Republicans revealed a great deal about themselves during the confirmation hearings for Ketanji Brown Jackson’s nomination to the Supreme Court, little of it flattering. If you were paying close attention, you might have caught the signs of a significant change in their ambitions, not only for the Supreme Court but also for the broad culture war that animates their party.
After years of cultural retreat — on abortion, on gay rights, on race — right-wingers are now convinced that the moment is right for what they’ve dreamed of but could never hope to bring about: rollback.
They are no longer content to limit their losses, find remote hills where they can make a principled stand, and cultivate a sense of victimization. More than they have in decades, they now believe they can undo what has been done. They’re already showing signs of success, and this might turn out to be the most important feature of the Biden-era right-wing backlash.
The most obvious victory they’ll achieve is on abortion. With a 6-to-3 conservative supermajority, the Supreme Court is likely to overturn Roe v. Wade in months. Republican-run states are not waiting; one after another is moving to outlaw most abortions, as Texas has and Idaho just did.
The GOP senators questioning Jackson barely bothered discussing abortion, as though Roe’s demise was already a done deal. But a few did show that their ambitions go beyond that.
Before the hearings, Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) released a video in which she said that Griswold v. Connecticut, the 1965 case that said states cannot ban contraception, was “constitutionally unsound.” Not long after, Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.) illustrated his devotion to states’ rights by saying that he even opposed Loving v. Virginia, which outlawed state bans on interracial marriage. (He later attempted to walk the statement back.)
Overturning Griswold and Loving might be unlikely, but consider a less outlandish conservative goal. During the hearings, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) used some of his time questioning Jackson to go after the Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, the 2015 case that guaranteed marriage equality.
You might have thought that was a settled argument, especially considering how Republicans have treated the issue in recent years. While they haven’t changed their position on it, for the most part they just stopped talking about it. It ceased to be an effective mobilizing tool, and trumpeting their opposition to marriage equality brought with it too much political danger.
But they don’t seem to think so anymore. We don’t know whether the court majority would reconsider Obergefell as it goes on what will be a rampage across the legal landscape, but it might. That case was decided 5 to 4 — and two of those five justices are gone, replaced by two conservatives.
Meanwhile, nothing less than a sweeping anti-LBGTQ offensive is underway in state after state, supported by congressional Republicans and reinforced every day in conservative media. Sometimes it takes the form of an impossibly cruel targeting of transgender kids and their families, and sometimes it involves legislation like the “don’t say gay” bill recently passed in Florida.
It’s happening on race as well, especially when it comes to schools. Republicans are moving to snatch books out of school libraries and mandate a teaching of history that amounts to a new Lost Cause narrative: Racism was little more than a momentary lapse in our national judgment and something that no longer meaningfully exists — which means all attempts to address it must be dismantled.
This new aggressiveness reflects not a change in substantive beliefs but a change in perspective. It’s not that Republicans today hate trans kids, or women who need abortions, any more than they did 10 or 15 years ago. What has changed is what they think they can do about it.
It’s true that the GOP as a whole has shifted to the right since then, but that’s only part of the story. Polarization and the effective strategies Republicans have deployed to entrench minority rule have led them to conclude that they don’t really need to persuade many people in the middle of the ideological spectrum, let alone any Democrats.
Once you decide that, it alters your entire approach to politics. You can be more forthright, more bold and more ambitious. And it helps if the other party is a bunch of timid milquetoasts who are constantly terrified that someone might criticize them, which is exactly what Democrats are.
That isn’t to say that over the long run, Republicans aren’t losing these arguments, because for the most part they are. They can’t stop the ever-increasing acceptance of LGBTQ Americans. They can’t stop America from growing more diverse.
But for the moment, they’re done with retreat. It’s time for a rollback. And they’ll keep going until Democrats find a way to stop them.