Abortion laws and the foundation of political overreach

Abortion laws and the foundation of political overreach
© Getty Images

Politics is about employing the power of ideas to propel policy, and employing the idea of power to shape the rules. When one political party has the power to do both, it is nearly unstoppable.

Georgia’s recently adopted “heartbeat” bill is a natural result. The law outlaws abortions once a doctor can detect a fetal heartbeat (or rather, the firing of electrical signals emanating from cells that eventually will become a heart). A similar law is expected to be signed in Missouri, while another was approved last week in Alabama.

If one knew nothing about policy or politics, one would assume there is a rising tide of pro-life sentiment in the United States — that Republicans are upending nearly 50 years of legal precedent because, quite simply, the public demands it. 

ADVERTISEMENT

But the changing power dynamics surrounding the pro-life and pro-choice movements stem from two landslide elections: The 1994 Republican Revolution and the 2010 Tea Party Revolution.

The former freed the GOP from the Democrats’ decades-long stranglehold over state and federal legislatures. The latter — born in part from the Republican State Leadership Committee’s “Redistricting Majority Project” — handed Republicans complete control of nearly half of all state governments.

The Missouri legislature went from blue to red in 2003 after roughly 50 years of Democratic control. Georgia followed suit in 2005 after more than 130 years of Democrats in charge. And Republicans took over the Alabama legislature in 2011 for the first time in 137 years.

Not coincidentally, laws restricting abortion rights began ticking upward across the country in 1995, and then skyrocketed after the 2010 election. This despite pro-life proponents never exceeding 23 percent in Gallup surveys, while those supporting abortion rights has continually edged upward in the past decade.

How did we get here? The same way we often do when policies don’t align with public opinion — party overreach stemming from rule changes intended to preserve power. 

ADVERTISEMENT

Gerrymandering is one such rule change. The tactic has become a political lightning rod — highly dangerous, yet extraordinarily effective, but it’s not a new phenomenon.

In fact, it pre-dates our Constitution and has been wielded continually ever since. What makes the latest iteration of gerrymandering so seemingly insidious is that it’s worked, partly due to technological advancements in map making that allow for unprecedented precision.

Last November in Georgia, 48 percent of congressional votes went to Democrats, but you wouldn’t know it based on Republicans’ 9-5 advantage, or by the GOP’s overwhelming numbers in its state legislature. And in North Carolina, in the four congressional elections since the state GOP redrew district lines dramatically in its favor, Republican candidates have netted nearly eight million votes compared to nearly 7.4 million for Democratic candidates. That’s a 52 percent to 48 percent split. Yet during this span, Republicans have held an average of 9.75 seats versus only 3.25 for Democrats. 

Vulgar, isn’t it? One party can manipulate democracy simply by redrawing district lines.

Yes it is. But this is far from unprecedented. Democrats do it, too. 

From 1973 until the 1994 Republican Revolution, Democrats averaged 20 “trifectas” — control over a state’s House, Senate, and governorship — while Republicans averaged only five. Simply put, Democrats possessed more expansive unchecked state power from the early ‘70s to the early ‘90s than Republicans have since 2011. 

Through decades of gerrymandering, Democrats solidified power in dozens of states while hampering GOP gains in others. For example, at various times during the ‘80s, ‘90s, and ‘00s, Democrats clung to a power share in the Pennsylvania state legislature despite rising statewide Republican support. Republicans actually beat Democrats in the Keystone State’s congressional elections by four points in 1992, by 10 points in 1994, and by three points in 1998. Yet in each instance, Democrats won more seats. 

But once Republicans took control of the Pennsylvania legislature, they redrew the district maps the first chance they got (after the 2010 census) in order to keep control. And in the first congressional election following adoption of their 2011 map, the GOP won 13 of 18 congressional seats—despite securing only 49 percent of the vote. 

There is no logical end to this cycle. Each major political party seeks to acquire power, exert power, and modify the rules to maintain power. It is an arms race without fear of annihilation. And that is why it continues.

B.J. Rudell is associate director of POLIS: Duke University’s Center for Political Leadership, Innovation and Service. In a career encompassing stints on Capitol Hill, on a presidential campaign, in a newsroom, in classrooms, and for a consulting firm, he has authored three books and has shared political insights across all media platforms, including for CNN and Fox News.