America’s Blue-Red Divide Is About to Get Starker

As abortion rights are rolled back in certain states, the gap between the country’s two dominant political coalitions will widen.

Abortion-rights activists outside the Supreme Court
Chip Somodevilla / Getty

The draft Supreme Court opinion overturning the constitutional right to abortion presents a major setback for reproductive freedom in America and offers a potential jolt to the upcoming midterm elections. But it also illuminates another, deeper phenomenon in American politics: the urgency and ambition of the Republican drive to lock into law the cultural priorities of its preponderantly white, Christian, and older electoral coalition at a moment of rapid demographic change.

The fundamental divide in our politics today is between those voters and places most comfortable with the demographic and cultural changes remaking 21st-century America and those most hostile to them—what I’ve called the Democratic “coalition of transformation” and the Republican “coalition of restoration.” A decision overturning Roe v. Wade—especially on the sweeping grounds in Justice Samuel Alito’s draft opinion that was leaked to Politico—would sharpen the confrontation between these two coalitions.

Alito’s draft, if finalized, would place the GOP-appointed Supreme Court majority firmly on a collision course with the priorities and preferences of the racially and culturally diverse younger generations born since 1980, who now constitute a majority of all Americans and who overwhelmingly support abortion rights. It would amplify the already accelerating divergence in the basic civil rights and liberties available to red-state versus blue-state Americans—and not just regarding abortion. It would also solidify the transition toward a political system in which culture, not class, is the principal dividing line between the parties.

That last shift, which President Donald Trump hastened with his overt appeals to the racial and social grievances of the most culturally conservative white Americans, has fueled the increasing volatility and belligerence of modern politics—and it only stands to intensify. Lynn Vavreck, a political-science professor at UCLA, told me she believes that attitudes about cultural change and American identity have already emerged as the principal point of separation between the parties, displacing the New Deal economic issues that dominated for decades after the Great Depression and World War II. But Vavreck says a decision overturning Roe will keep abortion and other social issues center stage and cement the transition toward a polarized politics focused on cultural differences.

“The question everybody wants to know is: How long are we going to be stuck in this thing?” she said. “When you have stuff like this [potential ruling] happening, I think this is solidifying this dimension of conflict well into the future.”

Democrats, who have won the popular vote in seven of the past eight presidential elections, have a larger coalition in this political conflict, but one that is still often stymied by its own lack of competitiveness outside large metropolitan areas and the bias in both the Senate and the Electoral College toward small states dominated by the GOP’s coalition. So long as the nation is divided along its current lines, both parties will struggle to sustain an electoral advantage over the other, and American politics seems likely to produce a hardening division between the two camps—on abortion and much else.

For decades, a majority of Americans have supported legalized abortion in at least some circumstances. Opposition to overturning Roe v. Wade hit 69 percent in a CNN survey earlier this year, and 61 percent in a poll released by the nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute on Tuesday. In the PRRI poll, 64 percent of respondents said abortion should remain legal in all (28 percent) or most (36 percent) circumstances.

Opposition to abortion is greater in many of the red states moving to restrict it. But in a large 2018 survey, PRRI found that majorities want to ban abortion in most or all cases in just 10 states. In no state did even a quarter of adults say abortion should be illegal in all cases. Recent polls have found majority opposition in Texas to a ban passed there, and in Florida to the law Governor Ron DeSantis recently signed prohibiting abortions after 15 weeks’ gestation. In a 2019 Georgia poll, a plurality opposed the Republican-passed six-week abortion ban that has been blocked by the courts but that would be allowed by the Alito opinion.

The biggest exception to this trend: A large majority of white evangelical Americans, a cornerstone GOP constituency, oppose legal abortion. Substantial minorities of white Catholics, Hispanic Catholics, and Hispanic Protestants do as well.

The divide between red and blue states on abortion rights will become starker if the Supreme Court follows through on overturning Roe. Nearly half the states have laws in place that would restrict or ban abortion once that happens. And those laws are becoming more extreme. Many Americans already know about Texas’s ban on abortion after about six weeks’ gestation. But last year, the state legislature passed, and Governor Greg Abbott signed, a bill that would ban all abortions in the state 30 days after the Supreme Court overturns Roewith no exceptions for rape, incest, or all but the most severe health complications. That means abortion could be prohibited in the nation’s second-largest state by sometime this summer. Of the 12 states that have passed new abortion restrictions since 2021, nine have denied any exceptions for rape and incest, according to Elizabeth Nash, who tracks state policy for the Guttmacher Institute, a think tank supporting abortion rights. Meanwhile, Guttmacher reports that 16 states and the District of Columbia have laws in place that will protect abortion rights if Roe falls. Every one of those states has voted Democratic in at least the past four presidential elections.

The key near-term political question the Alito opinion raises is whether a decision rescinding the national right to abortion will energize Democratic voters enough to neutralize, or at least weaken, Republicans’ enthusiasm advantage going into the midterm elections. Democrats are likely to derive some benefit, perhaps significant benefit in some places, from a renewed energy inspired by the threat to abortion rights, though it’s far from clear whether that will be enough to fully offset all the forces working against them.

Vavreck says it’s unrealistic for Democrats to expect that many Republican women who support abortion rights will defect from the party. “Republicans who don’t want abortion to be illegal don’t care about that issue very much,” she told me. Tresa Undem, a pollster mostly for progressive organizations who studies attitudes toward abortion and gender roles, agrees on that point, but she says a decision overturning Roe as flatly as the Alito draft does could both inspire more turnout among Democrats in November and push women who identify as political independents away from the GOP. (In the CNN polling, three-fourths of independent women said they opposed overturning Roe.)

The Republican consultant Brad Todd told me he believes a Roe reversal mostly “will drive up Democratic margins in places where they already have margins and increase Republican intensity in places where we already have intensity.” But he sees one segment of the electorate as “up for grabs”: mothers who describe themselves as “somewhat pro-choice,” a group of voters whom he says want some state restrictions on abortion rights “but are supportive of legal access in very early pregnancy.”

Even small shifts could have big consequences in November’s Senate and gubernatorial races in purple states such as Georgia, Arizona, and Nevada; across the Sunbelt; and in the perennial Rust Belt battlegrounds of Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan. A big backlash to the Supreme Court’s abortion ruling might represent the Democrats’ best chance to avoid the worst in November.

Whatever happens in the midterms, the full impact of a Roe reversal will be measured in its long-term effects on the two party’s political coalitions.

Since the 1990s—and especially since the elections of Barack Obama and Trump—Democrats and Republicans have more consistently sorted based on their attitudes about the underlying changes reshaping America. Democrats have assembled a coalition of the voters most comfortable with those changes: young adults, people of color, secular and college-educated white voters, and residents of the largest metropolitan areas. Republicans have consolidated their hold on the voters most uneasy with those changes: older, non-college-educated, non-urban, and religiously devout Christian white voters, especially evangelical Protestants but also culturally conservative Hispanics. (In 2020, despite Trump’s gains with Hispanic voters and slight inroads with Black voters, 85 percent of his votes still came from white Americans.) In one revealing measure of that divide, PRRI results over the past two years show that while the Democratic electorate can now divide roughly in thirds among white Christians, nonwhite Christians, and secular adults, white Christians still account for about seven in 10 Republicans—a level last seen in American society overall in the early 1990s.

In each of those coalitions, attitudes about abortion are highly correlated with views about the other fundamental changes remaking 21st-century American life. “We think that abortion views are about life and when life begins and about the treatment of the unborn and all of that,” Undem told me. “What is less talked about is that beliefs about abortion are very linked to your beliefs about women and gender and power.”

In Undem’s polling, Americans who want to make abortion illegal in all or most cases consistently express much more skepticism than abortion-rights supporters about changing gender roles. She has found, for instance, that more than three-fourths of abortion-rights opponents say most women interpret “innocent remarks or acts as being sexist.” (Only about two-fifths of abortion-rights supporters agree.) Those who want to ban abortion are far less likely than those who support its legal status to believe that the United States would be “better off” if more women held political office; to express positive views toward the #MeToo movement; or to agree that “systems in society were set up to give men more opportunities than women.” Most anti-abortion women agree with those propositions as well.

This abortion-linked divide extends through other dimensions. In Undem’s polling, more than four-fifths of abortion-rights opponents believe discrimination against white Americans is now as big a problem as bias against minorities. Likewise, 2021 PRRI polling found that abortion-rights opponents are far more likely than supporters to say that the growing number of immigrants in this country threatens American society. And though nearly three-fifths of abortion-rights opponents agreed that “things have changed so much that I often feel like a stranger in my own country,” more than two-thirds of abortion-rights supporters disagreed.

These two coalitions’ divergent attitudes toward a changing America are further reflected in how red and blue states are responding to those changes. Red states are passing a torrent of socially conservative laws restricting not just abortion rights but voting rights and LGBTQ rights; limiting how teachers discuss race, gender, and sexual orientation in schools; banning books; and strengthening penalties for public protest. On all these fronts, GOP state lawmakers might see the Supreme Court’s willingness to return control of abortion to the states—by revoking a nearly five-decade-old national right—as a sign that the Court won’t interfere with these other new restrictions.

The Roe draft ruling, if it holds, also seems likely to encourage red states to pursue new targets. Alito writes in his draft that by overturning Roe, the Court is not committing to overturn any other personal freedoms it has established as national rights, such as same-sex or interracial marriage. But many observers believe his logic inevitably would lead to that result. “Despite the draft’s insistence that abortion is different, its logic inevitably casts some doubt on marriage rights and even contraceptive rights by emphasizing that states used to ban abortion,” Noah Feldman, a professor at Harvard Law School, told me in an email.

Cathryn Oakley, the senior counsel and state legislative director at the Human Rights Campaign, an LGBTQ advocacy group, says a Roe reversal wouldn’t necessarily undermine the legal reasoning behind the Court’s landmark rulings upholding rights for that community—but that it hardly guarantees their security. “As a lawyer, I can make for you all kinds of distinctions between” Roe and decisions legalizing same-sex marriage and sexual activity, she told me. But, she added, “there is a question of how much any of that matters if what the Supreme Court is interested in doing is becoming a political actor.”

To Robert P. Jones, the CEO of PRRI, moves by both red states and the GOP-appointed justices, including a potential Roe overturn and an array of decisions in favor of “religious liberty,” represent a “last stand” effort to inscribe a “white conservative Christian worldview” into the nation’s laws “while we are still on the bubble of demographic change.” White Christians—long the American majority—now make up less than 45 percent of the total U.S. population and only about one-third of the population younger than 50. (In that younger population, the share of adults who consider themselves unaffiliated with any religion already nearly equals the share who identify as white Christians, suggesting that those lines could cross sometime in this decade.) “Underneath all of this,” Jones says, “is an assumption of a kind of ownership of American culture [as a] white Christian America.”

The anti-abortion movement has long been divided on how to respond to such allegations. One branch focuses on the argument that Roe granted Americans a new right not enumerated in the Constitution and usurped decisions that properly belonged to elected bodies. Another branch has focused on abortion as a violation of religious convictions. Tony Perkins, the longtime president of the Family Research Council, the evangelical activist group, nodded to that tradition after the Roe leak when he urged the group’s members to pray for Alito’s decision to stand, writing, “May this be the dawn of a day we all prayed for—where all human life is welcomed into our arms and cherished in our laws.”

As the Republican-appointed Supreme Court majority flexes its power, it will continue to find itself at odds with the priorities of America’s kaleidoscopically diverse generations born since 1980. Compared with older generations, Millennials and especially Gen Zers are more racially diverse and much more likely to identify as LGBTQ or to describe themselves as religiously unaffiliated. The Court majority has set itself on a course that will collide with the dominant views in those younger generations on a range of issues, whether voting or LGBTQ rights or climate change. In the CNN poll, more than three-fourths of adults younger than 35 opposed overturning Roe.

All of this means the 2020s could produce the same kind of confrontation that erupted in this country in the 1850s—over restrictions on the spread of slavery—and the 1930s, over the government’s role in managing the economy. In each of these cases, a Supreme Court appointed by an earlier political majority moved to block the priorities of an emerging majority coalition.

“I do not believe that this Court is building an America for everyone. They are building an America for a very select few, and this is just the opening salvo of what that’s going to look like,” Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez, the president of NextGen America, a group that organizes young people for progressive causes, told me. “The future is going to belong to America’s young people,” she added. “And we are not going to quit and give up on these issues without a righteous fight.”

Maybe the clearest message of Alito’s draft opinion is that the conservative Supreme Court majority is determined to give Ramirez, and the generations she embodies, exactly that kind of fight for years to come.