Keeping Your Eyes on the Prize: Why the Pro-Life Movement Won, and What the Pro-Choice Movement Must Do Now
It is a bitter thing to lose a battle. It is bitterer still to hear the chortling and the hosannas of the winning side as they celebrate a long-hoped-for victory.
For those of us who are staunchly pro-choice, it has been a very bitter two days.
As hard as it is, in the aftermath of Dobbs, I’ve been reading a lot of right-wing commentary. There’s a little bit of triumphalism; a lot of exulting; a good deal of strategizing about next moves; an outpouring thanksgiving for the tireless work of many decades that led to Friday’s Supreme Court decision.
Over and over again, there is gratitude for Donald Trump. My friends on the right are not generally diehard MAGA types; they do not regard the 45th president as the Lord’s anointed, some sort of latter-day King David. Most voted for him twice; most with considerable reluctance in 2016, and with varying increases in enthusiasm in 2020. They found him vulgar, unreliable, immoral, and craven. They liked the sound of his policies, but had little hope that he would follow through on his repeated promises to appoint justices who would end Roe. Trump had to be better than Hillary and Uncle Joe, they figured, but feared it would not be by much.
Friday morning, just minutes after the Dobbs decision came down, the popular conservative writer Bethany Shondark Mandel tweeted, “I thought it absurd that he’d actually choose good justices, and that we’d end up here. So thankful to have been wrong. Thankful to those with more faith than I had.”
Over and over again, my friends on the right discussed how Trump had done what Reagan and the two Bushes could not – deliver a court willing to end legal abortion. This profligate? This bumbling grifter who held the Bible upside down and couldn’t even be bothered to offer up some sort of passable testimony of personal rebirth in Christ? This man had done what no one had believed possible. Over and over again on Twitter, I saw conservatives exulting – and reminding themselves how right they were to trust the Message despite the very great flaws of the Messenger.
We on the left like to tie ourselves into knots trying to understand what could lead so many millions to embrace someone we find so odious. Can’t they see he’s the furthest thing from a moral exemplar? We talk about mass delusion, and deals with the devil. In anguished op-eds, we use the phrase “Faustian bargain” so often that Goethe’s ghost is reportedly considering trademarking the term.
The truth is simpler. As my friend Bethany pointed out, those who embraced Trump early had their eyes on the prize. The evangelical base had felt so much disappointment; their own leaders had been mired in scandal or waffly compromise time and again. Trump, they guessed, knew the essence if not the art of the deal: he understood he would never get elected without staunch support from religious conservatives who wanted one thing more than all others: the end of Roe. If he could deliver the end of Roe, or at least make its demise inevitable, they would stand by him through the pussy-grabbing. They’d wince, breathe hard, and then remember the unborn. He knew that religious conservatives understand that the God they follow has a noted habit of choosing the unlikely for extraordinary missions – if they could somehow suspend their revulsion; if they could remember that building the kingdom requires hiring the most dubious of contractors, they’d be rewarded in the end.
The left likes to complain that the right cheats. We talk about Mitch McConnell denying Merrick Garland a hearing; we mutter darkly about payoffs to Justice Kennedy to get his early resignation; we grow apoplectic at the accusations against Kavanaugh. That RBG, our secular saint, should be replaced by this… this prim cult mom with a minivan and no Ivy degree? It’s too much to bear. We weep and gnash teeth and share angry memes on Instagram.
I’m not writing to debate court-packing, or filibuster reform, or whether Ginsburg should have resigned in time for Obama to appoint her replacement. Those discussions happen plenty of other places.
Here’s the point: social conservatives have made overturning Roe into their central project of the past half-century. They’ve mobilized, they’ve formed coalitions, and yes, they’ve compromised. It is hard for secular lefties to understand the degree to which shared opposition to abortion brought about an extraordinary reconciliation between right-wing Catholics and their Protestant evangelical counterparts. The enemy of my enemy is my friend, and if you really believe that the great horror of our time is the slaughter of innocent babies, you’ll find it relatively easy to stop quarreling about whether Scripture alone is sufficient and the teaching authority of the Magisterium, and you’ll join forces with old foes who share your desperate desire to end the pregnant woman’s sovereignty over the goings-on in her womb.
That alliance changed the whole face of American politics, and urban secular liberals had no clue it was happening. We had no comprehension of the patience, focus, and strategy of our foes on the religious right.
The right didn’t just negotiate a detente among evangelicals, Catholics, Mormons, and Orthodox Jews. They realized that if you’re serious about ending abortion, you won’t quibble about the moral character of the folks best positioned to bring the nightmare to an end. You can quote that Gospel passage about it not profiting a man if he gains the whole world at the cost of his soul, but most religious conservatives I know are ruthlessly pragmatic. Babies. Are. Dying. If a thrice-divorced, serially philadering huckster can and will deliver the end of Roe, it’s a staggeringly foolish, impractical, and even immoral delicacy to reject his candidacy.
You keep your eyes on the prize.
The left, meanwhile, has descended into a miserable orgy of canceling and house-cleaning. It is the left, not the right, that has suddenly decided that the private moral purity of its leaders is more important than their political skills. Al Franken was beloved, but he crossed a line and had to go. Katie Hill turned a Republican Congressional district blue in 2018. She was charismatic, progressive, and articulate. When it was discovered she had had an affair with a campaign aide, the party forced her to resign. Every pollster said that if she did resign, a Republican would take back that seat – and indeed, that’s exactly what happened. Katie’s seat is held by one of the Trumpiest Republicans in California; the tiny Democratic majority in the House made even more flimsy because it was more important to repudiate imbalances of power in sexual relationships than to pass Build Back Better or Medicare for All. Most on the left seem to agree, even now, that it was right and necessary for Hill to resign. Better to lose with candidates who only bed their peers, than to win with someone complicated and compromised.
I don’t know what prize the left has had its eye on these past decades, but it has not been the preservation and expansion of reproductive rights. You cannot seriously claim that abortion rights are the central issue – and then willingly force a pro-choice Congresswoman out of office, knowing she’ll be replaced by a pro-life Republican, because you just can’t abide the reality that the Congresswoman had a human moment and took a pretty young staffer to bed.
Politics is messy, and it is dirty, and the people who are best equipped to succeed in that mess are not always of impeccable character. Hard, even maddening moral compromises are part of the admission price to political success. Donald Trump said to social conservatives, “I am probably not what you expected, but your own spiritual history is filled with stories of men of questionable morality becoming unlikely agents of divine providence.” (I know, he didn’t say those words, but believe me, he made the point very loud and very clear.) Trump said he could do more to save the unborn than any who had come before. The social conservatives, who remembered that Reagan and George W. Bush had talked a better talk but been unable to walk the walk to the finish line, calculated — not unreasonably – that Trump might be on to something.
They were right.
Keep Your Eyes on the Prize became an anthem of the civil rights movement, based on the older traditional hymn, Gospel Plow.
I grew up on the Pete Seeger live version. The lyrics he sang include:
The only thing we did was wrong
Staying in the wilderness too long
Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on
The only thing we did was right
Was the day we started to fight
Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on
Hold on, hold on
Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on
If you want out of the wilderness, you’ll need to fight. You’ll need to fight with weapons you’ve never used, and maybe follow leaders you’ve never followed, but if you keep your eyes on the prize, hold on, and keep fighting like hell, you get days like this past Friday.
I am not a believer. I am as pro-choice as the day is long, and the day is mighty danged long in late June when the big SCOTUS decisions reshape our mornings and our lives. I’ve been responsible for three abortions, paid for several more for high school kids I mentored, and I don’t regret those decisions for a single second. My belief in women’s sovereignty over their flesh doesn’t mean I can’t honor the focus and be humbled by the sheer determination of the side that won this battle! It is we on the abortion rights side who are in the wilderness now. It is we who need to fight.
The question is what we’re willing to give up to fight and to win; the question is whether we’re willing to be led by our most tenacious warriors, even if they are most imperfect human beings. As long as the answer is anything less than a “Hell yes,” our eyes are not on the prize, and we will continue to lose.
The stakes are too high for us not to rethink everything. The Republicans did, and their leap of faith has been rewarded beyond all expectations. We need to take the same leap.