Shortly after the Trump inauguration, I attended a dinner party with a progressive group of friends who work in and around politics. The immersive grief we and half the nation’s voters felt was playing out –- let’s be honest here –- over some wine and salmon. The group did what we’ve all done dozens of times since January: We ran the gauntlet of reasons why Trump was in the White House. But then, with perfect predictability, my mostly male dinner guests turned the conversation to abortion.
“Did it have to be such a big deal?” they pondered. “Aren’t there so many more important things to focus on? Do feminists have to be so hard line? Why can’t we find a middle ground – a compromise?”
Then comes the news on Monday that a Democratic campaign chairman vowed that there will be no “litmus test” for Democratic candidates on abortion rights. This is after a controversy in late April that one of the first stops on a unity tour by the DNC was for a Bernie Sanders-endorsed anti-choice mayoral candidate in Nebraska. When disbelief turned to outrage online, many Democratic leaders including Nancy Pelosi spoke publicly of needing a "big tent," not having "litmus tests," and eschewing "single issue politics."
Most of them have clarified and course corrected, but the experience was jarring. People who fight for women's rights know these words are code for backing away from abortion access. Especially in a moment where proudly pro-choice candidates were running great campaigns in red states of Missouri, Georgia, and Montana, the disconnect felt alarming.
Sigh. Here we go. Again.
I steeled myself internally to do what has become second nature to me since taking my job as head of the nation’s oldest political organization fighting for abortion rights, NARAL – to find the patience to try to steer the conversation away from platitudes and towards data, away from polemics and towards reality. After all, America had just come through an election in which Hillary Clinton ran the most progressive campaign on abortion rights ever.
So why are some Democrats still undermining themselves by pointing fingers at the rights of a majority of the population?
I’m a typical Gen-Xer who assumed fighting for these rights was over
I was a slow warrior to this cause -- not because I have conflicted views about abortion. I do not. I was raised in a “pro-choice” family but for a long time, other than a march in 1989 in DC, my resume on pro-choice activism was thin. Like many members of my generation, I felt that thes fight for abortion rights was over and that I could focus my efforts elsewhere, such as environmental activism.
That began to change when, in my human rights activist pursuits, I travelled all over the world and I got first-hand experience in countries where women do not have access to abortion or family planning. I saw how these women are not empowered to participate in society and how they and their families suffered as a result.
But I don’t think I really opened my eyes as to what was happening here at home until much later. I was working at MoveOn shortly after President Obama was elected and fighting for a healthcare bill I felt passionately about only to learn it was presumed that abortion services would not be covered from the outset. Fast forward through the Stupak Amendment, which proposed that a woman could not get abortion coverage in health insurance through the insurance exchanges — even if she paid 100 percent of the premium with her own dollars — and Todd Aiken’s comments in 2012 about legitimate rape, and I found myself newly radicalized.
“Can you believe that women are being thrown under the bus?!” I exclaimed to more seasoned friends who rolled their eyes with affection at a newcomer who was learning too late about battles they had been fighting for decades. I owe a deep debt of gratitude to those leaders who were willing to coach me on everything from funding bans discriminating against low income women and women of color to how I was a pre-existing condition.
In 2016, I counted my blessings being at the helm of NARAL when Hillary Clinton declared her candidacy for president. She articulated the reality of what I had experienced first hand in my work -- the crisis of abortion access creating a burden on those most vulnerable, and a first hand understanding of how abortion rights and family planning was the nucleus of an honest conversation about gender equity. I felt like I was living on the precipice of an evolutionary leap in history.
And then we fell backwards into the hole. My emotional reaction to Clinton’s loss is well documented. A Getty photographer caught my swollen and red eyes late night at Javitz Center -- a combination of profound grief and fear and disappointment. To lose was bad enough. But to lose to a man who wears his misogyny as a badge of honor was proof that anti-choice positions and a deep disdain for women almost always go hand in hand.
Trump’s win may have been about anxiety about social and cultural change — but pro-choice politics remain popular
I stopped counting long ago each time I have to defend a constitutional right that I was brought up to believe was sacrosanct to Democrats. Expressing my outrage, every time, is unproductive and personally exhausting. I have in the intervening years learned about the history of Democratic tolerance and how it ebbs and flows with cyclical elections.
After every lost election, consultants and politicians play defense, looking to blame anyone besides themselves. 2016 was a crushing and unexpected upset, and the recriminations flew accordingly. Even though the outcomes of national elections are always dependent on a multitude of factors, there are always loud voices arguing that all progressives need to do is win back white working class men.
This “strategy” is often as devoid of nuance as it is rife with cultural condescension: “Your issues don’t play in the Rust Belt,” or “Not everyone’s an atheist who lives in Los Angeles or New York.” Thanks, but we’re pretty sure offering men who want jobs and relief from opioid addiction fewer abortion clinics is not a winning strategy either.
This line of reasoning showed up shortly after George McGovern lost his 1972 bid for the presidency to President Richard Nixon. Focus groups showed that Nixon owed his victory to a voting group that would later be known as “Reagan Democrats” — white working class voters deeply uncomfortable with the cultural changes they saw around them that started in the late sixties. Women’s liberation and gay rights had blossomed in the run up to the 1972 election, alongside an increasingly vocal racial justice and anti-war movement.
Today looks eerily similar. The resistance remains stubbornly committed to diverse representation and are largely led by women, particularly women of color. Compared to Republicans, Democratic leadership is much more diverse. Much like 1972, study after study has shown that this election was about social anxiety and an upheaval in established social order.
But some things have changed since Nixon: Abortion has been legal in this country for over forty years and most people want it to stay that way. Support for reproductive freedom goes far beyond the Democratic base. Seven in 10 Americans support legal access to abortion, period. This is true across ethnic, geographic, and age lines. Even a majority of rank-and-file Republicans support this right, and a plurality of self-identified “pro-life” people do as well.
While they don’t always vote consistently with this belief, people generally don’t vote on issues at all. In fact, voters in Arizona overwhelmingly approved ballot measures to raise the minimum wage and approve paid sick days, but they voted on the very same ballot to send elected leaders to Congress who oppose both of those things. The science of how and why people vote is complicated, and it often has more to do with with how we perceive candidates as understanding our lives and expressing leadership than with their views on any one issue specifically.
More and more data show that — aside from strong partisan affiliation — many Trump voters were driven by social anxiety born of a changing society. This manifested in a reluctance to accept changing demographics and an antipathy towards immigrants and racial minorities. In other words, many white working class voters put their weight behind Trump as a means of preserving their own status in a nation where they feel like that is no longer assured. Sure, sexism played a role in that equation as well. But there is no evidence that opposition to legal abortion was a driver at all.
Moreover, calling certain concerns “identity politics” and casting them at odds with a message of economic security sends a clear message to women and people of color that we are not your audience. The reality is that for most of the Democratic base, gender and race are inextricably linked to economic outcomes. Democrats seeking an economic narrative that has authentic appeal must start from that understanding. A party that purports to represent the real diverse lives of a changing America undercuts its own credibility when it continues to speak of economic security and reproductive rights as completely disconnected.
The real deal: we need to stick with our base of pro-choice women
The strong outpouring of concern at recent comments by Democratic leaders is a vocal fear of backsliding at a time where we stand to gain ground by rallying around genuine pro-choice values: the commitment to drive down rates of unintended pregnancy through universal access to birth control, legal and accessible access to abortion, and support for working people who want to expand their families.
Women organized the largest protest in the history of the country the day after Trump’s inauguration. Women have been pouring into town halls to hold elected officials accountable. Women have been winning hearts and minds across the country: Hillary Clinton’s popular vote margin was huge, and four new women took their seats in the vastly unequal Senate chamber. Popular liberal icons Elizabeth Warren, Attorney General Sally Yates and Kirsten Gillibrand have been on the front lines of opposing regressive nominees to key administrative posts.
The basic fact is that as a party, Democrats can’t fight Trump without women. Because women are fundamental to the resistance, but also because repressing women is fundamental to Trump’s worldview and his power.
There’s a vast trove of academic research focused on how authoritarian regimes depend on enforcing rigid gender roles as a way of suppressing dissent. Trump is following that playbook. From Trumpcare to misogynistic rhetoric to agency appointments, our power is being targeted through biology and social structures. And let’s face it, this repressive, anti-woman mentality is core to the personality of the president himself.
So here we are. The Democratic Party faces fundamental questions of morality and political identity which it both needs to solve immediately and must move beyond almost simultaneously. It’s one of the greatest tests of our two party system: unite a movement of people faster than the repressive churn of an authoritarian administration.
While these debates premised on false divides will almost surely continue before they abate, one thing remains constant. Donald Trump is the president. So, give women the tools and support we need to pave a new future that looks not a thing like this one.
Ilyse Hogue is an expert in organizing and mobilizing grassroots support around social justice issues, including human rights, media reform and representation, and reproductive freedom. She has been president of NARAL Pro-Choice America since February 2013.