Here we are. A pro-choice party holds the presidency and both houses of Congress. Behind them stands a pro-choice majority in the country. Yet the Supreme Court, in a sweeping draft opinion from its most virulent attack dog backed by a hard-right majority, readies itself to reverse its holding of a constitutional right to abortion.
The fundamental agent in overturning Roe is the modern Republican Party—both its elected officials and, leading the way, the networks around them. But on our side, following the shock, has come a nagging grief and anger, directed inward toward the Democratic Party’s own culpability: How did we let this happen? The leaked opinion comes at an opportune moment to look in the mirror. Unified Democratic control in Washington, which began with such promise sixteen months ago, now sputters toward its near-certain end with far, far less to show for itself than we hoped on Inauguration Day 2021. The Alito opinion—no less shocking for its expected quality—lands with a crushing thud amid the frustrations of 2022, as the Democrats’ gerontocratic leadership stares passively across the abyss. And so the question should itself be posed bluntly: Did feckless Democrats fuck this one up, too, or was there nothing to be done?
The Dems’ House campaign committee leader, Sean Patrick Maloney, took an early and predictable swing on behalf of the latter argument: “It’s about Republicans. Not us.” Many didn’t buy it. As early as the oral arguments for Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health back in December, Rebecca Traister had raised the banner of Democratic complicity. She described Roe’s looming demise as, in part, the bitter fruit of decades of inaction by “a Democratic Party that has, before and since Roe, included lots of politicians who believe in abortion rights and access but simply do not prioritize it.”1 Now, in the wake of the Dobbs draft opinion leak, Lexi McMenamin noted the gall of Dems’ bromides to go out and vote in November sixteen months into a Democratic presidency that had failed to make good on Biden’s campaign promise to codify Roe: “[T]he Democrats woke up in power and only remembered how to blame the people that got them there, rather than take any responsibility.”2
In the narrow sense, the Democrats’ defenders are correct. Given the vacancies and vote counts as they existed, no easy stratagem could have produced a deus ex machina to save Roe. Windows of Democratic control have been rare. In 1993, 1994, 2009, 2010, and 2022, Democrats used them to confirm the appointments of justices who retired strategically. But at no point have pro-choice forces seeking to advance a nationwide statute protecting the right to abortion achieved both a pro-choice majority in the House and a sixty-vote supermajority in the Senate—or, a higher bar still, a sufficiently emboldened simple majority in the Senate to strike the filibuster for such a bill.
But in that predicament lies the rub—and the more important, and longer-term, question: how did we reach the point where Democratic control is the exception and not the rule, and where the party struggles to wield even the power it can grasp? The savviest fatalists point to Democrats’ disadvantages in the Senate and the Electoral College. But the inability to win victories big enough to surmount those barriers reflects the fundamental weaknesses of the post–New Deal party. Dobbs, in other words, requires an explanation that tracks how abortion has mapped onto the broader contours of American party politics through the past half century.
In our view, the path to the rollback of abortion rights has hardly involved a Democratic Party indifferent to or listless about the issue. Indeed, as factional battlers on all sides should pause to recognize, abortion presents a notable instance of unity at a time when intraparty tensions are running high. But a broader version of the critique, of a party in general that has too often failed to recognize what it’s up against, has more than a touch of validity. And that has meant that, no matter the fortitude that Democrats have shown specifically on abortion rights, the party has failed to do what would be necessary to realize its aspirations for reproductive justice. Widen out the view, and it becomes clear that the key moments came long before the present round of judicial insurgency on the right and hopelessness on the left, in the political realignments and conflicts—ranging far beyond abortion—of the 1970s. That moment presented real alternatives.
Let’s start at the end, with the proximate context and the debate over recent counterfactuals. One stands out. Had Ruth Bader Ginsburg retired in 2014 when Democrats still held the Senate and been replaced with a fellow moderate-liberal in a relatively drama-free confirmation like that of Ketanji Brown Jackson this spring, and nothing else in the world changed, the median justice would now be John Roberts. Assuming reports of Roberts’s position are correct, the Mississippi law at stake in Dobbs, with its fifteen-week abortion ban, would stand, but so would the core of the Court’s holding in Casey. But whatever Ginsburg’s decision to stay on the bench says or does not say about American liberalism, and however much the bobblehead dolls and the Halloween costumes reinforced her own self-importance, the ultimate result falls on her—not the Democratic leadership. (A White House lunch in early 2014 designed gingerly to broach retirement ended in failure, and there is no reason to think that a less subtle approach would have gone over any better.) The vacancy that McConnell held open across 2016, of course, remains the bitterest contingency to swallow—and, it turns out, the one that mattered the most. Could Democrats have reacted to such hardball with less indignance and more pugilism? Certainly. But had Democrats played all their cards up to and including, say, shutting down the government, Republicans might have held hearings—and then proceeded to vote down the nominee. The 2016 Democratic presidential primary and the repercussions that followed, the shock of Clinton’s defeat to Trump in November—both invite recriminations and what-ifs from all sides, no less futile for the immense retrospective stakes of the outcomes. We could continue to speculate, backward, from there: without an ill-timed Ebola outbreak that helped the GOP in the little-remembered 2014 midterms, might Democrats have held the Senate and confirmed a successor to Scalia? Even earlier, what if the ailing Thurgood Marshall had hung on until his death four days into the Clinton presidency rather than retiring the previous year? The what-ifs never end, but the game is unwinnable.
To a remarkable degree, party elites have sorted on abortion. When the House voted on the Women’s Health Protection Act of 2021, codifying the right to abortion prior to viability and thereafter if “continuation of the pregnancy would pose a risk to the pregnant patient’s life or health,” every Democrat but one was in favor, and every single Republican was opposed. The result was the same in the Senate, where a vote to advance the bill failed 49-51. (Because of the filibuster threshold, it takes sixty votes to open debate. One Democrat, Joe Manchin, and two Republicans, Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski, support more limited legislation, but even their votes would still fall far short of the margin needed to open debate.) The one Democrat who voted no in the House, the corrupt but loyal Henry Cuellar of Texas, faces a runoff challenger to his left, Jessica Cisneros, backed by national groups like Justice Democrats. It is a proxy fight about House Democratic leadership generally, as those leaders have been for decades happy to back members who don’t ruffle feathers in Washington and whom they deem good fits for their districts, but in terms of abortion politics, it’s a sideshow.
More generally, over the decades the pro-life Democrat has vanished from the higher rungs of American public life. Joe Biden himself has made the full move from pro-life Democrat to ambivalent defender of Roe to current opponent of the Hyde Amendment, which stops federal dollars from paying for abortion care under Medicaid or for federal employees. As late as 2010, the Affordable Care Act scraped through only because of a complicated deal with Bart Stupak, a pro-life Democrat from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, to extend the prohibition on direct abortion funding in the Hyde Amendment to the new law. Pennsylvania governor Bob Casey Sr. had pushed through the very laws, designed to test how far the Supreme Court would go in upholding restrictions on abortion, at stake in the Planned Parenthood v. Casey decision in 1992. Now his son, Bob Casey Jr., a senator from Pennsylvania who has long straddled the issue, has announced his support for the Women’s Health Protection Act. In that trajectory, he follows the pro-life Harry Reid, who worked closely with Planned Parenthood and masterminded lowering the cloture threshold to fifty to get more of Barack Obama’s nominees onto the federal courts.
What this story of abortion politics offers up are the byproducts of a broader party struggle, spanning decades, to build a consistent and durable electoral project. The recent spate of catastrophic luck in the confirmation sweepstakes could only materialize, after all, thanks to a longer run of consistently narrow margins and photo-finish elections. Try to explain that electoral story, and the focus shifts back—all the way to the breakdown of the New Deal order in the 1970s, which saw both the rise of the Republican right and the inauguration of liberalism’s lean years. Given the close links between anti-abortion activism and the rest of the resurgent right, anything other than a deeply pro-life post-1970s Republican Party is hard to imagine.
And what of the Dems? The prospect of building a more electorally robust Democratic Party out of that moment while also retaining a firm commitment to abortion rights would have required an elusive combination: A more favorable post-Fordian political economy and a set of party commitments very different from the male breadwinner model at the heart of the New Deal order. To imagine such a future is to imagine a polity very different from our own.
Two great ruptures cleaved the American party system in the 1960s and 1970s, together displacing the New Deal order and inaugurating our polarized era. The first was clear at the time. The second became clearer in retrospect.
First, the issue agenda in national politics vastly expanded, from environmental protection to consumer rights to an increasing skepticism of the national security establishment built during and after World War II. The civil rights movement provided a training ground and a template for other actors, first in the antiwar movement and then in the women’s movement. As Jim Crow gave traditional federalism a bad name, federal courts and agencies, often egged on by Congress, gave new scrutiny to the actions of state and local governments. And if it seemed at first that liberals were the big winners, activists on the right sought with increasing success to break open old barriers and fight battles along the emergent new cultural fronts, in a process of additive partisan strife that political scientists have termed “conflict extension.” The rise of abortion as an issue in national politics came as part and parcel of all these trends.
Second, the New Deal political economy came unglued. If the cold war and the congressional conservative coalition of Republicans and southern Democrats had circumscribed New Dealers’ grander aspirations, the postwar era still delivered rising prosperity across the board. But starting in the mid-1960s, the system showed serious stress. With commitments to Vietnam straining production, inflation accelerated, followed by the oil shocks of 1973 and 1979. The Carter-appointed Fed chair Paul Volcker eventually sent interest rates skyrocketing to wring out inflation and tame the labor unions whose wage-price spirals he blamed for the damage. In the steel and auto unions whose private welfare states defined the promise of those decades, membership cratered. The long rise in inequality had begun. And as the male family wage at the core of the older social compact teetered and fell, women marched into the workforce.
The twin ruptures transformed the parties. Through a post-1968 wave of reform, the Dems became a permeable party with multiple points of access. Their nomination system after 1968 offered new opportunities for activists to influence national politics, as did the midterm conferences the party held in 1974 and 1978. Feminists seized the moment. The National Women’s Political Caucus made its presence felt at the 1972 Democratic convention, clashing with McGovern forces over adding a pro-choice plank to the Democratic platform and losing a floor fight by a 3-2 margin. Four years later, feminists fought to ensure equal representation for all convention delegates (the “50-50 rule”). And at the 1980 convention, delegates passed a minority platform plank that supported government funding of abortions. But, as the feminist scholar Jo Freeman has written, “feminists fought for power independently of other struggles going on in the party.”3 Those other struggles included the work of labor activists fighting rearguard battles against business-backed assault. (In the 1984, they would also lead to mainstream feminists supporting their ally Walter Mondale over the insurgent Jesse Jackson.) That factionalism marked a crucial difference from the Republicans’ internal battles at the time, where activists from the right stood comparatively united. It’s also the critical insight for us to retain when imagining what different futures might have looked like had the coalitional alignments worked out differently.
What if—to take a favored counterfactual of many left-liberal scholars—the catastrophic 1970s had somehow ended with a different set of winners and losers, and with American labor in the driver’s seat? The historian Judith Stein, in an influential interpretation, imagined a way out of the crises of the “pivotal decade” with a renewed commitment to full employment and reinvestment in basic industries.4 This was the politics that labor’s closest Democratic ally, Hubert Humphrey, espoused to his death in 1978, along with Bayard Rustin and others in Social Democrats USA, the anti-McGovern wing of the old Socialist Party of America. They saw in the factional tumult of the 1970s the end of a Democratic Party that cared about working people—and they wanted none of it. Though Bernie Sanders has always been down-the-line pro-choice, the class-first Sanders campaign of 2016 resurrected similar tropes. (His observation to Rolling Stone in 2015 that “once you get off of the social issues—abortion, gay rights, guns—and into the economic issues, there is a lot more agreement than the pundits understand” offered at once an empirical claim about public opinion and an implicit suggestion of his own priorities.)
From the vantage point of 2022, the story of the Democrats’ abandonment of New Deal class politics in the 1970s retains its power as a party critique. But it is worth facing squarely that the labor-driven road not taken in the ’70s, a path powerfully influenced by Catholic social teaching and hostile to feminism, would have been far less friendly to abortion rights than the Democratic Party we actually got.
The AFL-CIO, headed from its formation in 1955 until 1979 by the crusty plumber George Meany, not only took a distinctly hawkish line on Vietnam and the counterculture but also lashed out against the Democrats’ organization reforms, which, by opening up the nomination process, weakened the clout of established players like big-city mayors—and labor leaders. These were, of course, the very forces that brought feminism into the Democratic coalition. The 1972 Democratic convention where the National Women’s Political Caucus first organized was also the only time the AFL-CIO ever failed to endorse the Democratic nominee. As Meany declared after the convention, using language written for him whose original authorship remains disputed, “We listened to the gay lib people—you know, the ones who want to legalize marriages between boys and boys and legalize marriages between girls and girls. We heard from the abortionists, and we heard from the people who look like Jacks, acted like Jills, and had the odor of johns about them.” Assuming for the sake of argument that an enduringly successful Democratic electoral project under such leadership was even possible, it manifestly would not have been one offering strong guarantees for abortion rights.
In any case, this was not the path that Democrats trod. As the party regrouped in the wilderness after 1981, it looked to rebuild its relationships with all partners, from labor to women’s groups to trade associations. And just as importantly, with Tony Coelho at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee taking the lead, the Democrats looked to raise their competitive game in the escalating money chase of American politics. That meant looking for funds wherever they could find them.
For feminists in the Democratic Party as much as anyone else, political influence meant playing that money game. Take, as a kind of synecdoche, an organization that encapsulates a much broader story: EMILY’s List. Women seeking public office encountered the highest hurdles in early stages of fundraising, which trapped them in a catch-22 of nonviability. A new venture, targeted at getting donations from women for Democratic women, aimed to fix the problem. National Women’s Political Caucus veteran and IBM heiress Ellen Malcolm spearheaded EMILY’s List (Early Money Is Like Yeast, because “it makes the dough rise”), which raised $350,000 for two Senate candidates in the 1986 cycle.5 From the outset, abortion was its litmus test for candidate support, while other issues were flexible. EMILY’s List soon became one of the largest PACs in the country and, given the high-finance exigencies of 1980s and 1990s politics, a potent intraparty force. The convention fights that marked the 1970s and early 1980s had simmered down. (The last contested vote on a Democratic convention floor was 1988.) Instead, feminist influence in a wide-open Democratic Party came through money—and for Democratic women with the wherewithal to give, abortion was the signature issue.
The kind of elite issue-checklist politics that EMILY’s List typifies has been supremely effective at making the party pro-choice. But how they’ve done so has set a trap. A bedrock national majority in the United States requires winning more often, and in more places, than is possible in a coalition that increasingly draws its support from the well-educated in and around big metro areas. A politics tightly oriented around culturally liberal donors’ priorities has helped motor the same forces of education polarization, geographic concentration, and failure to build durable cross-class majorities that have left the party too electorally crippled to effectively defend abortion rights. This is hardly what pro-choice activists wanted, but it was what happened as a consequence of taking the best available path given limited alternatives in the post–New Deal party. And that is the deep tragedy of our present predicament.
Evading this trap would have required an alternative party path—a class-oriented feminism that folded reproductive rights into a robust maternalist and pro-worker agenda. But such a politics proved fatefully marginal to the party’s actual trajectory.6 The next iteration of Democratic moderates, during the 1980s and 1990s, were as hostile to labor as they were to what they saw as the group-oriented demands of activists speaking only for special interests.
As the party sort continued and New Democrats looked upscale to new “Information Age” voters, they became more comfortable moving beyond the nervous language of “safe, legal, and rare.” But, as Bill Clinton’s signature on the welfare reform bill of 1996 attested, such ascendant cultural liberalism had sharp limits when it came to class and gender. As the political scientist Kira Sanbonmatsu has shown, abortion was sui generis among issues where parties mentioned gender in their platforms—the only issue in which Democrats and Republicans cleaved out diametrically opposite positions.7 On child care, family leave, and equal pay, emphases differed but the parties gestured in the same directions. That dichotomy suggests the empty space in which polarization might have developed along different lines.
Notwithstanding both the “special interest” label ascribed to them by moderate Democrats and the accusations of racial and class blinders advanced by radical critics, the major multi-issue feminist organizations were, as a matter of formal program, down-the-line liberals on not only cultural but also economic issues. But the radical critics identified something real, nonetheless. When civic organizations seek contributions, they depend on appeals and approaches that motivate donors. Those donors’ preferences then help shape both the groups’ priorities and their claims to representation. For feminist groups, abortion appeals did the trick; broader campaigns organized around working-class women did not. Some members of the National Organization for Women expressed outright hostility to the notion of providing legal support to welfare recipients, whom they deemed lazy and promiscuous. “We stopped doing direct mail on that issue,” one official reported.8 And so universal childcare, paid family leave, and combating the feminization of poverty remained at the back of the feminist electoral agenda. The problem, again, was not in the feminist agenda itself, but in the organizable alternatives in American politics.
In the American party duopoly, it takes two to tango. Was another path on reproductive rights possible for the GOP?9 It is worth spelling out briefly why we deem the prospect of a substantially altered post-1970s Republican Party unlikely.10 The pro-life movement succeeded by fitting its horizons to the GOP. In the Democratic Party, the economic and social dislocations of the 1970s created complex fissures and cross-pressures. In the Republican Party, by contrast, the myriad activists who pushed rightwards were much more deeply enmeshed, sharing the same intraparty foes whom they all deemed too soft on liberalism run amok. The early stirrings on abortion had begun even before Roe. At the instigation of Pat Buchanan, Richard Nixon wrote to Terence Cardinal Cooke in 1972 to inveigh against New York’s progressive abortion legislation, fretting that “the liberalized abortion policies in effect in some sections of this country seem to me impossible to reconcile with either our religious traditions or our Western heritage.” But activism among the right, more than leadership from its very top, proved key. Phyllis Schlafly, a savvy Republican player for a generation already (her 1967 loss for the presidency of the National Federation of Republican Women at the hands of what she deemed a nefarious cabal marked a particular inflection point), led STOP ERA and proved a critical pro-life force, as well. At the behest of Reagan delegates, the 1976 GOP platform called for a constitutional amendment to ban abortion. By 1980, the platform had even removed a clause recognizing support for Roe among some Republicans.
As white evangelicals joined together with conservative Catholics to flex their political muscle inside the GOP, they increasingly made the abortion issue their own. The conservative legal movement saw Roe as the very worst overreach among the drastic errors of the Warren and early Burger courts, and over the following decades it carefully shepherded judicial nominations to groom Supreme Court picks and prevent any surprises. In the states, emboldened Republicans after 2010 pushed and pushed to limit abortions, engineering the legal confrontations that set up the Supreme Court to axe Roe.
The louche Donald Trump, a late-in-life convert to the pro-life cause, happily delegated his judicial appointments to it in return for steadfast support no matter his constitutional foibles. And in 2016 and 2020, with Supreme Court seats on the line after justices’ election-year deaths, Senate Republicans led by Mitch McConnell acted ruthlessly to maximize their advantage. McConnell may care more about the Court rulings against campaign finance regulation and business regulation—and, shrewdly, James Bopp, longtime counsel to the National Right to Life Committee, made unregulated campaign finance his cause, too11—but the tight and seamless coalition with anti-abortion forces has led us to the present juncture. The contemporary party has inched away from the vision of public morality that defined it for decades and toward a more helter-skelter politics of lib-owning. It is a testament to the downstream impact of deep coalitions that anti-abortion politics, so central to that earlier vision and just a bit askance from the present one, has benefited so dramatically from the party’s new institutional hardball.
As for the Democrats, the road not traveled—via a cross-class feminist program—suggests what an emphatically pro-choice party able to command a national majority might have looked like. One starting place might be the NOW Bill of Rights. Adopted in 1967, it put economic issues first, including calls for the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission to combat “sex discrimination in employment . . . with the same vigor as it enforces the prohibitions against racial discrimination,” and for universal childcare and expanded jobs, housing, and welfare programs open to all. The last plank called for “The right of women to control their own reproductive lives.”12 To imagine a politics starting from there is to confront an alternative resolution to both of the transformations that rocked the Democrats in the 1970s.
Some contemporary actors, in their own ways, were thinking of just such a possibility. Dismayed at the feckless Carter-era Democrats and the timidity of American labor in the face of resurgent union-busting, Doug Fraser, then the president of the United Auto Workers, formed an umbrella organization called the Progressive Alliance in 1979. His aim was a party politics more closely aligned with left-leaning unions and social movements. “We in the UAW intend to reforge the links with those who believe in struggle: the kind of people who sat-down in the factories in the 1930s and who marched in Selma in the 1960s,” Fraser declared.
But the Progressive Alliance shuttered just weeks into the Reagan presidency, as Fraser tended to UAW business close to home in the wake of a spate of plant closings. In its absence, there was no venue left to bring a laborite politics together with new social movements. And inside elective politics, the paucity of women in elected office made coalition-building harder at the critical moments. A universal maternalist politics might not have been possible, nor is it any guarantee to say that it would have fully forestalled the same underlying dynamics that have reoriented political cleavages across the rich democracies. But to consider the possibility is to reckon with the larger analytical question that matters now.
In the new century, the relentless processes of the great party sort thinned the ranks of pro-life Democrats in Washington and continued to align abortion views and voting behavior in the mass public. On role-of-government questions, too, Democrats moved leftward in ways they had not in the decades before, with an appetite for big-ticket spending and an appreciation for unions among the party’s policy mandarins unseen since the searing experiences of the seventies.
An emergent Democratic agenda for the “care economy” has taken up the cudgel foregone decades ago, with calls for vast new federal spending on and mandates for paid leave, childcare, and preschool—with the goal to overcome the old lines between the deserving and underserving that cleave American social policy. The idea is to bridge the old gender divides in employment and welfare-state policy alike, doing what Democrats five decades ago could not. But they have no near-term prospects of passage. To assuage advocates while keeping costs down, the Build Back Better Act included a grab-bag of proposals with awkward phase-outs and eligibility rules, with the hope that the programs might each sprout durable political support down the line. Whatever the merits of that logic, the proposals are in the discard pile now, excluded from any slim version of the bill that might ultimately become law. With wider majorities, it might be a different story. For now, the votes aren’t there.
Perhaps a broadly family-oriented suite of programs around care could begin to reverse the electoral trends of education polarization and geographic sorting that increasingly imperil reproductive rights. That would provide a better complement to a sustained post-Dobbs push at the federal and state levels than simply leaning into present trends and hoping for the best. But now is a more ossified environment than what prevailed in the 1970s, with only faint stirrings of the labor militancy and issue-agenda tumult that marked that decade. The opportunities to shift the terrain have narrowed. Maybe there was a viable alternative path to a durable pro-choice Democratic majority; maybe not. That is not a satisfying or a happy answer at a moment that feels so desperate. But, standing at the precipice, here we are.
Jo Freeman, “Whom You Know versus Whom You Represent: Feminist Influence in the Democratic and Republican Parties,” in The Women’s Movements of the United States and Western Europe. ↩
Judith Stein, Pivotal Decade: How the United States Traded Factories for Finance in the Seventies. ↩
See Ellen Malcolm with Craig Unger, When Women Win: EMILY’s List and the Rise of Women in American Politics. ↩
Our larger argument owes much to Jane Mansbridge, Why We Lost the ERA. ↩
Kira Sanbonmatsu, Democrats, Republicans, and the Politics of Women’s Place. ↩
Quoted in Felicia Kornbluh, “Feminists and the welfare debate,” Dollars & Sense, November-December, 1996. ↩
For a view emphasizing public opinion, see Neil O’Brian, “Before Reagan: The Development of Abortion’s Partisan Divide,” Perspectives on Politics, December 2020. ↩
See, on these themes, Christina Wolbrecht, The Politics of Women’s Rights; and Marjorie Spruill, Divided We Stand. ↩
Mary Ziegler, Dollars for Life. ↩
In Before Roe v. Wade, eds. Linda Greenhouse and Reva B. Siegel. ↩