Some practical advice for making a difference in the new abortion fight
Protest, post, and focus on Kansas
As prefigured by a leak earlier this spring, the Supreme Court has overruled the landmark Roe and Casey decisions, clearing the way for states to ban abortion.
The ruling is shocking albeit not surprising. It’s actually pretty rare for the Supreme Court to straightforwardly reverse a precedent, and several of the justices who backed the reversal were at pains during their confirmation hearings to pretend that this wasn’t their position.
And there’s just no getting around the fact that this is a huge loss.
The early aughts saw a wave of counterintuitive commentary suggesting that Roe and the judicial backstop had been bad for abortion rights by obviating the need to engage in pragmatic politics. And it’s probably true that this was bad for the fortunes of the Democratic Party because it meant legislative debates were focused on the handful of edge cases in which the pro-choice side is unpopular. But the judicial backstop was very good for abortion rights, ensuring they remained secure even during Republican administrations and that clinics remained open even in states like Mississippi where abortion is even less popular than the Democratic Party. Absent the judicial backstop, it is just not possible to make abortion rights as secure as they once were, and given the tendency toward strategic retirements, only a stroke of very good luck would possibly bring the backstop back.
It’s important to acknowledge this. Realistically, Senate Democrats are not going to kill the filibuster and then pass a federal law to codify Roe. But crucially even if they did, that wouldn’t actually bring Roe back. If the filibuster is dead, then a GOP trifecta would simply enact federal abortion restrictions. I’m not sure whether Republicans would themselves kill the filibuster to do this — they might or they might not — but if Democrats do it for them they will definitely enact federal restrictions. That’s not to say that federal pro-choice legislation isn’t good or worth fighting for, just that it won’t bring Roe back — we lost.
And now we’re facing a long series of specific political struggles in 50 state capitals and the federal government, all of which will require time, energy, money, political commitment, and both tactical and strategic flexibility paired with clarity of commitment. Here’s my best effort to pull together practical advice about what individuals can do.
Protesting is good
After the decision came down, we had protests in many American cities.
They weren’t huge, though, in part because I think there was a sense of futility and in part because the previous round of abortion rights protests devolved into controversies about the merits of protesting in front of justices’ homes.
But I think the evidence is pretty clear and unambiguous that large-scale protest marches and demonstrations are an effective means of changing the political situation. People often invoke the idea of “organizing” in a non-specific way, but I think that time spent specifically on organizing protests — on getting permits, picking days, encouraging friends to attend, getting snacks and water together, volunteering to drive people or host people when travel is needed — is time very well spent. I hope that we will see more protests organized in the weeks and months to come, including locally focused ones in states where legislative battles are happening and something resembling the enormous abortion rights rally in Washington 30 years ago that I remember my mother attending when I was a kid.
I unfortunately cannot find any great studies of the efficacy of that protest, because the main mechanism through which scholars have studied protests depends on them being decentralized. Researchers look at days when there were nationwide protests and then treat rain as a quasi-random negative shock to protest attendance.
Andreas Madestam, Daniel Shoag, Stan Veuger, and David Yanagizawa-Drott did this for Tea Party protests and found that better weather and higher attendance “had significant consequences for the subsequent local strength of the movement, increased public support for Tea Party positions, and led to more Republican votes in the 2010 midterm elections. Policymaking was also affected, as incumbents responded to large protests in their district by voting more conservatively in Congress. Our estimates suggest significant multiplier effects: an additional protester increased the number of Republican votes by a factor well above one.”
Omar Wasow’s rainfall study of Civil Rights protests made news for the finding that riots generated significant white backlash and put Richard Nixon over the top in 1968. But he also finds that nonviolent protests worked, and “counties proximate to nonviolent protests saw presidential Democratic vote share among whites increase 1.3-1.6%.”
Bouke Klein Teeselink and Georgios Melios did a rainfall study of Black Lives Matter protests and find again that peaceful protests increased Democratic vote share, in this case by shifting attitudes toward racial disparities.
The effect sizes are small. Generating large changes in political behavior is, unfortunately, difficult. But these efforts are also clearly not for nothing. Vote share swings of this magnitude would be the difference between winning and losing presidential elections in 2016 or 2020.
I also think it’s important to be clear about the mechanisms here. Some people are just addicted to militancy. The thing they like about protests is that it’s more confrontational and in-your-face than donating money to buy TV ads, so they figure that it’s better to be even more confrontational. Why march with a permit when you could block traffic instead? Why chant downtown when you could chant outside someone’s home? Why protest nonviolently when you could smash a window?
The key is that these protests work through two mechanisms, both of which militate in the direction of relatively chill tactics:
Someone who is not that political might attend a protest because he is bored that day (people don’t like to talk about it, but this was clearly a factor in the post-Floyd protests) or is just experiencing a momentary surge of interest in the topic. But the act of attending the rally can get them more involved in future political activity.
The existence of a large march drives media coverage of its existence, which allows you to attract attention to ideas and slogans that would otherwise be too boring to cover. Ideas like “it is nice to pay lower taxes rather than higher taxes” or “a blastocyte is very different than a baby” are too tedious to be front-page news, but protests can put them on the front page.
What you don’t want to do is depress turnout by scheduling your rally for a weird place and time or end up with the coverage dominated by meta-issues like “was this an appropriate place to hold the rally?” Hold the rally someplace normal and convenient, in a downtown area, and do it with permits so lots of people show up.
Posting is praxis
Unlike in the 1960s or really even in 2010, contemporary Americans have a great deal of opportunity to influence the mass communication environment without attending a protest march simply through their posting behavior. Most people are more open to being persuaded by peers and family members than by politicians and pundits, so your part-time amateur political communications work has real power.
What’s important to remember here is that the goal is to persuade people, not just to express yourself. That doesn’t mean you need to be a professional messaging guru or do 11 focus groups before you say anything.
But try to keep in mind that the pivotal people in the political process are probably on the older side, self-identify as moderates, don’t pay that much attention to politics, and don’t have college degrees. Almost nobody is actually so bubbled that they don’t know any older working-class people who don’t follow politics that closely — I know people like this and I have had an incredibly bubbled life — so just think about people who you know and make a good faith effort.
Joey Burrow from the Cincinnati Bengals is a good example. He recently posted an Instagram meme highlighting some fairly extreme scenarios in which Republicans would still like to ban abortion:
If you do want advice from messaging gurus, back in May, Marcela Mulholland and McKenzie Wilson from Data for Progress recorded a great podcast about their abortion message testing. They found that the most effective messages were ones that really homed in on libertarian/individualist messages that they did not find personally compelling. But that of course makes sense — what makes the message so good is that while young left-wing women don’t love it, they support abortion rights anyway, and the libertarian theme brings in some center-right voters.
Wilson made me this bumper sticker design to illustrate a potential use case of these themes. It sounds a bit off, right? Like something a Republican would say? But that’s what’s good about it.
You can see in their polling that there is very strong support for the proposition that most abortions should be legal, but that is due to the presence of a substantial bloc of people who want to support the legality of abortions while distancing themselves from the concept of abortion itself. That was the original rationale for developing the “pro-choice” brand concept — you favor the idea that pregnant women will make better choices than state legislators, not the idea that having abortions is fantastic — and I think it also underlaid the old Bill Clinton “safe, legal, and rare” formulation.
There’s been a lot of interest over the past 10-15 years in ditching those frames in favor of something more aggressive, and I just don’t really see the percentage in it. Post about how people should be allowed to decide for themselves and that seems good enough. You certainly don’t need to say “rare” if you don’t want to, but every progressive I know believes we should improve access to contraceptives and increase support for parents of young kids — it wouldn’t hurt to mention all that as part of a comprehensive worldview.
The power of storytelling
I follow Princeton University economist Ilyana Kuziemko primarily for the economics takes, but she recently mention a personal life experience relevant to the abortion debate that I think was quite powerful:
As I wrote at the beginning of the week, an important point of overlap between popularists and leftists is recognizing the importance of work that is completely non-electoral in nature. Human beings have a capacity for empathy that is both very real and also pretty circumscribed. The telling of stories helps to activate that capacity for empathy and can change minds in a real way. Experience with abortion is widespread in the United States but not universal, and open discussion can help.
I would also challenge people who work in the entertainment industry to think about fictional stories they can tell that help make useful points.
Martin Luther King, Jr. believed that “Star Trek” was important to the Civil Rights Movement, and everyone seems to agree that “Will & Grace” played an important role in the fight for LGBT rights. Over a fifth of American women have an abortion at some point in their life, but you rarely see those stories told in mainstream entertainment. I understand the commercial imperatives behind that, but cultural power is one of the primary movers of public opinion over the medium term, so it’s important that people step up.
I also think there’s an opportunity to expand the trend here. While I was convalescing with Covid, I rewatched “Entourage” and had some half-baked notions of writing something about the politics of that show. But even though the characters on that show are not particularly progressive people, they almost certainly prefer that abortion be legal. Since the Great Awokening, conservatives have done a decent job of marketing their coalition as the chill, low-key one. But the fact is that the people in the driver’s seat on abortion policy see making abortions illegal as the first step in a larger campaign to get everyone to stop having sex. The fact that Donald Trump, personally, is such an implausible theocrat almost certainly helped him win votes with secular non-college northern whites (like the characters on “Entourage”!) who voted for Obama. But this agenda is still rolling out, and there are people from all walks of life who have good reason to oppose it.
Next stop, Kansas
There’s a lot of annoyance in some quarters of the internet at Democrats trying to leverage alarm over the ruling to raise money or urge people to vote. I get where that annoyance is coming from. But it’s important to acknowledge that, in practice, states with GOP-run state legislatures are going to ban abortion, and states with Democrat-run legislatures are not.
But if you’re interested in something even more immediate than the November midterms, let me direct your attention to an upcoming ballot initiative in Kansas.
The basic story is that in 2019, the Supreme Court of Kansas ruled that there is a state-level right to personal autonomy guaranteed by the Constitution of Kansas. This has made the state a relative haven for abortion rights in a very red part of the American national geography. So anti-abortion forces are pushing a constitutional amendment to scrap this right to personal autonomy, and they decided to put it on the ballot in August to correspond with a contested GOP primary at a time when nothing interesting is happening on the Democratic side.
Winning this initiative would be really good for Kansas, but also for people in western Missouri and Oklahoma and even northern Texas who are within driving distance of Kansas. The fact that it’s a red state means it will be hard to win, but also that a win would send a powerful message. The good guys here could use money and volunteers, and I’m sure they’d appreciate you spreading the word.
There are additional abortion-related ballot measures this November in California, Kentucky, Montana, and Vermont.
For now, though, Kansas is key. But expect fights to play out in every state, and try to stay aware and active. There isn’t going to be some deus ex machina win here, just a brutal series of state-by-state, bill-by-bill struggles. And the effort each of us put in as individuals is going to matter.