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Special Bonus Edition: The Changing Politics of Abortion
History and the majority are on our side; now it's time to organize the power needed to win.
If you think the attack on abortion rights is solely about a disagreement among Americans over when life begins, then you haven’t been paying attention. That’s not entirely your fault, however. There’s no meaningful civics education in school that delves into the actual history of women’s rights in America, apart from maybe a mention of the suffrage movement, for starters. Plus the mainstream media generally covers the abortion issue as one of those “there are two sides to this” stories with a “pro-life” side vs a “pro-choice” side.
To get caught up quickly, I highly recommend watching this brand new, short primer narrated by Alyssa Milano, produced by Art Not War (which is kindly sponsoring this bonus edition of The Connector). It’s really good. In particular, she shows how abortion used to be legal in America until the late 1800s, when the rising male-dominated medical profession arrogated control, claiming pregnancy made people too “hysterical” to decide about their bodies. (For a long time the American Medical Association was all male--did you know that Harvard Medical School didn’t even allow women to enroll until 1945? I didn’t.) Most critically, she explains how reproductive freedom was central to a dramatic transformation in women’s ability to participate in society.
To go deeper, I can’t recommend enough The Lie That Binds, a 2020 book written by Ilyse Hogue and Ellie Langford. They show two things in critical detail. First, how the anti-abortion issue was seized on by Christian fundamentalists like Paul Weyrich, one of the key architects of the New Right, to pull evangelicals as well as Catholics into the GOP at a moment when more explicit appeals to racial segregation were no longer politically viable. It’s always important to remember that until the New Right, many evangelicals did not prioritize abortion as an issue and even supported choice, but when the IRS started going after the tax-exempt status of whites-only private schools they got politically activated. (See Randall Ballmer for more on this.)
And second, they show how leaders of the religious right figured out how to weaponize anti-abortion fervor and turn it into political power. Meanwhile Democrats and pro-choice advocates held back, often accepting a shame-based framing of the issue by claiming they just wanted abortion to be “safe, legal and rare.” If you have ever found yourself wondering how so many Christian fundamentalists, people like Phyllis Schlafly or Jerry Falwell Jr., became fierce allies of a pussy-grabbing divorcee from Manhattan who never went to church and couldn’t find his way around a Bible if he tried, The Lie That Binds will answer your question. As Weyrich himself told a meeting of rightwing activists in 1990, this has never just been about ending abortion: it’s about galvanizing the anxieties of Americans who identify with the traditions of white Christian patriarchy, giving them a sense of moral superiority, and building the power to keep the country from turning into a multiracial social democracy. The book also shows how critical the anti-abortion movement was to Trump’s 2016 victory and how much he and Mike Pence, a key figure in the administration, put fundamentalists into powerful positions across the government, where they did enormous human damage (like visiting pregnant undocumented immigrants in detention and personally harassing them).
The politics of abortion are now in tremendous flux. While about 70% of Americans say they support Roe, only about one-third thought the Supreme Court would actually overturn Roe, according to polling circulating internally among abortion rights groups. So, as with the election shock of 2016, millions of people may again feel that have to get politically active. A first test of the scale of that transformation will come Saturday May 14, when a coalition led by Planned Parenthood, the Women’s March, MoveOn, Ultraviolet and a new group called Liberate Abortion has called for nationwide rallies, and they are hoping that millions will turn out. That would send a huge signal. (Go to BansOff.org to find an event near you.)
The question of how to marshal the majority that favors reproductive freedom and turn it into political power is central. Some organizers, like Laura Dawn of ArtNotWar, who directed the Milano video, believe it’s time to focus on enacting the Equal Rights Amendment, which has been ratified by 38 states but not added to the Constitution because of an ongoing legal dispute over whether the most recent ratifications (Virginia’s was just two years ago) are too late to count. Milano ends the video with a clarion call for the ERA as the best way to ensure that courts and legislatures protect reproductive freedom, and while she may be right, the political power to win that fight is not yet visible. Other advocates, like Senator Ed Markey (D-MA), say that the pending abortion ruling is essentially illegitimate and “we must expand the Supreme Court in order to reclaim the stolen seats.”
To that very debate, what follows is a back-and-forth I had by email yesterday with Dmitri Mehlhorn, a subscriber to The Connector who is a confidant and advisor to several anti-Trump megadonors. He wrote to me originally to complain about Tuesday’s edition, and in particular my positive citing of feminist writer Rebecca Traister for pointing out how leading Democrats have “permitted an inaccurate, dishonest right-wing framework” to dominate public discussion on the issue. He’s given me permission to publish our exchange, and as you’ll see we zoomed straight into what is on a lot of professional Democrats’ minds: Is this pending ruling a godsend for Democrats facing the midterms? Where should we invest our time and money? And whose power are we trying to build? The conversation is long and a bit insidery, and I promise I won’t inflict such long newsletters on you regularly, but I found it very useful and illuminating, in more ways that one.
Dmitri Mehlhorn: I appreciate you greatly, and agree with much of your analysis even on this point about abortion, but Rebecca Traister's commentary on this matter is so awful that promulgating it on your distro list is a good way to make sure that Republicans win and keep winning until you and I are both dead. The SCOTUS leak changes the politics of abortion, giving us a lane that was previously unavailable. That lane is to get Republican leaning women and fathers-of-daughters to realize that in their specific states (as applicable), the personal privacy zone they had grown up expecting has now been taken away from them, and that their state can now compel young women to keep pregnancies even resulting from rape and incest, even in the first trimester.
The project to nimbly seize this lane and win over battleground voters is a project could save the Republic. That project would not have been available if Democrats had raised the stakes in losing gambits like they did with Kavanaugh. The project will not be available if Democrats pivot to or even seriously discuss other issues where they absolutely cannot win, such as adding members to the Court. This is a fight for America against fascist thugs who want to hurt all of us. We need to focus on that and only that. We need to make the thugs pay politically for their decision to start hurting people right now, before a midterm, when their electoral success relies upon those people (in this case, moderate-to-conservative college-educated GOP women who personally view Roe pre-viability protections as their Constitutional right and critical to their lives and families).
Micah Sifry: Here's what I think I think (other people are far better informed than me about the history of the politics of abortion): The lane you describe--of appealing to moderate-to-conservative college-educated GOP women (and their fathers/relations) concerned about bodily autonomy--has always been available to Democrats. However, national Democratic leaders haven't fought with much intensity, until now, to defend women's bodily autonomy, and in fact they've sought to subdue pro-choice intensity at the base and welcomed anti-choice candidates into their ranks for a long time. Now a lot of people are furious at what is about to happen, even though the writing has been on the wall, and in service of protecting women's health and equality AND saving the Republic from fascist thugs and the religious movement that has allied with them, you are arguing that we need to also calibrate what we say and do to not disrupt this chance to win over those potential swing GOP votes.
What this sounds like to me is: Continue with the careful defensive crouch rather than validate what the base is feeling. I don't think it's smart politics to gaslight the base, and furthermore I don't think it's even tenable. Like it or not, the awareness that these Democratic leaders have been shaky reeds is out there and can't really be stuffed back in the bottle. The younger generation, which I think Traister represents quite ably, has lost patience with the perennial dance of "this is the most important election of our lives" followed by "sorry, we can't get X passed even though we told you it was 'do-or-die' etc." So some synthesis is needed that both validates the base's fury AND communicates to potential swing voters the importance of their votes this fall. I don't think that's impossible. In fact, I think both might go hand in hand.
Dmitri Mehlhorn: The lane I describe is available to Democrats and has always been available to Democrats. The lane closes when we validate the fury of our base. From Chavez to Putin to Maduro, every single authoritarian leader tries to get their opponents’ fringe base into a frothing rage so they can position themselves as normal. The point is to validate the rage of people who can be marginal incremental votes in battleground states. What you describe as a “defensive crouch” is what I describe as “invest in smart things but on major issues wait for the opportunity to actually fight on favorable ground”. Roughly 1/6 of Americans want third trimester abortions to be legal.
The fight about abortion is all about framing. Most Americans are in the middle. Republicans ranged from moderately pro-choice to hardline pro-life but no one really cared because Roe was the law of the land. The hardline pro-life position in other words did nothing to bother most voters. Democrats’ historic track record in attacking people with even soft pro-life sympathies and purging them from the caucus created this current moment of threat to women by helping associate Democrats with an extremely unpopular position rather than the Safe Legal and Rare positioning that could actually win elections. We have a chance to win on Roe only because of the reasons you and Traister attack, and our only route to victory is to do the opposite of what Traister recommends.
More broadly Democrats are intensely skilled at allowing the GOP to get away w unpopular extremism by running to their own extreme. If we do that as a party now, we will have Trump again in 2025 and it will be in part your fault.
PS: the younger generation needs to turn out. They turned out against Trump’s extremism after never having turned out for the reasons you and Traister invent to suit your preferences. If I were in charge I would be a pro-choice absolutist but all I want to do right now above all is keep fascists out of power in the upcoming election.
Micah Sifry: We agree about wanting to keep fascists out of power. But I'm worried that at this point there's nothing Democrats can do in six months to counter decades of bad political habits and underinvestment in vital organizing infrastructure, and therefore whatever people actually do now needs to build at the same time for the future.
For example, the $150 million that PPFA, Emily's List and NARAL are planning to raise and spend on 2022 will largely go to media, polling, and "just-in-time" voter engagement (phone/text/canvass) tactics that simply build political sandcastles. Meaning they will all be washed away and leave no trace of their existence the day after the election. That same amount could instead be given to local organizers to open and staff community centers in hundreds of locations, fostering hubs of local activity which could sustain a wide range of electoral and non-electoral programs. However that would mean allowing local volunteers to build social ties, something that national Democratic strategists view as "waste," and to also develop their own capacities for political self-organization, something that national Democratic strategists view as a pain in the ass.
So cycle after cycle, we fail to invest in base-building and instead search for magical messaging solutions alone, without much regard for how little those messages connect face-to-face with actual voters. My friend Lara Putnam calls this the "last mile" problem, which is how our reliance on paid media or the mainstream media to deliver these finely calibrated messages means they never make it to where people live. Since you have the ear of several anti-Trump megadonors, all I can ask is please recalibrate and spend 10X more on progressive independent/local media and local organizing groups vs more on Beltway consultants and ad buyers.
To be clear, because I think we're partly arguing past each other, I am not suggesting that validating people's fury about losing Roe means demanding the legalization of third trimester abortions. You made a leap there. The fury is mostly aimed at the Religious Right. But it is also with a generation of Democratic leaders who have put comity and "restoring normalcy" ahead of confronting what we actually face, which is a radical religious minority trying to impose its views on the rest of us. Tell me, Dmitri, why did House Democrats let Trump Republicans who voted against the certification of Biden's election and who continue to parrot the Orange Fraud in Mar-a-lago apply for and obtain tens of millions in earmarks that they can brag about as they run for re-election? You want to claim a piece of the benefits of the democratic process for your district, Elise Stefanik? Fine, first state that you accept the election results. Or just stick a line about affirming the 2020 election in every appropriations bill and let Republicans try to explain to their voters why they had to vote against local funding for roads or hospitals.
A final point. I agree that sometimes Democratic, or further left, activists take extreme positions that are either not in the mainstream or get used by Republicans to confuse voters about what Democratic electeds actually stand for. I too want activists to be more strategic, and in particular to practice the politics of addition, not subtraction. But I think you are exaggerating how much this actually matters in individual elections, compared to how much existing party allegiances matter, a point Hal Malchow has been harping on a lot of late. And yet we spend an inordinate amount of time arguing about these internecine debates, when instead we need to be investing in greening our news deserts and building more civic hubs that will strengthen small-d democracy for whatever is coming post 2022.
Dmitri Mehlhorn: I agree with you that insurrectionists should have been treated as such. I have helped raise money for the litigation effort that led to Marjorie Taylor Greene's recent deposition. I have vented my rage directly at individual Republicans and R-leaning business donors who wanted to let the insurrectionists back in. I blame a long list of people for failing to properly punish the insurrectionists. If the left was open to a coalition that included Cheney, the insurrectionists would have suffered. But our side spent a year attacking [Liz] Cheney and [Adam] Kinzinger (just check out [top Democratic lawyer] Marc Elias' statements and tweets, not to mention innumerable private diatribes). Denying the insurrectionists their earmarks is one of many things we could have tried to do, sure, but it was not the most immediate and obvious levers for defeating these folks (most of whom are in super safe districts), and frankly it would have allowed the Squad to tank the BIF [the bipartisan infrastructure bill] by preventing Pelosi from getting ANY votes from the GOP to offset the Squad's political malpractice.
Agree that the $150m will be mostly wasted. Indeed, nearly all of our money will be wasted. Money spent by the center will help a little; it will be mostly offset by the damage done by money raised on the left from the Bernie [Sanders] and Liz [Warren] networks; and it will generally be spent on paid ads and polling. Polling is so bad right now that I would pay money to get people to not read the polls. Paid ads work a little bit if they are run after Labor Day, but that is when they are most expensive. Paid ads before Labor Day are almost always a waste of money.
As for power building, for whom are you trying to build power? Fostering local networks is important, but it matters to what end. Most of the network-building on the left, including a lot of it that I funded at places like Indivisible, have helped make sure that urban Democratic districts elect people like [Ilhan] Omar and AOC and [Pramaya] Jayapal and [Ro] Khanna. The CPC [Congressional Progressive Caucus] is nationally positioned as the future leadership of the Democrats and the average CPC leader is in a D+19 district. Worse, they are overwhelmingly urban, and lean heavily into the kinds of issues that get Democrats crushed in rural areas (elevating the centrality of student loan relief is another brilliant idea from the crowd that claims to know what rural noncollege Americans want). The problem is that if you invest in long-term power-building, you get where you invest, not what you want. I know with high confidence that the Koch network and Charles personally thought that they were funding an actual libertarian network when they bankrolled the Tea Party -- but the group became quickly dominated by anti-libertarian white nationalists and "economic populists." Similarly, when my donor network moved several million dollars to Indivisible, none of us knew that Indivisible would sabotage Biden's critical BIF victory.
You and I agree on the S1 [the For the People Act] debacle, but that was only one major mistake driven by the left of our coalition. As an American, I would have happily and immediately voted for the most extreme version of S1 and also for DC statehood and most of the BBB [Build Back Better] bill. But as an American, I also realize that when those things are not politically viable, there are costs to pushing them. We had a moment in August 2021 when Biden was not yet underwater, and he achieved a landmark victory in getting 69 Senators to vote for a bipartisan infrastructure bill. The power of the word "bipartisan" in this era is immense, which is why McConnell and his allies have worked so hard to prevent it from ever happening under Obama or Biden. The power of roads and bridges is immense, especially for an administration that campaigned largely on the narrative of restoration of basic norms, especially at a time when the left claimed that we could not get 60 votes to pass an "ice cream tastes good" resolution. We had a $1 trillion bipartisan bill and opportunity at that point to pass that bill and reap massive, massive PR and electoral benefits. We decided not to, apparently based on a desire to energize the base, with a hardline campaign to fight for the best stuff in BBB at the highest possible spending levels. I know it's not the exact point you're making here, but Traister and her arguments are part of the movement that sabotaged what would have been Biden's anchor achievement heading into the midterms.
Thus on the issue of life vs. choice, your proposed plan of activating local networks could actually achieve the opposite of what you want. If power-building allows pro-choice laws like those of VA and NY to become the national default understanding of the choice movement, then the anti-choice movement will have a field day.
Final point: the Hal Malchow party allegiances are not set in stone. The GOP today is not the GOP of 2012. The GOP of today is part of a long-term party building project in rural America by Republicans from Fox News to Newt Gingrich. And the left helps the right with this effort. Fox News will always call Democrats "socialists", but their efforts are much easier that our caucus now includes people who actually have "socialist" in their formal party title and those socialists are some of the most prominent Democrats alive. I could have spent $100 million in addressing the problem of narrative deserts, and done less good for the Democrats' chances in rural America than the $1 million I raised to help defeat Nina Turner in OH-11 (twice).
Micah Sifry: You have packed a lot into this response and other work demands attention. So I will be brief in my response. Something is dying and something new is struggling to be born, and in the meantime we are in the time of monsters.
We agree that the Democrats could have done more to make the Trump Republican insurrectionists radioactive, and absolutely that means embracing, not rejecting, people like Liz Cheney and Adam Kitzinger. I think there's one more chapter to that story about to be written in June when the Jan 6 hearings play out, so perhaps that issue will become more salient again. It's also nice to see we agree about the inefficacy of paid ads.
I find it interesting and revealing that you identify Indivisible and your investments in it with having strengthened leftwing Democrats in the House. National Indivisible leaders like Ezra Levin and Leah Greenberg may indeed be saying to their donors that they've been fighting for progressive priorities, and indeed, as 2017 revved up Indivisible National was absorbed into existing left networks in DC run by groups like MoveOn, the Working Families Party, the Center for Popular Democracy and the like. But shame on anyone who thought that giving money to Ezra and Leah was actually helping any of the 3,000 local Indivisible chapters, many of which were actually doing very pragmatic power-building in local contexts including red, purple and faux-blue districts (like my own backyard in the NW Bronx and lower Westchester, where we ousted a Trumpian county executive and then defeated the linchpin of the so-called Independent Democratic Conference which had an unholy deal with state Republicans keeping them in power). I'm not the only one who has documented what actually went down with Indivisible and if you go back to the original Indivisible Guide it's clear it was not about power-building on the left, it was about local power-building in every district by grassroots Democrats. To me the idea that national Indivisible somehow sabotaged Biden's BIF victory is laughable--few to none of the local Indivisible groups that have kept going pay any attention to what Ezra and Leah say.
As for what could have gone better for Biden and his legislative agenda, rather than claiming it's all the left's fault he's not getting credit for what he did pass, and that it's all the left's fault Pelosi and Schumer didn't have a better strategy, I'd argue that a) Biden and his team did a miserable job with their biggest opportunity, which was to build a new narrative not just around the first American Rescue Plan bill but also the vaccine delivery effort--Democrats keep failing to realize that they have to make people aware of when government is doing something for them and that every single vaccine delivery site was a messaging opportunity missed; and b) Biden failed to prioritize any one thing in BBB and attempted the impossible, which was to give just about every group their wish list.
I'm indeed more interested in local power-building than in billionaires de facto setting the political agenda. The more billionaires flex this power, the more they will generate the kind of politics you are complaining about.
Odds and Ends
—In the 24 hours after Politico published its story on the leaked Supreme Court draft ruling, ActBlue tallied $10 million in new donations, according to Andrew Arenge of the NBC News Elections unit.
—Twenty-four hours after Motherboard’s Joseph Cox reported that online location-data broker SafeGraph was selling information showing where groups of people visiting Planned Parenthood clinics came from, how long they stayed, and where they then went afterwards, the company announced it would delete information on family planning centers from its datamart.
—To my knowledge, phone companies still sell user data by time and location, which is how Targetsmart, a Democratic vendor, was able to build a partial list of people who attended the Women’s Marches in 2017.
—This February story by Lil Kalish in Mother Jones does a great job of covering a lot of the privacy issues that people seeking access to abortion may encounter as they use their phones. The Supreme Court has shown some interest in the past in protecting individual user data, but who knows anymore if that’s the case, given that there appear to be five justices ready to deny that there’s a right to privacy?