Justice Alito Is a True Believer

In a large part of American political discourse, overt cynicism is the currency of sophistication. It is a sign of political savviness, even worldliness, to know that politicians are creatures of pure self-interest, with no solid beliefs, concerns or preoccupations. It becomes a little naïve to take politicians at their word and to say, even adjusting for political considerations, that people tend to say what they believe and try to act on those beliefs.

Consider abortion rights. For years, the savviest position was the cynical one: Their vocal opposition notwithstanding, neither Republican lawmakers nor conservative judges would actually try to overturn Roe v. Wade. Instead, they would keep Roe as a “punching bag and a sandbag,” as William Saletan put it in Slate, to “fire up religious conservatives in elections without scaring suburbanites, libertarians and younger voters who don’t want abortion to become illegal.”

As we now know, this was wrong. The Republican voters who made opposition to Roe a litmus test for Republican politicians and the Republican politicians who made opposition to Roe a litmus test for Republican-appointed federal judges were sincere about their desire to pare back reproductive rights and end legal abortion altogether. As soon as they had the right pieces in place, they moved as quickly as they could to render Roe a nullity in American constitutional law.

Political parties do not want to win solely for the sake of winning; they want to win so that their coalition can achieve as many of its objectives as possible. And public cynicism notwithstanding, they want to do this even if it costs them votes in the short term. The Democratic Party of 2009 and 2010 burned valuable political capital on comprehensive health care reform because nearly every part of the Democratic coalition was driven to make health care reform a reality. The same was and remains true for Republicans and abortion.

One implication of this truth — that politicians and political figures are more earnest than you might realize — is that we can’t assume that when they are speaking, they always have their fingers crossed, hidden behind their backs. We can’t always assume that the most outlandish rhetoric is for show.

It is true that politicians are playing a cynical game sometimes. George Wallace ran his first race for Alabama governor as a racial moderate. When he lost that race to John Patterson, a fire-breathing segregationist and friend to the Ku Klux Klan, Wallace promised himself that he would never lose the same way again. For his next campaign, he made himself a staunch defender of segregation, and eventually became the living embodiment of white American backlash to integration, North and South. But when it was clear, in the 1970s, that times had changed — and after he had been paralyzed by a gunman’s bullet — he switched paths again, glad-handing for the votes of Black Alabamans as a supposedly reformed man.

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