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The Political Power of Pro-Choice Protests
On July 8, President Joe Biden signed an executive order that directed the Department of Health and Human Services to take steps to protect and expand access to medical abortion and contraception while ensuring that patients are eligible to obtain emergency care. In addition, the order seeks to push back against threats posed by surveillance in states outlawing abortion by directing federal agencies to take additional actions to protect patient privacy. The order was in response to a two-week pressure campaign by leftists who were frustrated by the Democratic Party’s tepid response to the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which overturned the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling protecting abortion rights. Many threatened that they would not fund or vote for the Democratic Party unless leaders took action.
The ways in which this pressure moved Biden from inaction to an executive order illustrates what activist scholars such as historian Howard Zinn long argued: One can’t be neutral on a moving train, and change only occurs through sustained protest and agitation from the citizenry. Indeed, Lawrence O’Donnell explained that when he worked for the Democratic Party, they ignored the demands from the Left because many were never willing to actually withhold their votes on election day—ultimately succumbing to the fear tactics of the party’s ongoing “vote blue no matter who” propaganda campaign. As Biden’s recent executive order illustrates, those seeking to codify abortion rights need to agitate and annoy Democratic leadership to take aggressive action.
Case in point: Even though the decision was leaked a month ahead of time, Biden did not devise a plan to protect abortion rights following the Dobbs decision. Meanwhile, Republicans made plans years in advance, passing so-called trigger laws that automatically outlawed abortion in states once Roe v. Wade was overturned. The Democratic Party response was limited to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi reading a poem, Vice President Kamala Harris tweeting a picture of herself watching pro-choice protests, Democratic members of Congress singing “God Bless America” on the steps of the U.S. Capitol, a vast fundraising campaign, and chiding the electorate for not “voting harder” for Democrats—what allegedly allowed this all to happen.
Those protesting from the Left were showing that any fundraising campaigns or voter drives would be moot until they had faith in Biden as a change-maker.
Through podcasts, op-eds, street demonstrations, and more, progressives and leftists mobilized to pressure the Democratic Party to stop dithering on abortion rights and take substantive action, including removing the filibuster, packing the court, or adding abortion clinics to federal lands near states that outlawed abortion. They rebuked the Democratic Party in general, and Biden in particular, for serving as enablers of the Republican Party’s anti-abortion agenda. Leftists were met by Democratic Party apologists who took to social media to deflect and blame Bernie Sanders supporters, Susan Sarandon, and other so-called far-left types for taking down Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign, which they argued paved the way for Trump to appoint three Supreme Court Justices who were integral in overturning Roe v. Wade. However, these self-righteous social media users were outflanked by dozens of other Democratic Party apparatchiks, who echoed the critiques from the Left.
These included celebrities such as Debra Messing and “two dozen leading Democratic politicians and operatives, as well as several within the West Wing.” They complained that they were being asked to do more fundraising and voting, while the Democratic Party—which controls the executive and legislative branches—dithered on abortion rights. Some even questioned if the president was capable of taking action and “mocked how the President stood in the foyer of the White House, squinting through his remarks from a teleprompter as demonstrators poured into the streets, making only vague promises of action because he and aides hadn’t decided on more.”
Those protesting from the Left were showing that any fundraising campaigns or voter drives would be moot until they had faith in Biden as a change-maker. This was certainly difficult to imagine from Biden, who promised wealthy donors in 2020 that if he was elected president, “Nothing would fundamentally change.” However, these critiques seemed to put pressure on Democratic Party leaders. After the Dobbs decision was announced, Biden was reportedly making a deal to appoint an anti-abortion lawyer to a lifetime judicial appointment, but as the pressure from progressives mounted, his rhetoric became more aggressive as he expressed his willingness to remove the filibuster to codify abortion rights. Time will tell, but further inaction likely does not bode well for the president.
The Democratic leadership will also never give progressive activists credit for forcing the party to try to protect abortion rights.
Despite the notable shift, that rhetoric has done little to mask previous inaction. As a result, the protests continue, and his poll numbers continue to fall. Since Biden’s election, Americans’ confidence in the Office of the Presidency in general dropped 15 points, from 38% in 2021 to 23% in 2022—two points lower than the Supreme Court. Further, Biden’s approval rating—36% on July 6, 2022—was just two points above Trump’s dismal 34% when leaving office. Translation: Currently, some 64% of Democrats do not want Biden to run for a second term.
Elites never admit failure. The Democratic Party will conceal, but never confront, that it failed to protect abortion rights from the far Right and the GOP. As a possible defeat may await Biden’s party this fall in the midterms, its members will blame the other party or voters, never themselves, for promoting candidates and policies that will not keep them in office. This was already demonstrated in a July 10 interview on CBS in which Vice President Harris claimed that Democrats were not at fault for the reversal of Roe because they “rightly believed” that abortion rights were settled law. This is rich coming from someone who served in the U.S. Senate with colleagues who openly appointed anti-abortion judges and advocated for overturning Roe v. Wade.
The Democratic leadership will also never give progressive activists credit for forcing the party to try to protect abortion rights. Their disdain for progressives was illustrated by their efforts to undermine Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaigns and remove all funding for Nevada’s Democratic Party after a slate of Democratic Socialists were elected to lead the party. These efforts seem to communicate that risking a Republican Party victory is worth neutralizing progressive activists.
It is not surprising that the White House communications director Kate Bedingfield, who said Biden’s response to Dobbs was “not to satisfy some activists who have been consistently out of step with the mainstream of the Democratic Party.” In reality, activists may not be in line with the neoliberal corporate leaders in the DNC, but they are not out of step with the mainstream, considering that their goal to protect abortion rights is supported by 61% of the electorate, and 80% of those who are members of or lean toward the Democratic Party. Biden finally acted when he signed the July 8 executive order, which is hardly a substitute for codified abortion rights, but it illustrates that sustained protest directed at those in power is the only hope for making change. More protest and pressure will be needed to achieve a goal of passing legislation that codifies abortion rights.
The party can continue to berate pro-choice activists to deflect its failures, but the reality is that the activists are moving the party to action and should be embraced. There is still a long way to go, but this should be a lesson to those who support abortion rights or any other civil or human rights policy: To make change, one must protest and pester those in power, not just vote and hope. Rather than attack the Left, Democratic voters should hold those in power accountable to their base and a majority of Americans. As early 20th-century labor activist and songwriter Joe Hill once said in the face of defeat, “Don’t mourn, organize.” Then, agitate like hell for real change. Democracy is not a spectator sport. There is much to be done. Let’s get busy.
Published with permission from Project Censored.
Dr. Nolan Higdon is professor of History and Communication at California State University, East Bay. His academic work primarily focuses on news media, propaganda, critical media literacy, and social justice pedagogies, and he has been a guest commentator for multiple news media outlets. He is a board member for the Media Freedom Foundation, a frequent contributor to Project Censored's annual “Censored” books series, and a co-founder of the Global Critical Media Literacy Project.
Mickey Huff is director of Project Censored and the president of the Media Freedom Foundation. He has edited or coedited ten volumes of in the “Censored” book series and contributed numerous chapters to these annuals since 2008. He has also co-authored essays on media and propaganda for other scholarly publications. He is professor of social science and history at Diablo Valley College and a lecturer in the Communications Department at California State University, East Bay.