One week ago, the Supreme Court refused to block a Texas abortion ban that went into effect the night before. The law incentivizes citizen snitches to sue anyone who plans, provides, or aids an abortion. My leftist friends and colleagues spiraled in despair. Many of us knew this was probably coming, but it still hurt to watch it become a reality.
And then the quick takes began: Pro-choice Twitter urged uterus-having Texans to move out of state. The subtext was clear: The Democrats—the moderate ones and the more leftist ones, too—needed to blame the Republicans for this situation. Many progressives seem to believe that the causes stem from two origins. The first is local voting issues—gerrymandering, conservative ideology in the region, systemic voter suppression, etc. The second implied origin is the current state of the Supreme Court, where one-third of the justices are Trump nominees who are appointed for life.
These things are certainly at fault for the current state of reproductive rights and justice, and it’s easy to blame Republicans for this grim future, but that analysis is overly simplistic—and it refuses to acknowledge the fact that, really, the Democratic Party allowed this to happen, largely unchecked.
Learning from my evangelical upbringing
I grew up in the religious right. I was the child of fundamentalists who participated in the Quiverfull dominionist agenda, the oldest of nine kids raised to be right-wing culture warriors in the fight to transform America into a Christian dominionist state.
I was homeschooled, and I got married at 21 to a fellow Quiverfull-raised former homeschooler who planned on having a big family just like our parents had done. This would fulfill our God-mandated destiny, which in reality was a political agenda to produce white babies and raise them in largely white conservative Christian enclaves, thus retaining ideological purity of belief and allowing us to transform America into a pro-life, dominionist state.
When my marriage ended, the hold these beliefs had on me collapsed. The whole system, I realized, was a velveted patriarchy that was only interested in me as long as I was submissive, willing to bear children, and suffer quietly while the men ran the show.
So, I left. I dismantled my entire belief system and political rubric of seeing the world, and began to explore the world outside of my Christian supremacist bubble. And I went leftward, following my heart toward immigrant rights, abortion rights, reproductive justice, queer and trans rights, and so on. I came out as nonbinary trans. I helped with Democratic political organizing projects on various levels, and I started following local government meetings, something I hadn’t done since I was a fundamentalist Christian keeping tabs on homeschooling and parental rights issues.
One thing I quickly learned was that, unlike right-wing culture warriors, the left doesn’t have much of a functional grassroots organizing practice. Or rather, the left has good, solid organizing on the local grassroots level, especially when working on issues that the Democratic Party isn’t willing to take on directly. This is queer organizing, this is the early days of Black Lives Matter and similar groups, this is the Sunrise Movement, this is ACT UP. But once progressive issues become more mainstream and moderate, the organizing praxis becomes scattershot and reactionary at best.
Conservatives built a solid tradition of grassroots strategy in the late 1960s and early 1970s, largely thanks to the work of Phyllis Schlafly and her Eagle Forum mailing list, which proved that angry conservative housewives who devoted their free time to hounding local officials and building a patriarchy-friendly voting bloc were highly effective. That strategy successfully defeated the Equal Rights Amendment and provided Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority with a blueprint for how to activate the religious right: get the vote out and make constituents call in about specific issues to influence elected officials’ votes. After a few flops in attempts to manufacture crises around which the religious right could coalesce, the leadership of the Moral Majority found that framing abortion access post-Roe v. Wade as “on-demand” abortion worked well to get evangelicals angry and voting.
Prior to 1978, the evangelicals were largely neutral or pro-choice when it came to abortion and birth control. They refused to side with the Catholics on this issue, urging that “therapeutic” abortion was an essential part of health care for those who needed abortions to save their own lives or prevent added trauma following rape or incest. But Schlafly’s activation of a joint coalition of Catholic and evangelical women voters clued in the religious right that perhaps opposing abortion was the way to go on winning the White House against incumbent Jimmy Carter.
They tried it, and it worked—Reagan got elected, and the conservative strategy was set for the next 40 years and beyond.
It’s not too late
This organizing method has been in use ever since. It’s been refined and scaled up to give us things like the Home School Legal Defense Association to keep the United States from ratifying the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, or ADF’s intern-to-gadfly pipeline to bring cases like Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado. It’s effective as hell, and every young teen in my church and homeschool circles knew how to participate in it. We did so fervently, especially on “pro-life” issues.
Since going left, I’m frustrated to see that there hasn’t been a replication of these methods. We have allowed the right to best us on the small-scale, local-level organizing strategy for the last 40 years, and now we have effectively lost Roe v. Wade to their dedication to the small acts of everyday organizing that we have never really replicated. Much of this seems to be because when Democrats do achieve some victory, the organizing stops or slows until there’s a new crisis. Reactionary organizing is not a sustainable strategy. It’s an effective way to stay defensive but slowly lose ground over time. The attrition of that approach has cost us Roe v. Wade.
We’re late to the game, but it’s not too late to get better at this.
Who’s running for your city council? School board? What’s the state of municipal zoning laws in your area when it comes to multigenerational housing options or the unhoused? Are your libraries fully funded and thriving? Who’s doing Narcan trainings in your neighborhood, and who’s organizing food drives? Where does your water come from and why? Answering these questions is the first step to stemming the tide against the effects of the right’s long, slow work to dismantle equality and human rights protections in our nation.
Correction: This piece was updated to delete an incorrect relationship between Phyllis Schlafly and ACT UP.