Why the End of Roe Isn't Likely to Energize the DemocratsBreaking News
tags: abortion, Supreme Court, Democratic Party
To suggest that the collapse of Roe could effectively inspire the sort of movement-building for the broader left that it has for the right is to misunderstand at once the class politics of abortion and the role it’s played within both parties. As much as we might wish otherwise, the most plausible impact the end of Roe v. Wade will have on electoral politics is little to none at all.
The basic story of how abortion became a cause célèbre for the Republican Party goes like this: In the postwar United States, when the coalitions that made up each major party looked very different from today’s, abortion was controversial but not an issue that split opinion along partisan lines. Even Ronald Reagan, whose political star rose after he lent his Hollywood charm to propaganda for the anti-Medicare campaign, signed a bill loosening abortion restrictions as governor of California in 1967. In 1970, Republican New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller signed into law the country’s most liberal abortion law; in 1972, pro-choice feminists like Jill Ruckelshaus attended the Republican National Convention as delegates.
Early organized blowback to the 1973 Roe decision was limited mostly to working-class Roman Catholics, who tended to vote for Democrats. (Within days of the ruling, my Irish grandparents dragged my 11-year-old mother to an anti-Roe protest in Chicago, where she was given a bracelet emblazoned with the date January 22, 1973, and told to wear it until Roe was overturned. To her credit, she has not.) Meanwhile, civil rights advances and desegregation efforts in the 1960s and 1970s drove a racist backlash among white Southerners, who began exiting the Democratic Party for the GOP and tapping into a defensive identity politics centered on Christianity rather than on explicit white supremacy. At around the same time, the booming postwar manufacturing sector began to grow sluggish, leaving an opening for capital to launch a counterattack on labor and blunt its decades of ascendancy, a historical and political process known as neoliberalism. (The high-water mark for union membership came in 1979, not long after Roe v. Wade.) The business factions of the Republican Party grew stronger, and the labor factions of the Democratic Party grew weaker, until finally, amid significant cultural and electoral upheaval and at the start of a still ongoing top-down siege on the poor and working class, Ronald Reagan’s 1980 presidential campaign managed to cobble together the coalition that’s defined American politics ever since: an ultrarich ruling class exclusively committed to serving the interests of capital, and the so-called religious right, which ably racks up votes for the former by drumming up angst about race, gender, and “morality.” Outrage over abortion—and, not so subtly, over the mouthy women’s libbers who seemed to love it so much—soon proved to be a particularly powerful flag to plant.
With his reconstituted Republican base, Reagan won two eye-popping landslide elections for president in a row. Realizing the centrality of the pro-life movement to his political brand, in 1985 he became the first sitting president to address the March for Life. For its part, the swath of the GOP preoccupied with business interests got plenty of juice for the squeeze: Abortion and other ostensibly moral issues continued to turn out voters for the Republican Party, which morphed into an extraordinarily effective wish-fulfillment vehicle for the country’s plutocrats: In the 1980s and 1990s, the right managed to slash taxes, decimate unions, liquidate pensions, corporatize health care, capture regulatory agencies, and more. Meanwhile, the pro-life movement operated as a sort of Get Out the Vote operation, delivering intermittent strikes against Roe such as 1992’s Planned Parenthood v. Casey, which opened the door to all manner of restrictions, so long as they didn’t constitute an “undue burden” on choice. Since the 1980s, pro-life activists have also targeted abortion clinics and providers—bombing and assassinating them, in extreme cases; barraging them with legal hoops to jump through; coercing providers into the provision of medically unnecessary ultrasounds and messaging; and lobbying for parental notification requirements, mandatory wait times, and so on.
Supporters of abortion rights have of course offered responses of their own. But if pro-choice activists have always been clear-eyed about the need to defend reproductive choice against attacks from the right, their analysis of the stakes hasn’t always been right. Nothing in recent years better illustrates erroneous mainstream interpretations of Roe than the ubiquity of cloak-and-bonnet costumes at pro-choice demonstrations. The outfits invoke the classic novel and TV adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale, which imagines a dystopia that relegates women to incubator status. Suffice it to say that the overwhelmingly white professional-class women who don these costumes don’t inhabit a country on the verge of becoming a theocracy or even a patriarchy, but an oligarchy—the harms of which they’ll be relatively spared from.
That’s the too seldom articulated truth that puts bitter U.S. abortion battles into context: Wealthy and powerful women will always be able to get one.
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