Published July 20, 2022
Democrats are foolishly trying to win the abortion debate. Now that the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision has overturned Roe v. Wade, abortion supporters have to make their case to the people and their representatives, rather than judges. But many of them have apparently forgotten that they win the argument by avoiding it.
This strategy was perfected by President Bill Clinton’s model of rhetorical moderation joined to legal extremism. Clinton said that abortion should be “safe, legal, and rare” — and then he opposed any limits on it. And Roe, along with a compliant media, let him and his party get away with this, because they could let the courts do most of the dirty work. Now that they don’t have that shield they are struggling.
It is normal to want to justify one’s views, but it is often political malpractice. With regard to abortion, the majority position on abortion is inconsistent. The average American supports legal abortion early in pregnancy, wants it restricted or banned by the second trimester — and really, really doesn’t want to think about it. New York Times readers might like the idea of a comedy special about abortion, but most Americans are repulsed by it.
These voters in the middle see abortion as a sometimes necessary evil, or at least an expedient one. They find a consistent pro-life ethic uncomfortable and impractical, but they view a consistent pro-abortion ethic of late-term abortion on demand without apology as horrible. These voters tended to have a poor understanding of the Supreme Court’s abortion rulings, which is why polls often showed majority support both for Roe and for abortion restrictions prohibited by Roe, such as a ban on elective abortion after 15 weeks.
Democrats Running on Wrong Issue
Now, the pro-abortion side is trying to find a consistent, winning argument, not realizing that the attempt is a losing effort. Swing voters in the mushy middle on abortion usually vote on other issues, and the rhetoric being used to make the case for unrestricted abortion is alienating to them.
As momentous as the Dobbs decision was, most voters are more concerned with soaring inflation, a looming recession, and other economic woes. Nonetheless, Democratic leaders and activists are determined to push abortion to the fore. The New York Times alone has published multiple columns declaring that running on abortion will pave the way for Democratic victory.
This is nonsense, though in the face of impending midterm disaster, and saddled with a president who is about as popular as gonorrhea, Democrats might believe that their best chance to limit their losses is to rally their base by focusing on abortion and other social issues. This would explain House Dems voting repeatedly for radical pro-abortion bills that they know will fail in the Senate, and the attacks by Democrats such as Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren on pro-life pregnancy resource centers.
Woke Pieties Estrange Working Class, Minorities
But even if this culture war strategy staunches the immediate electoral bleeding, it may set Democrats up for problems in the future. In particular, it will likely accelerate the realignment in which Dems gain educated whites at the loss of working class and minority voters, especially Hispanics. Even when Dems work hard to frame the issue in ways favorable to them, they are still focusing on something that these voters are not that concerned with right now.
Democrats also become ridiculous when their abortion absolutism combines with their woke pieties. Democrats are eager to insist that pregnant men have a right to taxpayer-funded abortion on demand until birth. But as Megan McArdle recently tries to warn them, most Americans think third-trimester unborn babies have value and that it is women who get pregnant.
Furthermore, the left justifies its pro-abortion extremism using rhetoric derived from a worldview that is alien to the lived experience of most moderate voters. Phrases such as “forced birth” and “bodily autonomy” are popular with the online left, but they reveal a perspective that sees nature as a prison and unchosen obligations as slavery. Consequently, they necessarily view female fertility, with its natural dependencies and vulnerabilities, as a burden to be suppressed, and they want the state to take over and professionalize the duties of providing care to dependents.
Voters Fleeing Dems See Dependence Differently
But the voters fleeing the Democratic coalition do not live with the presumptions that female embodiment is imprisoning, that dependence is despicable, and that we should be free from unchosen obligations. Though they may not have a coherent, developed theory of dependence and duty, their moral intuitions are not oriented toward radical individualism and personal autonomy. Likewise, though they may not have a consistent pro-life philosophy, they know that a life of love in family and community requires fulfilling duties of care toward dependents.
And they know that the future of families and communities depends upon those who are dependent. This is most obvious with children, but the realities of interdependence extend to all of us. All of us are dependent for much of our lives, and even our moments of apparent independence are less than they seem. And we are always dependent on others for what is best in this life, for the love and kindness and friendships that are necessary for human flourishing.
The left’s concern for solidarity has been swallowed up by its radicalism, especially on abortion. Its electoral prospects might suffer the same fate, as pro-abortion extremism pushes Democrats to ignore voters’ concerns in favor of pushing unpopular positions justified by alienating rhetoric.
Nathanael Blake, Ph.D. is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. His primary research interests are American political theory, Christian political thought, and the intersection of natural law and philosophical hermeneutics. His published scholarship has focused on Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Alasdair MacIntyre and Russell Kirk. He is currently working on a study of J.R.R. Tolkien’s anti-rationalism. As a cultural observer and commentator, he is also fascinated at how our secularizing culture develops substitutes for the loss of religious symbols, meaning and order.