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Abortion: A Case Study

Osita Nwanevu
12 min read
Jerry Falwell at a rally, "I Love America" signs in the background
Jerry Falwell

Hey all. Let’s hop to it.


There’s another go-around happening on Twitter over popularism thanks to Chris Hayes’ recent piece on the Iraq War which, as you might remember, was quite popular at the outset. “Supporting the war became both a moral abomination and also bad politics,” he writes. “So here’s the question for popularism: how do you avoid the next Iraq War?” It’s a good question. I’ve yet to see the popularists answer it; they’ve had nothing to say about the moral quandaries of popular politics in general beyond the refrain that Republican rule would be worse than whatever compromises they urge Democrats to adopt. I haven’t really made the moral critique myself ⁠— not because I don’t agree with it or think it’s important, but because I think it’s interesting and damning that popularism is incoherent on its own strategic, mostly amoral terms.

I summed up the relevant arguments I’ve made over the past year or so on Twitter. One more amorphous argument I haven’t made in depth, though, is that popularism doesn’t tell us much about how political change happens ⁠— or even, more concretely, how public opinion changes on particular questions. As finely attuned as they might be to the micro-data of polls and referenda in the here and now, popularists are mostly mute on how politics works at the macro level ⁠— how issues are generated in the first place, how political coalitions are built and dismantled, and so on. The little they have had to say here hasn’t been too enlightening. Let’s not forget the tweet and controversy that brought Shor to prominence: this insinuation, during the Floyd protests in 2020, that rioting would hurt Democrats given the political scientist Omar Wasow’s research on the riots of 1968:

Set whatever you think about the professional fallout Shor faced for this tweet aside and consider the actual claim. I argued at the time that this was a narrow, simplistic interpretation both of Wasow’s findings in particular and the history of protest in general. I didn’t think Biden would face much of a backlash ⁠— if anything, the immediate, albeit short-lived reaction to the protests, despite the rioting, seemed to be a leftward shift on race and BLM ⁠— and said we’d need careful post-election analyses to know for sure either way. Well, the results are in. Data for Progress last month:

In order to address the question of the impact of protests on Biden’s vote share empirically, we’ve assembled the first national dataset of election results and protests at the granular geographic level. We compare Biden’s vote share to Hillary Clinton’s, using the change between the two as the “swing.”  We combined multistate datasets on electoral results, census demographic data, and a national dataset of all the 2020 protests from the Princeton Crowd Counting Consortium.  
[...] Across all of our regressions, what seems clear is that protests had virtually no effects nationally, and Kenosha’s effects are limited to Kenosha. Given these results, we conclude that there is some heterogeneity among voters or media coverage that determined how protests affected their vote, specific to Kenosha.
A factor absent from this analysis, because it is so difficult to quantify, is the role of media coverage and general salience of the protests. It’s possible that these protests received broader positive coverage than those of the past. Alternatively, it’s possible the protests and the previous administration’s aggressive response had effects that canceled each other out. This is the point of Professor Omar Wasow’s analysis of protests and their impact on the 1968 election — media coverage and the public’s perception of protests are what ultimately appear to matter when looking at causal effects on election outcomes.

In short, it can be difficult, for a variety of reasons, to predict with real certainty what the impact of a protest or a riot might be in the moment. Politics is complicated. Our first instincts and easy readings of the past or public opinion can betray us. And political change often comes at the hands of those willing to take risks or devise novel strategies.

It’s worth noting that this latest back and forth over popularism follows the culmination of one of the most significant and hard-fought policy victories in American history ⁠— the overturning of Roe v. Wade. There have been few deep analyses of how the right won here beyond overviews of how the fight against abortion has played out in the courts. But the pro-life movement isn’t just a legal movement, obviously. Action outside the courts gradually pushed Republicans to take up abortion as a major issue and advance the needed judges. Where did that action come from? And what lessons might we and the popularists draw from the pro-life movement's success?

I won’t relate the full history of abortion rights in America here. A good place to start for our purposes would be the late 1960s and early 1970s, just before Roe, as abortion rights advocates were liberalizing abortion statutes across the country. As Linda Greenhouse and Reva Siegel explain in their 2011 paper for the Yale Law Journal, “Before (and After) Roe v. Wade: New Questions About Backlash,” many of those advocates had spent the 1960s making a public health case for reform. “In 1962, the American Law Institute (ALI) adopted a model statute that allowed abortion to protect a woman's life or physical or mental health, in cases of rape, and in cases where a child would be born with 'grave physical or mental defect'; the model statute required two doctors to 'certify] in writing the circumstances which they believe to justify the abortion,’” they write. “And the public responded. By 1966, a majority of Americans supported reforming the law to allow abortion when carrying a pregnancy to term would threaten a woman's health, when there was a high possibility of birth defects, or when the pregnancy was the result of rape.”

That shift in public opinion led to the passage of new-ALI influenced statutes or even more liberal abortion laws in 16 states by 1970. And those legislative victories politically mobilized Catholics. It’s important to remember that Catholic identity was still sociopolitically distinct and deeply salient at the time ⁠— enough so that Nixon strategist Kevin Phillips urged the right to appeal to Catholics as a group in his 1969 book The Emerging Republican Majority. But, as Greenhouse and Siegel write, abortion didn’t figure explicitly into that strategy until 1970:

In September 1970, after the California Democratic Party included a plank in its platform supporting the decriminalization of abortion, Reverend Michael Collins decided to protest by changing his voter registration from Democratic to Republican and invited the entire parish in Santa Ana (Orange County), California to follow his lead; the priest arranged for Republican Party registrars to come to the church after mass, where they reregistered over five hundred parishioners. Fourteen other churches followed suit, reregistering a total of approximately two thousand California residents. California Democrats investigated and declared that the incident was not a spontaneous movement, as it had been represented, but the start of a political experiment engineered by the Republican State Central Committee to see if the abortion issue could be used to cause a mass defection of Catholics from the Democratic Party. The Democratic candidates said that national Republican leaders were watching the experiment closely and that if it proved successful it would be used as part of a nationwide campaign to attract Catholic votes.
In the spring of 1971, the Republican Party took the strategy national in anticipation of the 1972 election. President Richard Nixon began to shift his position on abortion. His first such declaration came on April 3, 1971, in a statement directing the Department of Defense to rescind abortion regulations that his own administration had implemented the year before, which permitted any military hospital to perform a therapeutic abortion, regardless of the law of the state in which the hospital was located; instead, Nixon stated, abortion policy on military bases would be dictated by the laws of the states in which they were located. Echoing the language of the Church, Nixon asserted that "unrestricted abortion policies, or abortion on demand" was incompatible with his "personal belief in the sanctity of human life - including the life of the yet unborn." The rights of the unborn, he said, are "surely . . . recognized in law," as well as in "principles expounded by the United Nations.”

With a push from strategists like Pat Buchanan, Nixon doubled down on this rhetoric once McGovern became the nominee, eliciting the famous lament from one unnamed Democrat that McGovern had been labeled the candidate of “acid, amnesty, and abortion.” “By 1972, the two candidates' positions on abortion were in fact quite similar,” Greenhouse and Siegel note, “but Republicans began using allegations about abortion to impugn McGovern for his associations with the student antiwar movement and the feminist movement.” Crucially, all of this was happening while public support for abortion rights was not only high but increasing:

On August 28, 1972, campaign strategists sent John Ehrlichman "data showing 'a sizeable majority of Americans, including Roman Catholics, now favoring liberal abortion laws,'" and "[t]he president decided to leave [the] matter to the states, . . . privately "affirming] that ťabortion reform' was 'not proper gr[oun]d for Fedferal] action'" and that he "'[wou]ld never take action as President]."'118 Only three days before, the mid-1972 Gallup poll published in newspapers around the country showed that "a record high of 64 percent support full liberalization of abortion laws," a sharp increase from the preceding January. In contrast to the doctrinal message being preached with increasing vigor by the Church hierarchy, the new poll showed that substantial numbers of Catholics in fact supported liberalizing access to abortion: "Fifty-six per cent of Catholics believe that abortion should be decided by a woman and her doctor."( Justice Blackmun included a copy of this Washington Post article in his Roe v. Wade file.)

Nixon pushed the pro-life line anyway and won with a majority of Catholic voters, though the election obviously didn’t turn on abortion. The campaign’s intuition that abortion could be deployed as a social wedge issue was obviously correct. But they’d taken to the movement against it more quickly and readily than most religious conservatives. As Seth Dowland writes in his 2009 paper “‘Family Values’ and the Formation of a Christian Right Agenda,” evangelicals were broadly ambivalent about abortion at the time and remained so even after Roe:

[Jerry] Falwell issued no statements on the decision until 1975, a silence he attributed to preoccupation with a government investigation of his organization's finances in 1973. Polls of Southern Baptists in the half-decade before Roe showed an overwhelming majority in favor of "therapeutic abortion," albeit not abortion on demand. Though some conservatives in the SBC agitated for a stronger stand against abortion after Roe, moderates blocked the discussion of an anti-abortion resolution at the 1974 convention. Christianity Today, the flagship evangelical journal launched by Billy Graham in the 1950s, took a strong stand against abortion under the direction of editor (and Southern Baptist minister) Harold Lindsell, but few magazines followed its lead. While grassroots pro-life activists expressed indignation about the Roe decision, most evangelical Protestant leaders and institutions responded tepidly at first.
Why did evangelicals remain a minority faction in the pro-life coalition through most of the 1970s? In 1973 two factors mitigated against conservative Christians' opposition of Roe. First, the language the Court used to legitimate abortion drew on conservative rhetoric. The Fourteenth Amendment, said the Court, "protects against state action the right to privacy." In other words, the Supreme Court employed an individual rights rationale that favored women's prerogative in reproductive choices against the state's interference. Early abortion foes knew the consequences of Roe could be dire. By defining abortion as an issue "belonging to the private sphere, more like a religious preference than a deeply held social belief," the Court's decision appealed to those who rejected governmental interference into private decisions. Evangelicals, who had developed sensitivity to governmental intrusion on their beliefs in the decades after the 1925 Scopes trial, increasingly guarded against any attempts to infringe on their religious liberty. By framing abortion as an individual right, the Court predisposed some political conservatives to support Roe.
Second, and more important, Catholics spearheaded the earliest campaigns against abortion. In the early 1970s, about 70 percent of the members of the National Right to Life Commission claimed membership in the Catholic Church. Catholics' leadership of the pro-life movement made it less likely that conservative Protestants would join it. A 1984 study of the pro-life movement found that few activists had expressed any public opposition to abortion before 1967 (when California legalized abortion), and almost all of the earliest activists were Catholic. Catholics' overwhelming majority in the nascent anti-abortion coalition persisted at least through 1978. Given the historic enmity between Catholics and conservative Protestants, it is hardly surprising that evangelicals felt some discomfort about joining the pro-life movement in the early 1970s. As the evangelical theologian Harold O. J. Brown put it, "At that point, a lot of Protestants reacted almost automatically?'If the Catholics are for it, we should be against it.'" Right to-life groups did receive a surge in Protestant membership after the Roe decision?especially from younger women with small children?but on the whole, evangelicals seemed hesitant to enter the pro-life coalition until the mid-1970s.

The theologian Francis Schaeffer was among the figures who helped turn the tide. “Schaeffer disseminated a view of political involvement that encouraged ⁠— even demanded ⁠— that evangelicals cooperate with non-evangelicals in order to achieve political success,” Dowland writes. “Schaeffer advanced the notion of a culture war, and he suggested that political quiescence was untenable in the face of practices like abortion. He argued that evangelicals needed to adopt ‘co-belligerence,’ or cooperation with non-evangelicals, as a political tactic.” With the encouragement of conservative activists and the condemnation of anti-Catholic evangelicals like Bob Jones Jr., Jerry Falwell and other Christian leaders took up that line of thought in the late 1970s, and worked, like Nixon, to broaden abortion’s social meaning:

Catholic leaders defined abortion as a "life issue," and Falwell gradually adopted that rhetoric. But he also connected opposition to abortion with defense of the family. The Family Manifesto, a lengthy policy statement released by several Christian right organizations in the mid-1980s, declared, "We proclaim that parental responsibility for reproductive decisions is joint. Hence we deny that reproduction is solely a 'woman's choice.'"The document's authors used the language of pro-choice advocates to show how Roe threatened the family structure authorized by the Bible. By relegating the family's primary function ⁠— reproduction and rearing of children ⁠— to "private" decisions that women could undertake apart from their husbands, Roe posed a threat. Conservative Christians perceived the language of Roe, which described abortion as a "woman's choice," as a direct assault on the gendered family order instituted by the Bible.

That was the glue that bound abortion to the other concerns ⁠— feminism and homosexuality chief among them ⁠— that Falwell’s Moral Majority focused on after its founding in 1979. Reagan’s victory in 1980 is often framed by liberals as a very early major victory for the organized Christian Right, but as far as abortion is concerned, Republican voters wouldn’t really start rallying around the pro-life cause until the 1990s. “It would appear that a majority of Republicans in Congress began to vote against abortion in 1979, nearly a decade before polls registered similar trends among citizens affiliated with the Republican Party,” Greenhouse and Siegel write, “a sign that abortion was entangled in realignment strategies of the Republican Party in the late 1970s, as it was in the years just before Roe.”

That’s important: from the very beginning of the modern pro-life movement, conservative strategists, activists, and politicians were working and messaging well-ahead of not only general public opinion on abortion but also opinion specifically on the right. They took a gamble ⁠— a bet that they could either move public opinion in their direction or organize well enough to institutionalize the preferences of their determined minority. That bet has paid off.

None of this is to say there are specific beats to the pro-life story that liberals and progressives or the Democratic Party should be following on a particular issue now. My point is that politics is both a short game and a long game ⁠—we ought to evaluate whether strategies for success in the moment set up the conditions for achieving our goals in the long-run as well. And part of the frustration with the popularists stems from their complacency on that front. It’s all too true that we’re playing against a stacked deck. But there’s not much reason to believe the tactics that have shaped Democratic politics for the last 30 years are actually going to win us the game. We should be forging a path to a fundamental realignment somewhere down the road.  What we have instead, as John Ganz wrote recently, is a broad failure of imagination:

What movement conservatives understood, is that when it comes to politics, there is no such thing as reality—it is up to politics to change reality. As Hannah Arendt wrote, “the ability to lie, the deliberate denial of factual truth, and the capacity to change facts, the ability to act, are interconnected; they owe their existence to the same source, imagination.” No one would seriously contest that the Democrats today lack imagination, perhaps above all else.

I wouldn’t. As I wrote in my last newsletter, the divide within the coalition is less about whether Democrats have a sense of imagination than about whether they should. That’s not a fight I expect our side to win.

Reasons to Be Cheerful

A Song

“The Overload” ⁠— Yard Act (2021)