The Political World Seen – and Unseen

When Ronald Reagan won reelection in 1984, carrying forty-nine States, our late friend Joe Sobran began National Review‘s first commentary after the election, with this memorable opening line: “Heh, heh, heh.” It was a moment of savoring. The mid-term election, a week ago, offered the occasion again for savoring, but with the joys tempered by the disappointments. Harry Reid in Nevada, Patty Murray in Washington, survived after all. And then there is Barbara Boxer. No one who read the exchange will readily forget it: During the 1999 debate on a partial-birth abortion bill, Rick Santorum asked Barbara Boxer whether one was still free to kill the child at the point of birth if the toe of the child remained in the birth canal. Of course not, she said. Then what, he asked, was the difference between the toe remaining in the birth canal, or the head? Instead of bringing Senator Boxer along the chain of reasoning, his question triggered a spasm of outrage: There he goes again, doing tricks with words.

And speaking of words and their tricks, one must wonder just why so many conservative commentators on television seemed to be afraid of moving beyond the narrowest, flattest phrases when they were asked to explain, in a pithy line, what this election was about: “It’s the economy, and jobs.” Yes, that was a critical part of the story with unemployment around 9.6 percent. But surely that was not the fuller, richer account of the recognitions setting in among the public.  There was a concern also that the attempt to foster jobs through a massive spending on a “stimulus” was creating jobs mainly in the government and strengthening the public service unions. As one wag put it, government in California was already “government of, by, and for the public service unions.”

The people working for the government were in an enterprise that could not go out of business when their labor costs went up dramatically. People who could not be fired had the powers of law at hand to raise their salaries, by laying taxes on people making less, and who could in fact be fired. The national stimulus orchestrated by the Congress and the administration bore the tendency and purpose of making this scheme national in scope. All of this was tied in with the political takeover of medical care, with its prospect of price controls and rationing. And then came the extension of even more regulations on financial institutions, making it ever more likely that credit will hinge more and more on political connections.

Republicans have become America’s pro-life political party

But there was another dimension of the election that ran even more beneath the notice of the media, and it could be seen in the statistics once the dust had settled. A contingent of “pro-life Democrats” who had voted for Obamacare was defeated, including: Steve Driehaus and Charlie Wilson of Ohio; Kathy Dahlkemper, Paul Kanjorski, and Chris Carney of Pennsylvania. By one count, seventeen pro-life Catholics were added to the House, while even more important, twenty-six pro-abortion Catholics will be leaving. But that in turn may distract attention from the surge of pro-life Republicans at all levels, in governorships and legislatures, pro-lifers who are not Catholic. Americans United for Life has made a list of the pro-life gains in governorships, and they are dramatic: Pennsylvania, Michigan, Florida, Ohio, Maine, Iowa, Kansas, Alabama, Tennessee, Wyoming, Kansas, Alabama, New Mexico – in addition to the pro-life governors reelected.

When we add up these things, we come face to face again with the truth that somehow dares not speak its name even among Catholics: Like it or not – whether it accords with ancient loyalties and enmities or not – the hard fact of the matter is that the Republicans in our day have become the pro-life party in our politics. And so, as a notable example, when the bill on partial-birth abortion passed the Senate in 2003, the Republicans voted for it 48-3 (losing only Lincoln Chafee and the two senators from Maine). The Democrats voted about two-thirds against it, 30-16. In the House, the Republicans voted for the ban, 218-4, the Democrats 63 for it, 137 against.

In my grandparents’ apartment in Chicago, where I spent my first few years, there was, in the kitchen, a large picture of Franklin Roosevelt. The Republican Party had begun with a muscular Protestantism in the campaign against slavery and polygamy, but at the end of the nineteenth century, it was also an engine of nativism in seeking to end any public support for Catholic schools. And well into our own time that party took its lead from upper-middle class Protestants, eager to advance the cause of contraception and birth control. Many of us in the pro-life movement can recount our frustrations dealing with traditional Republicans who were hostile to pro-lifers or just couldn’t see that the “life issues” were anything more than a distraction from the “real issues” in our politics. But what has suddenly become clear is that Republicans of this stripe are passing from the scene. The younger ones coming up have been drawn in part because the Republicans have become the pro-life party, and they have absorbed that character as they have risen to the political life.   It is time for Catholics to stop seeing through a glass darkly in viewing our politics, and start seeing what is plainly before us.

Hadley Arkes is the Ney Professor of Jurisprudence Emeritus at Amherst College and the Founder/Director of the James Wilson Institute on Natural Rights & the American Founding. He is the author of Constitutional Illusions & Anchoring Truths: The Touchstone of the Natural Law. Volume II of his audio lectures from The Modern Scholar, First Principles and Natural Law is available for download. His new book is Mere Natural Law: Originalism and the Anchoring Truths of the Constitution.