life after roe

Yes, the Left Should ‘Vote Harder’

Photo: Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

To be a leftist in America is to be a connoisseur of defeat. We are intimately familiar with all its textures and flavors. We know just how to cut its bitterness with a splash of vindication, to elevate a stale portion of hope with a hearty side of sanctimony, recrimination, or rancor. Conditioned to expect defeat, we have learned to take perverse comfort in its arrival. For the left, the taste of failure is a home-cooked meal. We’d prefer something else, but we never feel more like ourselves than when we’re losing.

This virtuosity for metabolizing defeat was on display Monday night, when it became clear that the Supreme Court apparently intends to overturn Roe v. Wade. Though some liars and fools have sought to do so, there is no point in understating the immensity of this loss. If the draft majority opinion leaked to Politico is indeed the court’s final decision, access to abortion will be banned or severely curtailed in nearly half the states. The reversal of Roe will be a horrendous step back for women’s liberty, autonomy, and equality, immediately burdening millions of Americans, especially those too poor or otherwise unable to travel out of state for a legal abortion.

It was my misfortune (perhaps yours as well, dear reader) to be on Twitter when this news broke. As right-wingers gloated and mocked our anguish, we commiserated and dedicated ourselves to renewed struggle. Reassuring echoes of “don’t mourn; organize” flitted across the screen. Dates were set for protests. Money for abortion funds was raised. And commitments were made to defy the state, when necessary, to help those in need.

Amid these gestures of resilience and solidarity, another familiar ritual took shape — one we might prosaically call the Blame Game. I’m not sure who struck first. There must’ve been a tweet; somewhere, someone must’ve said something about voting, about how it would be necessary to elect more pro-choice Democrats and make sure a Democrat is president the next time one of our nine doddering super-clerics kicks his oxygen habit. But before I could locate the source, my timeline filled with friends and colleagues loudly resenting the suggestion. If voting for Democrats was the answer, why did this happen? Don’t they have the presidency? Don’t they have Congress? One tweet epitomized the sentiment: “How can your response to this be vote lmao. We did, it literally didn’t work.” (This tweet earned 179,000 likes.)

Let’s be clear: The complaint against the “vote harder” appeal is not without merit. (Here it is well-articulated in The New Republic and Teen Vogue.) The Democrats do hold power, as they have in the past. Party leaders support abortion rights only sheepishly, and rarely take risks in their defense. (Right now, congressional leaders are aggressively backing an anti-abortion incumbent against a pro-choice challenger in Texas.) Ruth Bader Ginsburg should’ve retired during Obama’s second term; a healthy and principled party would’ve made sure she did. Many of us have voted again and again for Democrats who promise to do this or that progressive thing, and they seldom do. To some of my friends on the left, loyalty to the Democrats is a kind of cruel optimism, a fantasy attachment that exacerbates the problems it proposes to solve. (Vote Blue, one more time, and then we will turn to building socialism!) These leftists have a voting addiction — held captive by precisely the object we believe will set us free.

None of this changes some stubborn realities, however. In a post-Roe world, the abortion rights of millions of Americans will depend on electing pro-choice majorities in purple state legislatures. Holding onto the presidency until Alito or Thomas chokes on a Werther’s Original is the surest path to reversing the reactionary bent of the Court. And Republicans could try to pass a national ban on abortion if they gain a trifecta by 2024. We can’t let that happen.

If we are asking each other to show up for protests and civil disobedience, to donate our wages to abortion funds, to create networks of mutual aid and conspire to break laws, I really can’t see why we wouldn’t also ask each other to vote — not in the abstract, as some sort of a prayer to the God of American Democracy, and not because we believe the Democrats “deserve” to win, but, very concretely, because replacing anti-choice electeds with pro-choice electeds is one of a range of strategies we will need to mitigate the worst effects of Roe’s demise, and, eventually, restore abortion rights for all.

The defeat of Roe was not inevitable. Recall: 80,000 votes in three states swung the 2016 election for Trump, which allowed him to appoint three of the five justices who will likely vote to overturn Roe. We may resent it when Democrats invoke that figure to discipline the left, but I am haunted by it on a week like this. Building the power necessary to influence political outcomes is a larger project; it involves a lot more than merely saying “please vote.” Indeed, it involves doing many of the things the left is already doing — like trying to rebuild the labor movement. But a project which hopes to influence politics in America is simply not well served by disparaging the efficacy of voting as such.

(You’ll notice, for example, that the conservative movement, which just achieved a momentous victory decades in the works, doesn’t discourage its partisans from voting; indeed, it typically tries to prevent its enemies from doing so.)

I sometimes feel the left prefers marginality to the burden of responsibility. We wish to be merely aggrieved observers of politics passing us by (“the right did this awful thing and the Democrats didn’t stop them!”) as opposed to political agents with a capacity to influence the course of history. But we are only blameless if we are powerless. And we should not be willing to make that trade.

“It takes courage to tell the truth about oneself, about one’s own defeat,” wrote the socialist playwright Bertolt Brecht. “Many of the persecuted lose their capacity for seeing their own mistakes. It seems to them that the persecution itself is the greatest injustice. The persecutors are wicked simply because they persecute; the persecuted suffer because of their goodness.”

But if our “goodness” has been defeated, Brecht writes, it was “a weak goodness, a bad, indefensible, unreliable goodness.” He continues: “It will not do to grant that goodness must be weak as rain must be wet. It takes courage to say that the good were defeated not because they were good, but because they were weak.

The left is correct about reproductive justice — we have been on the side of “goodness.” But we lost. Not just the Democrats: the grassroots, the socialists, the reproductive justice organizations. Small and large. We all failed to prevent this outcome.

Winning back reproductive rights will take many kinds of political activity, and it will definitely involve defeating our opponents at the polls. We’ve got a democracy for now, and it seems highly irresponsible to forfeit it to our enemies prematurely, if only to save ourselves the shame of failing to beat them.

Yes, the Left Should ‘Vote Harder’