Post-Dobbs Fallout: This One Goes to Eleven

A friend was recently recalling the time three years ago, when she was bit by a rattlesnake while jogging in a marginally accessible part of a Colorado state park. When asked how scared she was on a scale of one to ten – where “one” meant no big deal, and “ten” meant she was convinced she was going to die – she didn’t hesitate for a second. “Ten,” she replied, with icy clarity. Indeed, it sounded like a truly terrifying experience.

And so, now that it’s just over one month after the five (or six) snakes on the Supreme Court have finally sabotaged a woman’s right to control her own reproductive choices (again, fuck you very much to Susan Collins), the Toteboard wants to know just how bad the post-Dobbs world looks, and just how scared we should all be.

Well, it looks really, really bad. And we should all be really, really scared.

Many of the effects are already clear: a spike in later term abortions because so many women have to negotiate out-of-state travel and scheduling, additional trauma inflicted on rape victims (including that appalling case of a 10-year-old girl), a Texas woman unable to find a provider who would remove her already-dead nine-week-old fetus, healthy young women seeking sterilization out of fear of being forced to carry unwanted pregnancies to term, and people on both sides of the political divide anticipating the reemergence of unsafe back-alley procedures. And this is only after the first month.

There’s also the not-so-small matter of what promises to be the next twenty or thirty years of constant state-by-state litigation and legislative debate, with primarily (but not exclusively) red-state anti-abortion absolutists pressing to criminalize abortion altogether or, in lieu of that, doing whatever they can to make life miserable for a lot of people, whether by further tightening existing constraints, harassing legitimate health-care providers, or even restricting interstate travel of pregnant women (!). In response, pro-choice activists now have no choice but to fight a seemingly endless series of micro-battles, in the courts and the legislatures, on the streets and in the clinics. There will inevitably be gains, and losses, and many protracted, tortuous journeys back to a smugly winking Supreme Court. The foreseeable future promises lots of casualties, and a tragic non-stop expenditure of time, money, and human spirit. It is really hard not to feel utterly overwhelmed, and demoralized. And exhausted, already.

But wait, there’s more. As Shelby pointed out when she recounted her harrowing experience in Colorado, snakes seldom bite only once, and the five SCOTUS snakes have already demonstrated that they’re more than willing and able to inflict lots of damage, like further enabling the American gun culture, weakening environmental protections, expanding corporate power, punishing asylum-seekers, intruding on Native American autonomy, sapping voting rights, and, oh yeah, authorizing conservative Christians to do pretty much whatever the fuck they want in the public sphere. And they’re just getting started. Same-sex marriage, contraception, gender-affirming medical care for trans people, racial justice initiatives – all of that’s on the table now (though interracial marriage is probably safe as long as Clarence Thomas has his ass parked on the bench), as the court really is moving the country in the direction of a violent, toxic, xenophobic, sexually repressive, hetero-normative, apocalyptic Christian theocracy. This is really not an exaggeration. It’s hard to imagine how the country can survive an entire generation of this court’s decisions.

And believe it or not, that’s still only the tip of the iceberg. What is truly chilling is that the hostile takeover of the Supreme Court is only one facet of a more pervasive trend toward entrenched minority rule in the country. Some of this is due to certain systemic structures that currently give republicans an electoral advantage, and some of it is due to the republican willingness to exploit those structures. But an awful lot of it is just due to bad people acting in bad faith, using the power of their positions not to serve the public good, but to protect and expand their own power. And so even if the general public gets wise and recognizes that the republican party has created that SCOTUS monster, it’s not like they can all that easily just vote the rascals out of office. Because even if they do, there are still so many systemic roadblocks inhibiting the advancement of any democratic agenda. The new normal is an increasingly undemocratic normal. Consider some of the following:

1. The Electoral College. This idiosyncratic system was originally designed as a creative mechanism for balancing the interests of small and large states, back when the framers anticipated multiple candidates every cycle. But they had never heard of (or imagined) a two-party hegemony, and it has become pretty clear that the system of state-designated electors currently functions as a consistent boon to the republican team. In the last six presidential elections dating back to 2000, the republican candidate has won the majority of electoral votes in half of those contests, but has carried the popular vote only once. Such an event had occurred only once before in America’s prior electoral history, way back in 1888, so things are clearly out of kilter. Due to the peculiarities of contemporary demographic shifts, a democratic candidate really has to win the popular vote by 2% or perhaps 3% in order to be reasonably confident of an electoral victory. That’s not what you’d call a level playing field.

2. A Dysfunctional Senate. Garrison Keillor once made a passing reference to “all those states that shouldn’t even be states,” i.e., those six capacious but sparsely populated contiguous Midwest and Upper Rockies tracts of hinterlands – Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Nebraska – that comprise barely 2% of the American population, but have a combined delegation that makes up nearly one quarter of the entire senate. Just think about that for a minute. Because there are simply more reliably red states than reliably blue states, regardless of what their respective populations may be, democrats pretty much have to run the swing-state table in order to win or maintain a majority. But none of that really matters anyway, as the republicans have manipulated the filibuster rule, side-stepping it when it suited their purposes to stack the courts, and routinely invoking it to obstruct anything the democrats want to do. And obstruct they do, whenever they can, as long as they can muster a mere 41 votes. The irony is that the filibuster had been created in order to check the tyranny of the majority, but in unscrupulous republican hands it has become a vehicle for guaranteeing the tyranny of the minority.

3. Congressional Gerrymandering. Elbridge Gerry may have had the coolest name of all the so-called Founding Fathers, and he was once singled out as “one of the two most impartial men in America,” but the practice that bears his name today certainly leaves a permanent stain on his legacy. Both political parties have been guilty of this over the years, but the republicans have recently honed it into an art form, complete with algorithms and actuarial analyses. As a result, it is not sufficient for democrats to win a majority of the combined congressional vote in a given election – they need to win fairly big in order hold a majority in the chamber. To get a concrete sense of this, just look at the three closest congressional elections from the last several cycles. In 2016, the republican combined vote beat the democratic combined vote by 0.95%, but that tiny margin gave the republicans a whopping 47 seat advantage. Contrast that with 2012, when the democrats won the combined vote by 1.30%, but republicans still maintained control of the House by an almost-whopping 33 seats. In the most recent election in 2020, the democrats won the congressional vote by an impressive 3.03% but still managed an advantage of only 9 seats. And as you can probably guess from all this, the democratic ceiling is considerably lower than it is for the republicans, i.e., democratic waves don’t produce nearly as powerful a sweep as republican waves. The meager 0.95% republican victory in 2012 gave the bad guys a 47-seat edge, while a massive 8.64% democratic blowout in 2018 gave them only a 36-seat advantage. Yes, the democrats can win under these conditions, and they can sometimes win handily, but over the long run, a baseball team that gifts its opponents four or five outs each half-inning will seldom maintain a winning record.

4. Micro Gerrymandering. If you can successfully gerrymander US congressional districts, why not gerrymander state congressional districts? Why not, indeed, and that’s certainly the biggest reason why republicans now control both legislative chambers in a disproportionate number of purple or even blue-ish states. Yes, it’s more or less believable that republicans control the legislatures in purple-red states like Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, North Carolina, and Ohio, but they have also managed to ooze their way into controlling places like Michigan, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, i.e., states where red domination clearly does not reflect the sentiment of the broader populations. In all fairness, the highly uneven rural/urban configurations in these states may naturally lend themselves to a broader swath of republican districts, but sleazy party animals have wasted no time in exploiting that divide for their own benefit.

5. Politicizing the Non-Political. In some ways, this is the most malevolent example of right-wing mission creep, i.e., the eagerness to infiltrate what are (at least theoretically) sites for non-political and non-partisan public service, with the purpose of weaponizing them toward ideological ends (or simply expanding and protecting power). We’re talking here not only about the courts, but also about things like school boards, public health agencies, and the US Foreign Service. As noted in an ongoing Axios series, Trump had attempted to purge some 50,000 (yes, fifty-thousand!) civil servants and replace them with incompetent loyalists. Had he been successful, it would have become difficult to find just about any American public institution untainted by Trump’s poison.

And so, the country really is turning increasingly undemocratic as we speak. We’re not all the way there yet, but look at the kind of disgusting effluvia that are in the air. A reactionary, jingoistic, and racist party that possesses power out of sync with the will of the governed, monkeys with elections and electoral procedures to produce their preferred outcomes, profits from corruption and shady business dealings, and yes, replaces an independent judiciary with political hacks. That’s normally what we mean by fascism.

But, perhaps the Toteboard digresses. This post was really talking about the five SCOTUS snakes, the damage they’ve wrought, and the damage they are yet to bring. Is there any hope for undoing the insane social revolution they have launched? To be honest, not really, at least not in the short term. But if the American public somehow decides that it doesn’t want to spend the next two or three generations having to scratch and claw for reproductive freedom, and somehow finally makes the connection the loss of that freedom was facilitated by a republican congress, then maybe, just maybe, the public will start its own revolution, at the ballot box, starting this November.

But remember, as noted earlier, the snakes have already left the barn, and electing democrats won’t stop the excesses of the current court, but it might get the ball rolling on reversing those excesses legislatively, putting more progressive jurists on the lower courts (and eventually SCOTUS), and generally restoring integrity to various government institutions. But don’t get too excited about things turning around all that quickly. With the red-state base, and the filibuster, and the gerrymandering, and the voter suppression laws, even a convincing democratic upset victory will provide only a thin dose of antivenom.