Which Norms Will Survive Joe Biden?
The candidate of a return to normalcy seems bent on establishing a new normal
In last night’s Transom Book Club, Yuval Levin talked about the distorting influence of two major generational tranches in American life: The aged and the extremely young. American culture and politics is now a battle between the oldest members of the society — represented by the ancient leadership class of President Biden, Speaker Pelosi, Majority Leader Schumer, and Minority Leader McConnell — and the youngest, with the most youthful Millennials and active Zoomers driving the discussion online. As Levin phrased it, this is the recipe for a war between a great number of people who think the world started yesterday, and another who fear it's about to end tomorrow — a recipe for an American crisis, and for the kind of norm-breaking we saw this week.
A question that we ought to have about all this is: what norms will survive the Joe Biden presidency? It is reasonable to believe that the demography of the Democratic coalition is about to go through an extreme period of upheaval which will in turn elevate the right into a leadership role for several election cycles. The absence of a middle-aged leadership to the Democratic Party is tangibly felt, having been eradicated both by their own policies of diminution — failing to term limit committee leaders for instance — which drove many potentially valuable members out of Congress, or set them on a path of electoral failure (Beto!), or forced them into nationalized roles where their impulses toward centrism could not survive.
Rep. Tim Ryan (D-OH) used to be a pro-lifer, but now his party has dragged him to the extremes.
Ryan's new position is that he wants to enshrine a national right to late-term abortions, even on babies who could survive perfectly fine outside of the womb. That’s the central provision of the “Women’s Health Protection Act,” which Ryan voted for this year and has proudly endorsed.
The WHPA would also preempt many state abortion regulations — for example, 24-hour waiting periods, informed consent, and health-and-safety minimum standards for abortion providers.
Ryan also supports taxpayer-funded abortion. He proudly endorsed the “Equal Access to Abortion Coverage in Health Insurance Act,” which would have Medicare, Medicaid, federal employee health plans, and all federally funded health insurance programs pay for abortions.
Ryan gets 100% scores every year recently from NARAL and Planned Parenthood, two organizations that oppose any restrictions on abortion. To earn that perfect score, Ryan had to support federal subsidies for Planned Parenthood and vote to strip out conscience protections for doctors or nurses who do not wish to abort babies or assist in their abortion.
Ryan’s not alone in this, of course — Joe Biden did it too. And now he’s gone further, embracing the vitriolic demagoguery that suggests every aspect of cultural shifts could be targeted next — from gay marriage to interracial marriage to birth control — in an utterly baseless claim:
The press is full of similar pearl-clutching about which precedent the Supreme Court might strike down next. Is it Obergefell (2015), which enshrined gay marriage? Griswold (1965), which overturned a state law prohibiting married couples from buying contraceptives? What about even Loving v. Virginia (1967), which guaranteed interracial marriage?
The correct answer is none of the above, as Justice Samuel Alito’s draft takes pains to emphasize. The leaked opinion is explicit about distinguishing Roe and its 1992 legal revision, Planned Parenthood v. Casey, from cases on unrelated social topics.
“None of the other decisions cited by Roe and Casey involved the critical moral question posed by abortion,” the draft says. “They do not support the right to obtain an abortion, and by the same token, our conclusion that the Constitution does not confer such a right does not undermine them in any way.”
It’s true that those past decisions have been criticized by conservatives. Griswold is where the Court said the Bill of Rights has “emanations” that create “penumbras,” a phrase long lampooned by the right. Justice Anthony Kennedy’s opinion in Obergefell asserted that the Constitution guarantees rights for free Americans to “define and express their identity.” Justice Antonin Scalia’s dissent compared that line to “the mystical aphorisms of the fortune cookie.”
Yet unlike Roe, both of those decisions have established themselves as durable precedents with broad public acceptance. A Gallup poll in 2019 found that 92% of Americans believed using birth control to be “morally acceptable.” That was up three points since 2012, and it included 90% of the respondents who identified as conservative or very conservative.
On gay marriage, 70% of people told Gallup last year that the law should treat such unions no differently than traditional ones. That’s up from 58% the year Obergefell came down. As for Loving, Gallup says 94% support black-white marriages.
That stands in contrast to abortion, which remains a contested moral and political issue. As Justice Alito’s draft opinion points out, even Roe acknowledged that the state has a legitimate interest in protecting “potential life.” There’s a reason that thousands of Americans have spent nearly 50 years enduring the January cold in Washington at the annual March for Life.
In 1975 Gallup found that 21% of Americans said abortion should be always legal, 22% never legal, and 54% legal only in certain circumstances. Last year the figures were 32% always legal, 19% never, and 48% sometimes. Whatever the High Court thought it was doing in Roe and again in Casey, it didn’t come close to settling the debate. And judges are ill equipped to draw the distinctions in abortion policy that a plurality of Americans say they want.
In the marriage cases, there are also what the Court calls “reliance interests” at stake. Hundreds of thousands of Americans are married to people of the same sex. The Supreme Court isn’t going to invalidate those unions and disrupt so many lives. The same goes for interracial marriage. By the way, Justice Clarence Thomas is married to a white woman.
Biden’s inaccurate comments represent a de facto endorsement of the push for Court-packing even responsible liberals (including RBG) have condemned. This, too, is a norm for the modern left: whenever you lose, it’s not a time to think, it’s a time to break things and leak documents and end the filibuster and do whatever it takes — including threatening to target Justices at their homes:
Left-wing activist groups are planning to send protesters to the homes of conservative Supreme Court justices following a leak indicating the court may soon overturn Roe v. Wade.
The activists are organizing under the moniker "Ruth Sent Us" and have published the supposed home addresses of Justices Amy Coney Barrett, John Roberts, Samuel Alito, Brett Kavanaugh, Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch.
"Our 6-3 extremist Supreme Court routinely issues rulings that hurt women, racial minorities, LGBTQ+ and immigrant rights," the group's website reads. "We must rise up to force accountability using a diversity of tactics."
Fox News is told there has been a strong police presence at the justices' homes following the leak. The group says they will visit the homes on May 11.
The D.C. Police Department has erected fencing around the Supreme Court building in anticipation of escalating protests this weekend. Police have also activated protest-response units through Sunday.
The shock of January 6th was the exception that proved the rule.
Yet the norm likeliest to survive this presidency is an increasingly weakened president. Biden’s ability to have an impact on policy is dwindling all around us. His mandates are, like Donald Trump’s wave of executive orders, running into problems with the courts. His administration’s clumsiness — typified by the embarrassing rollout of DHS’s “Disinformation Governance Board” this week — has been a surprise, given the willingness of the administrative state to serve these culture war interests. And given that all the Democratic leaders in the House are headed for the exits, mentally if not physically, the prospect of two years of gridlock means the Biden administration may turn out to be confined to the realm of foreign policy alone in getting what they want done.
The pandemic served to consolidate power to an unprecedented degree. But the capability of that government to actually deliver on what is asked of it seems to be flailing at the same time. This really is the norm likeliest to survive the Biden presidency: a tale of an increasingly incompetent and ineffectual federal government, invested in a huge level of authority on paper and the ability to spend ludicrous sums of money, yet steadily becoming less and less able to deliver on any of its promises.
Whether this results in a return to a more humble form of governance will be a question for the next generation of leaders. It is on the whole a very Gen X thing to ask of them — to talk less, and do less, but to do it better.
Of course, we all wish it was this Norm instead.
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Items of Interest
“America needs to be careful not to let aging baby boomers define its outlook. We cannot afford to farm out our vision of the future to a retiring generation. We can already see some indications of where that will lead: our political, cultural, and economic conversations today overflow with the language of decay and corrosion, as if our body politic is itself an aging boomer looking back upon his glory days.”
— Yuval Levin