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The hard things
We have to avoid the temptation to give into partisan hate if we want to save democracy and protect fundamental rights
Today is a difficult day. For the past half century, American law protected women’s right to control their own reproductive fates. Today, the Supreme Court has stripped women of that right. In many states, laws will immediately change to force women to carry a pregnancy to term; in some states they will be forced to do so no matter how early in the pregnancy it is, and even in cases of rape or incest. This is a dramatic step backward for liberty and for the right of women to participate as full and equal members of society. Maternal mortality rates will rise as a consequence of this decision, among poor women most of all. It is a tragedy. Today is a difficult day.
There will be intense debate in the days ahead over how we should go about working to secure the right to abortion. The solution runs through the ballot box, one way or another. In states which will now have draconian restrictions on abortion, fixing this will require the election of legislators who support changes to laws. Nationally, we will also need to elect legislators who support passing laws to protect abortion rights, and who will confirm Supreme Court justices who recognize women’s right to control their own bodies.
But we need to be smart about this.
There is, obviously, a major partisan divide on the issue of abortion rights. Democrats are far more likely to support women’s right to control their reproductive fate than Republicans are. Republicans have made support for overturning Roe a central part of their party identity, and have campaigned for decades on promises to appoint judges who oppose Roe. Today’s decision is a direct result of the fact that Donald Trump won the presidency in 2016; three of the justices who supported the majority’s decision—including Amy Coney Barrett, the critical swing vote—were appointed by Trump, and many of the Republicans who held their nose to vote for Trump over Hillary Clinton did so because they opposed Roe. Many of the people who are furious today are furious at Republicans, and they have every right to be.
But to restate a point I made here: given the state of American democracy today, the decision to rope a particular issue to the fate of the Democratic party is one which practically guarantees that little to no progress will be made on that issue. Many Democrats, in looking for glimmers of hope today, may imagine that the decision to strike down Roe will energize left-leaning voters and carry the party to victories in November. It would be wonderful if that were so, but women’s lives depend on us having a sense of realism about the situation.
It seems to me that there are two ways forward here. One is the usual way. Democrats will dial their partisan anger up to ten, and will urge people to donate to pro-choice Democrats and turn out and vote for pro-choice Democrats, and this effort may yield some small results. But the electoral deck is heavily stacked against Democrats. It is very unlikely that Democratic efforts will translate into the gains needed to enact national legislation protecting abortion rights, and it is very, very unlikely that such efforts will translate into the change across red-state legislatures needed to scrap the most regressive laws. Indeed, it is more likely that, when all is said and done, Republicans will by 2024 control both houses of Congress and the presidency and will work to pass a national ban on abortion.
Furthermore, because of how polarization works, the more energized that Democrats are about the issue, the more their efforts are likely to induce a corresponding energy on the right. And, as the salience of the abortion issue increases, the polarization machine may work to shift opinion on the issue within the Republican party, such that the nearly 40% of Republicans who say that abortion should be legal in most or all cases switch their view.
In other words, if left-leaning supporters of abortion rights pursue a strategy which amounts to a declaration of partisan war and an all-out effort to elect Democrats, the most likely outcome is that they fail to elect enough Democrats while also contributing to a hardening of abortion opinion on the right, with the end result being further setbacks with respect to abortion rights, including a possible national ban. It is extremely tempting to give into hate and anger here, and to rage against Republicans, and to call them every name in the book, and to write some big checks to Democratic causes and candidates. I completely understand all of those urges. But if we care about outcomes, and we really, really should, then we should consider another option.
The easiest way to get a large majority in Congress in support of abortion rights is to create a little room in the American political sphere for pro-choice Republicans. And to create that room, we need to weaken the link between support for abortion rights and the individual identity “Democrat”.
As I mentioned above, a large minority of people who say they are Republican or lean Republican favor a right to abortion in at least some circumstances. That is, American public opinion is on the whole quite favorable toward the idea that women should be able to obtain abortions in at least some cases. The best hope for protection of abortion rights nationally, it seems to me, is to pursue an anti-partisan campaign in favor of national legislation which provides protections for abortion which are more limited than those enjoyed under Roe, but which command broad public support. But for this to work, the effort has to be explicitly, loudly, proudly anti-partisan. It needs to include outreach to Republicans, and it needs to reject language which sends the message that people who have in the past voted for anti-abortion candidates are ignoramuses who pine for the world of the Handmaid’s Tale.
I know how repugnant that very idea is to many people. It is repugnant to entertain the idea of compromising on an issue of fundamental rights. It is repugnant to reach out to people who have helped make a grave injustice against women a reality. Believe me, I understand these feelings.
But maintaining a democracy is hard. Securing fundamental rights is hard. Getting angry and indulging in ineffectual self-righteousness, on the other hand, is very easy. Which do we want? Which do we care more about: reveling in solidaristic rage with a community of the like-minded, or the ability to live in a democracy in which women enjoy bodily autonomy?
If we care more about the latter than the former, then we have to do the hard things. We have to recognize that there is a majority out there which supports something that would be an improvement over the new status quo. We have to recognize that transforming that majority into desirable political action means pursuing a strategy that is anti-partisan. But—and this is the good news—if that strategy can be made to work, then the benefits are potentially enormous. They not only include a possible expansion of abortion rights for the millions of women who now lack them. They also include the flexing and strengthening of a democratic muscle which could be made to work in other helpful ways as well.
Because today’s decision represents another failure of American democracy. It is the work of counter-majoritarian institutions reinforcing counter-majoritarian institutions reinforcing counter-majoritarian institutions, and it gladdens the hearts of the—for now—minority of Americans who do not believe in democracy and who yearn for a day when the will of the majority is easily and routinely ignored. We should not enable that minority! If we enable that minority it will mean more setbacks to come for vulnerable people and women and small-d democrats and lovers of liberty.
But if we are to make progress and help the vulnerable, then we have to do the very, very hard things. We must, first of all, let go of the comforting illusion that we will one day win a sweeping electoral victory over our enemies that will allow us to achieve everything we desire. That’s not how democracy works, and the belief that that’s how it should work is incredibly destructive. And second, we have to engage in a passionate and open-hearted effort to build a dialogue with Republicans who do not think that abortion should be banned. They are out there. And they can either become allies in a fight to restore democracy and protect women’s right to control their own bodies, or they can be turned into staunch supporters of a terrible American illiberalism.
The partisan reflex is killing American democracy and if we let it then it will kill women too. If we could wave a magic wand and make everyone hold all the right views, then no one would ever have to compromise on anything. We don’t have a magic wand. What we have is a democracy—just—and the capacity to persuade. But persuasion is impossible in the polarization vortex. We have to realize that and change how we do things, or we will lose many more precious things in the years ahead.