One of the fundamental truths of life is that you can’t demand changes to something when you’ve stripped that thing of the means to exist at all.
C.S. Lewis put it more artfully: “We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.” Lewis was talking about removing the hearts of men and still demanding from them love and virtue.
In our case, you cannot simply demand that a major controversial issue be removed from politics and still expect to achieve political ends. That’s especially true when the two partisan sides on a topic have radically different views about how it should be resolved.
This week, the topic I have in mind is abortion, since that issue is back on the national conscience. Most notably, David French, generally a staunch pro-lifer, wrote this week of the need for the pro-life movement to “transcend” politics. He was mad that abortion had become a “purely partisan” issue, lamenting there was no longer a pro-life wing of the Democratic Party.
But there’s a reason this separation has happened: the sides of the abortion debate are, in both cases, defining issues of their respective political parties. One side views life as beginning at conception; the other cannot even call a fetal heartbeat a heartbeat, and instead dehumanizes a fetus with terms like “cardiac rhythm” and “fetal cardiac activity,” as Alexandra DeSanctis writes for National Review — “a cluster of pulsing cells” or “a group of cells with electrical activity” and “fetal pole cardiac activity.”
This debate orbits around who we call human or not. We’ve had similar fights in our history before. Should these ideas transcend politics? Absolutely, I’d love it if they did. But there’s a reason they can’t transcend politics in the heat of the battle, and that has everything to do with how the American system is designed.
The United States is built on Madisonian factions. The idea comes from Federalist 10, in which James Madison argues that you can either remove the causes of factions in politics, or control the effects of them. The only way to remove the causes of factions, he says, is to either destroy liberty or give “every citizen the same opinions, the same passions, and the same interests.”
Neither of those options is desired in America. We want a society full of liberty. And everyone knows it’s a fool’s game to try and ensure everyone has the same opinions, passions, and interests. That means the only other way to control factions is to send passions through the checks and balances of the constitutional system.
Pro-life and pro-choice are factions. They demand radically different political ends. The idea that these positions should coexist without political strife is nonsensical. As these sides have upgraded their rhetorical arsenals and evidence, the bright lines between them have grown.
The Democratic Party has no place for a person in the pro-life faction. On the flip side, the Republican Party has become the home of the pro-life movement. Parties are organizations for movements to push their ideas. The Democratic Party chooses to pursue pro-choice ends, and the Republican Party, pro-life ones.
The only way for there to be no factions is if everyone had the same beliefs. When abortion was less of a lightning rod of a topic, the two parties could have people of both factions in them. The organizing principle for parties in the past didn’t surround abortion.
That’s not true now. Since we’ve primarily settled questions of economics, the Cold War, and other critical items, that has left cultural issues as the primary organizing principle of politics.
Abortion cannot “transcend” politics, because it is now one issue that organizes the two-party system. Politicians win and lose political races, from primary to general, on this topic. If and when the Supreme Court sends abortion back to the states to figure out on a legislative front, the partisan nature of this topic will blossom even more into the primary issue in America.
We are in this position because the Supreme Court halted the capacity of the American political system to settle this debate and instead caused it to fester around the edges where neither side could declare a final victory. We need to get the Supreme Court out of this mess and allow the political system to channel all this pent-up political energy out and into the open.
Abortion cannot transcend politics until all this political energy has gotten spent and Americans agree to some final answer to the issue. We’re nowhere close to that point right now. The only thing to do is channel factional energy and stop demanding something that cannot be.