Last week, pro-life activists came to the Ohio State University to campaign, bringing graphic images, divisive rhetoric, and a potential case study of democratic erosion with them. After watching interactions between the group and its target audience, for the first time in a while, I questioned the value of their presence. Their shock campaigns, by design, elicit visceral reactions. It’s not surprising, therefore, that their on-campus presence is polarizing, and, at least for some, deeply personal. Though Roe v. Wade and similar cases have repeatedly upheld the right to bodily autonomy—at least as it applies to abortion—few issues, if any, remain as divisive; the protest at OSU, then, provides an excellent case study for how polarized, vocal individuals interact in a democracy. Unfortunately, however, a close examination yields a troubling result; that Americans, at least for one day in Columbus, could not discuss a contentious issue civilly, nor accept decades of established case law as legitimate, both indicating potential for democratic erosion.
Speaking candidly, I am among the 68% of Americans that favor some form of restriction on abortion. I was raised by a conservative, Catholic family and educated in Catholic schools. My uncle is even a Catholic priest. In short, I am, at least in normative terms, understanding of a pro-life stance, though I do not agree with it entirely. In another set of circumstances, therefore, it’s easy to see how I might have stood alongside the protesters. After last week’s event however, it appears that few, if any, of my contemporaries share my sympathetic disagreement. Far more, it seems, have replaced it with contempt
Though it rained throughout the day, the protesters were engaged, interacting with passers-by and, when necessary, vocally defending their stance. Their “opponents”—students, professors, or other stakeholders—proved equally animated. Despite a clear willingness to debate the merits of mandatory waiting periods, time restrictions, and, more broadly, the morality of the procedure, few exchanges seemed productive. Some were openly hostile. Most carried hints of disdain. A typically stoic friend later described the event as a “waste of time,” and, between expletives, “disgusting.”
I was a political orphan at the event. To the protesters, I was an anomaly—I explained that the overall legality of abortion was settled, but that I was open to modest restrictions if properly implemented—before they ultimately discarded me as a pro-choice liberal. Both adjectives are, to be charitable, inaccurate. To their opponents, at least those involved in my discussions, I was presumably right wing—also incorrect. Though these adjectives aren’t true, nor particularly descriptive, they are concerning; if I, as a moderate conservative, appeared simultaneously to be a liberal and a reactionary, how could I have a meaningful conversation with either group? Unsurprisingly, real conversations were rare; most, quite frankly, were an exchange of straw-men stuffed with talking points. Though protesters were approached by ostensibly friendly individuals, the cautious back-and-forth often devolved into nakedly partisan mudslinging. Quite frankly, most discussions appeared to be of little, if any, substance.
How could dialogue between well-meaning, engaged citizens yield such an unfavorable result? How could protesters, ostensibly seeking moral reform, allegedly harass those that disagree? Put simply, increased polarization, particularly among American conservatives, has made meaningful dialogue difficult. Republicans have grown increasingly conservative since the 90th Congress. Though their counterparts have moved leftward, polarization has been starkly asymmetric. According to DW-Nominate scores, the median GOP representative shifted dramatically from a moderately conservative 0.24 to a stark 0.49, whereas the median Democrat has moved only from -0.33 to -0.38 over the last fifty years. Though abstract, structural-systemic factors may play a role—gerrymandering may afford more staunchly conservative legislators an advantage over moderates—the impact of polarization is far more tangible: political gridlock, blind partisanship, and, when exacerbated, democratic erosion. Anecdotally, even the language used to describe political events—Trump looks for legislative “wins,” the left “lost” the shutdown—reinforces a partisan binary. It seems that, as a nation, we have replaced compromise with competition.
Similarly, voting blocs, like evangelicals, have become more openly pragmatic—and more partisan—to realize certain policy goals. Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, stated on CNN that evangelicals had given Donald Trump a “mulligan” for alleged indiscretions because Trump supports “constitutionally conservative” policies. When pressed, Perkins admitted that the evangelical vote “is not unconditional,” claiming that the president would lose support if he “for some reason stopped keeping campaign promises.” Such statements, when viewed through the lens of Milan Svolik’s recent analysis, are particularly concerning. Svolik contends that democratic erosion is more likely when citizens are willing to abandon democratic principles—like the rule of law, due process, or constitutional rights—in pursuit of favorable policy outcomes. Just as pro-life evangelicals are willing to support Trump, despite repeated, convincing judicial support for legalized abortion, pro-choice absolutists may reject the majority opinion that access to abortion ought not be absolute.
A recent Gallup poll found that only 29% of Americans think that “abortion should be legal under any circumstance,” while, as previously stated, 68% find that abortion ought to be illegal or only allowed in specific conditions. As such, both extremes closely follow Svolik’s findings; many pro-life activists have tethered their hopes to Trump, despite the dubious constitutionality of banning abortion, and their hardline counterparts reject majority consensus—both obviously in direct conflict with democratic values.
When hyperpartisans—like, for example, those willing to stand in the rain to debate abortion laws—exploit the hollowed-out the center, the foundation for the democracy weakens. Much like a building, a democracy cannot be supported solely by competing extremes; a central support is necessary to prevent collapse. Last week, I tried to be that central column, to find some fleeting moments of agreement between groups. I couldn’t. And that scares me. To many, colleges—and liberal democracy—provide a unique opportunity to interact with differing viewpoints in a constructive manner. Last week, OSU had an opportunity to build a solid foundation upon which reform or agreement might be built. We failed. I hope our nation does not follow suit. When the political spectrum is reduced to an unnatural binary, when our politics are stripped of nuance, all citizens lose an opportunity to grow.