The Vanishing Anti-Choice Democrat: Rethinking the Party’s Strategy

The share of people who are "liberal" but also anti-choice grows tinier by the day. Investments by the Democratic Party to recruit that vanishing population would be far better spent elsewhere.

With Bart Stupak grabbing every moment he can to go on television to denounce the non-existent possibility of federal funding for abortion, one might get the impression that he’s somehow representative of at least some of the base of the Democratic Party on this issue.  Certainly it’s well known that part of the 50- state strategy the Democrats concocted to win more elections included having a “big tent” approach, recruiting more conservative Democrats to win conservative districts. And sadly for pro-choicers, it’s often reproductive rights that are thrown under the bus in these efforts. The downplaying of reproductive rights is something the Democrats may regret every time Bart Stupak goes on television to proclaim his ignorance about what’s in the bill he’s opposing as smugly as possible, but even if that wasn’t true, there’s a reason to believe that now is the worst possible time to consider reproductive rights a negotiable issue when recruiting new blood to the Democratic party.

Why? Because views on abortion rights specifically are becoming more, not less partisan.  While overall views on abortion rights have stayed relatively stable in the U.S. since 1975, as this data from Gallup polling shows, partisan loyalties increasingly predict someone’s opinion on abortion rights.  In 1975, 18 percent of Republicans, 19 percent of Democrats, and 24 percent of independents felt that abortion should be legal in all circumstances.  In 2009, 12 percent of Republicans, 20 percent of independents, and 31 percent of Democrats thought it should be legal in all circumstances.  (This is down from a high of 38 percent of Democrats, probably due to the propaganda blitz from anti-choicers that implied that late term abortions are done for “convenience,” when most are done for health reasons.)

But that’s not all!  Thirty-three percent of Republicans want to ban all abortions, even those done to save a woman’s health or life.  But only 12 percent of Democrats feel the same way.  Those who want to keep it legal in “certain” circumstances are about the same in both parties—53 percent of Democrats and 54 percent of Republicans—but I’m fairly certain that if Gallup started to ask people about specific restrictions, you’d find that the Republicans probably have a much stricter view on average than the Democrats about who should be allowed to have an abortion.

What’s going on here?  Matt Ygelsias has a quick and accurate read on the situation:

There are presumably two reinforces dynamics at work here. One is that people with strong views on abortion [tend] to align themselves with the right party. And the other is that people with shallow convictions on abortion are aligning their views to conform [to] their co-partisans and the politicians they like.

Abortion has only been a major political issue for two generations, whereas most of the issues that define the party differences—size of the military, social spending, federal government, gun control—have been huge issues for 4 or 5 or more generations. It took some time for the political identities around reproductive rights to really form, and that’s a big part of why you’re seeing this polarization.

But a lot of the polarization has to do with feminism, its place in society and its place in the two parties.  It’s well worth remembering that the language of Roe v. Wade actually disappointed a number of feminists, because the decision abandoned the arguments about women’s equality for an argument that was more about the importance of medical authority and the right to privacy in the doctor/patient relationship.  In subsequent years, however, abortion has moved away from a public health issue for much of the public and has come to be seen as a women’s rights issue.  The memories of septic abortion wards are fading, and so people who might be hostile to women’s rights overall are far less likely to be swayed into supporting abortion rights by images of women with coat hangers hanging out their cervixes.

At the same time, the Democratic and Republican parties were shaped by the mainstream media to be, well, the feminine and masculine parties.  Because of inherent sexism in our society, Republicans were extremely happy with this.  Democrats have to walk a tighter line, trying to find ways not to be the “girlie party” that sets off misogynist alarm bells in the voters, but also trying to woo the growing numbers of female voters that have very specific feminist desires to see pay equity, better health care, and more social support.

Abortion and reproductive rights overall have become the stand-in issue for a whole host of culture-war struggles over a woman’s role in society.  Thirty years ago, I doubt you could say with much certainty that you could predict a person’s opinion on pay equity, federally subsidized day care, gay rights, health care reform, or even environmentalism from their opinion of abortion.  But nowadays, you can predict it with startling accuracy.  Supporting abortion rights is lumped together with all these other stances that are viewed as not just feminist, but feminine.  And where you fall in that milieu has less to do with your sex or gender identity, and more to do with what constellation of beliefs you find more compelling.

George Lakoff placed abortion into the constellation of “liberal” and “conservative” views in his book Moral Politics. In this book, he proposes that conservatives are hierarchy-oriented and liberals are egalitarian and nurturing.  From that perspective, the polarization about abortion makes complete sense.  Opponents to abortion see abortion as an escape hatch that allows women to behave sexually in ways that don’t fit into the strict moral framework they’ve created.  Liberals see sexuality as a matter of expression and individual taste, and see abortion rights as a public health issue, and an issue of rights, the exercise of which enables women to make choices in building the lives they choose to have.  Many Americans swing between these two extremes, depending on the situation.  But as time moves on and the debate over the issue becomes calcified, we’re going to see more, not less of this partisan polarization on the issue.

One thing is certain: As abortion becomes more polarized as an issue, the group of people who might be liberal on some issues, but are conservative on abortion, grows tinier by the day.  And investments by the Democratic Party to recruit that vanishing population would be far better spent elsewhere.