slave Trade Act in 1807.
There’s recently been talk about abortion bans passing in Georgia, Alabama, Kentucky, Missouri, and other states. The bans are not all the same — Alabama’s is sufficiently broad (some might say slipshod) that a number of long -erm pro-life activists don’t think it is a good idea. Georgia’s looks like it was professionally written to provide a clean challenge to Roe modeled on Carhart II — someone has a model law that Georgia followed, and I hope someday a reporter finds out who wrote it, and why they didn’t get in front of any other state legislature. Missouri and Kentucky are somewhere in the middle. I’ve heard activists say that these states are getting a bit over their skis, thinking that just because Gorsuch and Kavanaugh are now on the Court, these challenges can go forward.
I have heard from others, though, that this was actually driven by the ROE Act in Massachusetts, and similar laws drawn up in New York and Virginia. These are likewise state laws drawn up in response to Trump’s court nominees, which as we know legalize abortion up to birth, and in some cases even afterward.
In another area, a colleague at the university asked me why Republicans were beginning to favor tariffs. I pointed out that he was missing a word — the question was why Republicans were beginning to favor tariffs again.
I think these are related phenomena.
The Republican coalition has never been unified in its ideology. There are a handful of principled fusionists out there, but most people who vote Republican and think of themselves as conservatives really only care about a few things. The social conservatives care about the culture. The economic conservatives about the economy and budget. The defense conservatives about defense. The newest addition to the culture is the working class, maybe cultural, conservatives who care about the communities they live in declining. Other subgroups have their own concerns.
The old dogma claimed that all of these goals were compatible. Virtue freely chosen, economic liberty was political liberty, and so forth. But along with those claims was also a promise. Maybe an implicit one, but a promise all the same. Support the coalition, go slow, and everyone will eventually get what they want.
There was a time that may have been true. But it hasn’t been for 20 years now.
My colleague kept saying, over and over again, that tariffs were bad and how could the GOP give up on resisting them. How much damage would they do to the economy. But he couldn’t understand that, to substantial portions of the GOP, that isn’t an argument that they care about. Furthermore, I will be shocked into utter silence for a year if my colleague has actually voted for a Republican in the last five years. So he is making an argument as an outsider that has no impact on the people he is trying to move.
As a practical matter — as a SoCon — if the price of ending abortion, reviving marriage and family formation rates, or getting enough votes to protect the religious institutions I love is tariffs or a few points off economic growth, I will make that trade without a second thought. I don’t care if those policies work; what I care about is that paying for them will get me the votes I need. Because I was promised that the economic policies of the party would eventually pay off on what I care about. They have not. So though I have great fondness for free trade and regulatory reduction — I’m not going to sacrifice what I actually care about for them.
In the particular case of abortion, for years the activists have been told that incremental changes would eventually bring down Roe. And for years, the activists have restrained themselves. A small case here, a small case there. They’ve swallowed their objections to laws that conceded the legality of abortions all the way up to birth in exchange for the banning of the most barbaric practices of child butchery. They’ve conceded rape, incest, chemical abortions, anti-implantation drugs, even expansive health exceptions. What did they get in return: Roe is still on the books, the Democratic Party’s leadership now favors post-birth abortions, and our own leaders manage to routinely drop the ball on pro-life legislation (I am still pissed at Renee Ellmers).
The recent spate of Democratic legislative proposals was simply the straw that pushed some of them — to some extent or another — to give up the incrementalist approach, which they never liked to begin with.
At some point, maybe I should focus on this point in its own post — but many of the alliances of the past 40 years have been strategic and tactical alliances. Many of us supported causes we didn’t particularly care about, adopted tactics we didn’t particularly like, because it was supposed to be the best way to achieve the policies and results we wanted. Twenty years, 30 years, 40 years — that’s a long time to wait. I guess it is in my nature to wait a bit longer — an imperfect order is better than no order at all — but I honestly can’t be too angry at the people who have finally decided that they can wait no longer.Published in