December 18, 2023 | Reading Time: 4 minutes
A vote for abortion rights is a vote for democracy
By centering concrete goals, the threats to egalitarian democracy are revealed, and no one is left wondering who the real authoritarians are.
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On Friday, the Associated Press released the results of new polling that should raise concerns among liberals and Democrats who argue that “democracy is on the ballot” in the coming presidential election. The polling results should challenge the idea, accepted as true by many liberals and Democrats, that a vote for democracy is also a vote for Joe Biden.
Moreover, the polling results should spur debate about messaging. Should Democrats favor an abstraction like “democracy”? Or should they favor concrete goals achievable only by way of democratic politics? The real answer is likely both. (Why not cover all the bases?) But by the time you get to the end of this piece, I hope you’ll see that concrete goals, like abortion rights, are probably the better choice.
The Associated Press found that “62 percent of adults say democracy in the US could be at risk depending on who wins next fall. Majorities of Democrats (72 percent) and Republicans (55 percent) feel the same way.” This would seem to suggest that recent efforts at pro-democracy rhetoric are paying off. It would also seem to suggest that a consensus is starting to shape up, about the dangers posed by Donald Trump.
“Democracy” is not, and never will be, shorthand for “vote blue.” It’s shorthand for nothing in particular, because anyone can see anything that they want to see in a term as abstract as “democracy.”
That’s far from the case. The AP-NORC poll found that “87 percent of Democrats and 54 percent of independents believe a second Trump term would negatively affect US democracy.” The poll also found that, “for Republicans, 82 percent believe democracy would be weakened by another Biden win, with 56 percent of independents agreeing.”
So that’s not a consensus. That’s polarization. That should tell you that “democracy is on the ballot” isn’t the winner that some people believe it to be. “Democracy” is not, and never will be, shorthand for “vote blue.” It’s shorthand for nothing in particular, because anyone can see anything that they want to see in a term as abstract as “democracy.”
To be clear, I think these Republican and independent respondents are wrong. I prefer a definition of democracy provided by Thomas Zimmer: “a system of institutionalized popular sovereignty that plays by majoritarian rules and treats all citizens as equals.” But as he told me, that has often competed with, and often lost to, another: democracy as a system by which white straight Christian men dominate the top of society and write the rules by which everyone else is expected to live.
When Donald Trump says, as he did recently, that the president is the “destroyer of American democracy,” he’s obviously not talking about it as a form of “institutionalized popular sovereignty that plays by majoritarian rules and treats all citizens as equals.” Biden is clearly on the side of that vision of democracy. Trump is talking about the president as the avatar of democratic politics centering the rule of law. That could prevent white straight Christian men from acting as they often have in American history — with impunity for democracy.
It’s not that we should stop talking about democracy being on the ballot. (It is on the ballot.) It’s that we should probably put it in the background, as pro-democracy arguments can also be used against Biden. (The prosecutors investigating Trump’s role in the J6 insurrection and his theft of government secrets work in the Biden administration. Because of that, Trump said last week, that the president is trying to jail him. So the real authoritarian is Biden!)
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In the foreground, we should probably put concrete objectives that can be achieved only by way of democratic politics. I’m thinking here specifically of abortion rights. Antiabortion politics is inherently antidemocratic. A vote for abortion rights is a vote for democracy.
We know this, because of the growing fear among antiabortion activists that democratic politics will undo four decades of political gains, including the overturning of Roe. They had claimed that the “abortion issue” should be sent back to the states, but it’s in states such as Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan and Ohio that antiabortion activists have seen a democratic revival, or even enshrinement, of abortion rights.
Politico reported this morning on coordinated efforts by antiabortion activists to keep abortion questions off ballot measures in Arizona, Florida and Nevada and other swing states. In addition to ad-buys and public events, “Republicans are also appealing to state courts to keep referendums off the ballot, while GOP lawmakers in states including Missouri and Oklahoma are pushing to raise the threshold for an amendment to pass or to make it to the ballot in the first place.”
Here’s the most important thing: “These efforts are seen as an implicit admission that antiabortion groups don’t believe they can win at the ballot box — even in red states — and that the best way to keep restrictions on the procedure is to keep voters from weighing in directly.” One antiabortion activist came right out and said it: “We don’t believe those rights should be subjected to majority vote.”
Amazingly, fear of democratic politics undoing four decades of political gains is spreading from swing states to states that no one ever thought would be a problem. First, it was Kansas, then Kentucky, then Ohio! Now it’s Missouri, Oklahoma, Nebraska, South Dakota and even Arkansas! Antiabortion politics is antidemocratic politics. By centering such concrete objectives, the threats to egalitarian democracy are revealed, and no one is left wondering who the real authoritarians are.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.