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Roe and the Fable of Progressive Neoliberalism

The coming Supreme Court decision will extend the culture wars long enough to keep real economic reforms off the table forever

B. Duncan Moench
June 09, 2022
Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Last month, in what some are calling “the scoop of the century,” Politico obtained a copy of a Supreme Court draft decision that revealed a majority plan to overturn Roe v. Wade. Very soon, it seems, women in at least 13 U.S. states will have to drive hundreds of miles to make an independent choice about their own pregnancies.

There’s a bright side, though. During their lifetimes, baby boomer leftists and progressive neoliberals of all ages have never had to compromise with social conservatives or learn how to talk to Middle Americans and Southerners—and they still won’t. Ever since the country began sorting itself into politically like-minded neighborhoods in the 1980s, many progressive neoliberals have enjoyed living in wealthy archipelagos filled with gluten-, dairy-, and conservative-free living—places in which Middle America is seen as an anthropological curiosity that can be shamed into submission. In these often highly credentialed and pompous enclaves, progressive neoliberals have convinced themselves that all the country’s problems are someone else’s fault.

Whether their experience has been urban or suburban, progressive neoliberals—together with the professional managerial class they employ—have enjoyed living in their own version of the United States for over half a century: an abundance of technology jobs and sexual freedom; reasonable real estate and local representatives who keep the riffraff out of their neighborhoods (while publicly calling for affordable housing construction somewhere else); expensive health care, but still within their reach (though increasingly no one else’s); and elite college degrees that guarantee jobs, often regardless of skills.

Sure, rebuilding social safety nets, rethinking failing public schools, and redesigning college to actually help place ordinary people in the job market were laudable goals—but not pressing enough to require policy compromises with any political enemies. Winning culture wars over guns and abortion, not economic solidarity, has been seen as the most important goal. And so here we are.

The potential end of guaranteed nationwide abortion access has been the Damoclean sword hanging over the American left ever since George McGovern’s 49-state trouncing in 1972. Since then, the ’60s radicals who drove the McGovern defeat gained control of the Democratic Party establishment and academia. By the mid-2000s, they and their students had taken over national media and the entertainment industry, turning them into propaganda services for a progressive neoliberalism nearly as rigid and restrictive as any communist politburo. Progressive neoliberals have maintained power throughout all the cultural centers that “matter” by lording a very specific threat over all populist and social democratic critics: Their right-wing opponents are so trapped in the past, so disrespectful toward women and modernity, that—if given the chance—they’d do it: They would overturn Roe.

In progressive neoliberalism’s standard apologue, Middle American and Southern conservatives—and the white working class they “dog whistle”—are the “enemies of progress,” intellectual philistines that neoliberal progressives and the fantastically wealthy oligarchs who fund them must bravely fend off by any means necessary: keeping individual and corporate taxes low, for example, and offshoring as many jobs as possible to low-wage countries. Those who waste their time with economic or labor-organizing concerns at home are simply missing the point.

If Richard Nixon initiated the culture wars, and Reagan Republicans refined them, it didn’t take Democratic neoliberals very long to see how endless posturing about guns and abortion could energize the party’s foot soldiers happy for pennies on the dollars paid out by party grandees shilling for China, JP Morgan, and Merck.

For 30 years now, the Democratic Party and its allies inside the culture industry have promised to help labor unions, erect greater social safety nets, and increase social spending for the country’s poor and working classes—while in fact delivering next to nothing on any of these fronts. Expecting tangible policy accomplishments on issues like inequality, livable wages, and the affordability of American cities is often denigrated as a form of privilege. While such a conclusion might seem upside down at first, activists focused more on labor or economic justice are presented by the neoliberal oligarchy as people who don’t understand the more basic and fundamental challenge of human rights.

Now, the denouement appears imminent. When the abortion issue returns to its pre-1973 status, it will close the book on the fable that’s dominated the American national story since baby boomer elites moved into national power centers after Roe. The ending will be dramatic and unexpected.

While progressive neoliberal Democrats have had several opportunities to shore up the abortion issue through federal action, each time they’ve chosen different priorities—or to sit on their hands. Holding majorities in the House and Senate and in control of the executive branch, Democrats could have passed federal laws guaranteeing the legality of abortion in 1993-94 or 2009-10. President Barack Obama promised to do so repeatedly during his first presidential campaign. Instead, we got a "beer summit" on race and discussions of the veracity of his birth certificate, which lowered the nation’s already struggling intelligence quotient by several integers.

President Joe Biden also could have tried to codify abortion access into federal law over the last 18 months. Unsurprisingly, like his two Democratic predecessors, he hasn’t mustered any concerted effort in that regard. And now, the jig is up. One good measure of Democrats’ absolute political failure on this issue is that even as many South American countries are loosening legal restrictions on abortion, very soon half of American states will likely move toward banning, or at least harshly restricting, women’s ability to decide their own reproductive options.

Make no mistake: This is the outcome that the progressive neoliberal class has desired all along—a permanent culture war to justify the subordination or disappearance of all economic concerns while simultaneously failing to actually protect the reproductive rights of women.

Rather than diligently examine what makes American culture so different from Western Europe and work within that reality-based framework, baby boomers have demanded that every succeeding generation adhere to a fantasy concept of multiculturalism they define in the most shallow of terms (literally, skin deep)—which in turn is yoked to untrammeled capitalist greed at the expense of working-class populations that are conveniently condemned as deplorables or untouchables, a gun-toting, Jesus-loving, white supremacist, disease-spreading caste of trans-hating, woman-hating insurrectionists, whose moral claim on the rest of the country is therefore zero. Let them starve.

Despite all the progressive neoliberal talk of representational equity and constructing national power centers that “look like America,” the country’s never-ending abortion saga illustrates that the United States remains, at its core, an Anglophone and Protestant-ish monoculture: a superficial, business-dominated society dotted not just by cookie-cutter strip malls and a saccharine pop culture industry, but by an enduring Puritan obsession with sex as backward as it is pornographic. Both the archetypical “Florida Man” redneck and the nonbinary, “body positive” online keyboard warrior maintain a bluenosed fixation on sex. One reacts to it as titillating but shameful sin; the other embraces its modern inversion.

Except for small subsegments of the population—like tiny outposts of the Amish, fundamentalist Mormons, Hasidic Jews, and a few other communalist groups—nearly everything in American society looks from the air like some derivative of (or reaction to) the country’s competing Anglo-Protestant founding generations. The partisan coalitions have shifted, but the United States remains trapped in an internecine Protestant war between the political descendants of the Whigs and the Jacksonian Democrats—or, to take it back even further, a battle between the Massachusetts Bay Colony and the Virginia Colony: the two dominant factions of the country’s prevailing Anglo-Saxon Protestant order.

One was a narcissistic and self-obsessed but also self-hating urban order whose Unitarian lineage can be traced directly back to New England and the second-generation Puritans; the other, the evangelical Southern line that derives from the servant-class Christian rebellions of the First Great Awakening who believed that Christianity rightly understood means trusting the “heart rather than the head”—a culture resentful of the Yankees who look down on them for their poverty and provincialism. Unlike the Massachusetts Bay Colony, the Virginia Colony did not arrive in North America to create John Winthrop’s “city on a hill.” They came to make money, shoot things, and have a good time.

In a country eternally at war with its working people since the days of slavery and indentured servitude, wealthy employers truly “don’t see color.” Rather, they see compliance and anything that encourages it. Saddled with more children than he can handle, Florida Man must play the game of life eternally behind the economic eight ball. There are too many mouths to feed back home, not to mention the balloon payments he owes on the mini monster truck parked in his driveway.

Wealthy employers in America truly ‘don’t see color.’ Rather, they see compliance and anything that encourages it.

There can be no shock when your enemies enter through the gate you leave open. There’s nothing democratic about the Supreme Court—neither its design during the constitutional negotiations of 1787, nor its overblown role in contemporary American governance. It was through the courts, however, that progressive neoliberals chose to pursue so many of their chief aims in the last 50 years. In 1954, Brown v. Board of Education taught the progressive neoliberal class that it could attain social freedoms by circumventing the people’s representatives in Congress and appealing to the highest court in the land instead. It’s not by coincidence that nearly every one of progressive neoliberalism’s major successes since has had a “v” in its moniker: Griswold v. Connecticut (contraception), Lawrence v. Texas (gay rights), Obergefell v. Hodges (same sex marriage).

The United States has in many ways become a more inclusive society in the last six decades, but the only political lesson that progressive neoliberals seem to have drawn is that building consensus with benighted Middle Americans and racist Southerners is hopelessly beneath them. Ironing out a federal legislative compromise in which access to abortion would be guaranteed under some circumstances but not others is a task the baby boomer left has always seen as unworthy of their station as America’s designated savior class. To them, conservatives—or even just apolitical normies in flyover land—are pigs, fools, and torch-bearing fascists in waiting.

The moral they read into McGovern’s titanic defeat was never that they share a country with lots of people who disagree with them; it was that there’s no point in ever trying to engage with the Rust Belt’s Germanic, class-oriented political culture, or the unrefined traditionalism of the evangelical South. Better to hire armies of highly educated attorneys to work their magic through the justice system and avoid the difficulties of the legislative process entirely than to reach out to the hicks. Southern and Middle American plebs would complain, of course, but the supposedly favorable demographic changes brought on by immigration would provide an out in the not so distant future. All progressives needed to do was run out the clock while awaiting their final victory.

While baby boomer progressive neoliberals have always believed themselves to be cultural rebels, in the real world they have long been members of the country’s cultural and financial elite who care little for the working poor. Frankfurt School Marxism and Foucauldian postmodernism slot perfectly into the university setting to provide an aura of (unnecessarily confusing) sophistication for the simple dismissal of working people. Proletarian disgust with the corruption of Washington and the ivory tower can be reframed not as the legitimate identification of real problems but as a disclosure of unconscious racism and sexism. Similarly, working-class contempt for the Democrats and the infotainment industry can be reinterpreted as mere resentment over the strides made by women and minorities, and nothing more.

The fall of Roe will signal the end of an era, but not the end of the road for progressive neoliberalism. With the current structure of the Senate and Supreme Court, one estimate has it that the Democrats would have to win three straight national elections by 19 points to make abortion legal nationally again. That prospect, while of course unrealistic, will still be held as the new benchmark. Any election that fails to meet this bar will be used to shame all fence-sitters into supporting Vice President Kamala Harris, or someone equally vapid, in 2024, 2028, and beyond. Not only must the progressive neoliberal elite’s hand-picked figurehead win out against internal challengers; he or she must also vanquish their right-wing “populist” enemies. Anything less will demonstrate a lack of faith—and further evidence of the uncooperative cultural backwardness of the American voter.

The fall of Roe is a guarantee of nonstop intra-Protestantoid culture war within the American elite. Meanwhile, the vast majority of middle-class millennials and Gen Z Americans will have less wealth than their parents, fewer stable jobs, worse prospects for homeownership, far more debt, and more deaths of despair. This is the country these people have wrought, and the coming Roe reversal will enable the country’s progressive neoliberal class to ignore their own failings for decades more while lecturing the rest of us about whatever new moral failing for which they’ve decided we must repent.

More than that, the overturning of Roe will reanimate progressive neoliberalism and its central artifice: So long as we don’t have abortion rights for everyone, everywhere, there’s simply no time to focus on luxury concerns like economic reforms that might benefit working families.

B. Duncan Moench (@DuncanMoench) is Tablet’s social critic at large and a scholar of political thought and American character studies.