Few weeks may be as revealing of the state of American politics as the one that just passed. In New York, Wisconsin and Tennessee, what transpired highlighted the raging battle underway over the direction of the country, a struggle that seems destined only to intensify as the 2024 election approaches.
The action came with such speed and from enough varying angles that, even for those paying close attention, it was sometimes difficult to absorb and process one event before the next took precedence. At this week’s end came dueling decisions from two federal judges who issued contradictory rulings late Friday about access to an abortion drug, creating a legal standoff over mifepristone that seemed destined for the Supreme Court.
Americans may be exhausted by the turmoil and chaos of the Trump years, but there seems no slackening or pulling back. Each event in the past week seemed to reinforce the overall stakes. There could be more such weeks ahead. Each iteration of this past dizzying week was a reminder of how much the coming election in 2024 matters and how unsettled things remain.
Former president Donald Trump faces more possible indictments, federally and in Georgia, which could add both strength and weakness to his political profile while further roiling the electorate. Republican legislatures continue to push boundaries on abortion, with legislation calling for bans after six weeks of pregnancy in contradiction of public sentiment. Racial politics remain at the forefront, and there seems no likelihood of a calming on that front as Republicans attack Democratic “wokeness” and Democrats fight against efforts to minimize the power and voice of Black voters.
For Republicans, the past week’s news was almost uniformly bad, although some in the party probably do not see it that way. The damage inflicted by past and present actions continues to define a new Republican Party, one that has been consolidating power in many red states but vulnerable elsewhere — especially in states that could decide the next presidential election.
Trump’s arraignment on Tuesday in New York on criminal charges — however the case turns out — and his subsequent speech later that evening from his Mar-a-Lago Club in Florida, which was replete with lies, distortions and grievances, highlighted the degree to which the former president remains at once the dominant force in the Republican Party, a threat to democratic norms and institutions, and a compromised candidate for president in 2024.
Wisconsin voters showed again how damaging the Supreme Court’s decision last year to overturn Roe v. Wade has been to the Republicans, no matter how fervently they had worked to make it happen. Tuesday’s decisive vote in Wisconsin, which flips the balance of power on the state Supreme Court from conservative to liberal, has profound implications not just for the state’s politics but also potentially for the nation.
In Tennessee, meanwhile, the expulsion on Thursday of two young, Black Democratic legislators from the state House took political retribution to a new level and, not incidentally, injected race into the politics of the moment in ways that were inescapable. After the March 27 killing of six people, including three children, at a Nashville school, and protests calling for action on guns, Republican legislators found a new way to shock the conscience by punishing two of the protesters by stripping them of their elected offices.
If there was a bright spot for the GOP, it came in North Carolina, where state Rep. Tricia Cotham said on Wednesday that she would leave the Democratic Party and become a Republican. The party switch gave Republicans a veto-proof majority in the state House to go along with a similar majority in the state Senate, throwing a new roadblock in the path of Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper.
That shift in North Carolina was emblematic of the state of state politics in a country in which red-blue divisions have grown deeper. In state after state, the trifecta of control — state House, Senate and governor’s office — by one party pushes policy agendas further and further apart. For Republicans, those policy agendas, even if popular inside state borders, are not necessarily representative of public sentiment of the whole country.
There are certain through-lines in all this. The issues around Trump have been present since he first ran for president eight years ago. His message now as then touches chords of grievance, alienation and racism that had begun to emerge during Barack Obama’s presidency but which have burst out more dangerously since.
That Trump’s message had and continues to have more resonance than many of his detractors would have imagined is something that Democrats cannot underestimate. He won the presidency and then lost the presidency, but it took a massive increase in voter turnout for that to happen. President Biden found the path to victory and Democrats are betting, or hoping, he can repeat that in 2024, assuming he runs for reelection. But Trump’s volatility makes the 2024 election difficult to forecast, and Biden’s age and some Democratic policies provide openings for Republicans to try to exploit.
There is no way to overstate how the Supreme Court has changed the political mood. The decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization has mobilized an army of voters, led by women — and often by younger women — but includes men as well.
The mobilization helped turn what many thought would be a close outcome in a referendum in Kansas in August into a runaway victory for abortion rights advocates. It helped Democrats capture control of the Michigan legislature in November, along with many other contests coast to coast. And it powered liberal judge Janet Protasiewicz to a double-digit victory in Wisconsin on Tuesday in the most expensive state Supreme Court race in history.
Wisconsin showed anew that the abortion issue has not faded as a force in turning out voters. Predictions last summer that it might not last through the midterms proved incorrect, as the abortion issue helped sink Republican hopes of emerging with a significant majority in the House and a narrow majority in the Senate. Instead, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) presides over a narrow and unstable majority while Republicans in the Senate remain in the minority as before, albeit narrowly.
That the abortion issue seems unlikely to fade from view anytime soon came late on Friday, when judges in Texas and Washington issued conflicting rulings on the FDA’s approval of the abortion drug mifepristone. The order by the Texas judge, who sided with antiabortion advocates, blocked the FDA from approving the drug, while the judge in Washington, saying the drug was safe and effective, said it should continue to be available. It seemed to be a metaphor for the conflicts and conflicting viewpoints that drive the opposing forces in the country.
Tennessee speaks to another aspect of the political makeup: Part of the Republican Party became radicalized under Trump and is vulnerable to what Biden and the Democrats have branded as the extreme MAGA Republicans.
No one disputes what the two expelled Democratic legislators — and a third Democratic lawmaker, who came one vote shy of expulsion — did in Tennessee by engaging on the House floor in a wider protest at the state Capitol broke the decorum of the state House. But against the backdrop of what had happened at a Christian school nearby, another horrific episode of gun violence that has become endemic in the United States, Republican legislators only looked inward and found a way to add fuel to the flames of division and disagreement.
That the Republicans narrowly spared one of the three Democrats from expulsion, the one who happened to be White and female, brought additional condemnation and cries of a return to the days of Jim Crow. When she was asked why she was not expelled, Democratic state Rep. Gloria Johnson replied, “It might have to do with the color of my skin.” Did no Republicans voting on Thursday give thought to the symbolism of their actions?
The political state of the country is calcified, as political scientists John M. Sides, Lynn Vavreck and Chris Tausanovitch wrote in “The Bitter End,” their analysis of the 2020 election — not given to big swings, but one in which small shifts can mean big changes. That is why each side sees every election now as a mini Armageddon.
In Wisconsin, the change of one state Supreme Court justice could reshape politics there. In Tennessee, the expulsions of two Democrats reveal the priorities and strategies of a dominant GOP majority. In North Carolina, the shift of one legislative seat can turbocharge a conservative policy agenda. With Trump, everyone knows who he is, what he has done and what he is looking to do — which is why the battles continue at a fever pitch.