"It's Abortion, Stupid."
James Carville, Bill Clinton’s lead campaign strategist, is well known for the mantra that dominated not only the Clinton presidential campaign, but many elections since. “It’s the economy, stupid.” became the tag-line of many political consultants and pundits.
This tagline has proven, over the years, to be quite politically successful, gaining campaign victories for many candidates. The ‘economy’ tagline may be what political pundits think has been helping them win elections, but the reality is much more fundamental than that.
If I may suggest a change to Mr. Carville’s mantra… “It’s abortion, stupid.”
In short, a person’s belief that abortion should or should not be criminalized is the most determining factor in predicting how they’ll cast their vote. Their economic reality may play a role, but people have and will continue to vote against their economic interests as long as the candidate’s abortion stance matches their own.
This essay is not about whether abortion should be legal or illegal. I find that people are quite unable to be swayed by an argument for or against. Instead, this essay is about how the issue itself is, almost solely, corrupting our democracy from within.
And, with states like Ohio, Kentucky, Georgia, Alabama, Missouri, and others striving to (and often succeeding in) passing extremely restrictive abortion laws, aided by the “conservative” majority in the Supreme Court, this issue is unlikely to resolve itself in the near or relatively distant future.
Almost all will agree that the abortion issue is divisive. But, how is it a corrupting influence?
Consider the November 2018, mid-term election. In Missouri, for example, voters affirmed Republican Josh Hawley in 110 of the state’s 114 counties over moderate incumbent Democrat Claire McCaskill for the US Senate. Missouri Republicans also maintained supermajorities in both their state legislative houses. Yet, in the same election, Missouri voters affirmed many ballot measures that, by any measure, are liberal in their approach. They supported a minimum wage increase. They legalized medical cannabis. They approved a measure to restrict political lobbying, put new limits on campaign financing, and took primary authority for redistricting in their state away from state legislators. All of these measures passed in the same election where McCaskill was beaten in 96% of counties and Republicans won legislative supermajorities.
It's not just a Missouri phenomenon. Florida’s Amendment 4, restoring voting rights for ex-felons, easily carried even the state’s most rural and conservative counties. Florida Republicans won U.S. Senate and Governor races, but every state senate district voted to affirm Amendment 4. In Utah, a ballot measure to expand Medicaid was easily passed at the same time Mitt Romney was being voted into the Senate. Similar stories have happened in recent elections in many states across the country: voting for liberal policies but conservative politicians to somehow carry them out.
Over and over again, voting data shows that there is approximately a 20-point difference between statewide votes for an actual Democrat and policies most Democrats support. For example, going back to Missouri’s 2018 midterm results, Claire McCaskill won only 45% of the statewide vote, but state propositions supporting medical marijuana (65%), raised minimum wage (62%), and reforms on lobbying and the drawing of congressional districts (62%) drew much more electoral support from the exact same voters.
A Pew Research poll in the summer of 2017 showed that 2/3 of all Republicans, 2/5 of all Independents, and 1/4 of all Democrats favor making abortion illegal in all or most cases. Gallup’s most current national tracking poll finds that national partisanship identity breaks down as Republicans (26%), Democrats (32%), and Independents (39%). These figures allow us to determine that about 40% of America’s overall electorate (no matter the party affiliation) wants abortion to be illegal in most or all cases. (That 40% can be broken down as 42% Republican, 37% Independent, and 20% Democrat.)
I find it oddly curious that President Trump’s approval rating (which has been hovering around 40-41% for most of his presidency) and the electoral percentage wanting abortion to be criminalized (40%) are virtually the same. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that the vast majority of people in this country that actually support President Trump’s policies and administration do so specifically because his administration can appoint judges committed to overturning Roe vs. Wade.
“It’s abortion, stupid.”
But, it’s even deeper than that. I find that the true source of the widening divide in our country lies in whether or not a person has a literal belief in a holy text. Those who believe that the Bible is the inerrant and literal word of God feel that they must vote for the Republican politician because that party’s platform supports the criminalization of abortion as a moral issue. Whether or not they like Donald Trump, they are morally required to support him. Meanwhile, other citizens couldn’t possibly vote for a Republican, because Republicans, from their perspective, want to make women a subclass of citizens, demonizing and controlling women in radical and invasive ways. Each side thinks they are morally justified while the other side is fundamentally flawed. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that the “redder” the state, the more fundamentalist Christian their electorate. And, the “bluest” states have more ethnically diverse and less religiously fundamentalist electorates.
Furthermore, because each of the two major political parties line up on either side of this moral issue, independent or non-partisan candidates have little chance of being elected. The reason, in my opinion, why third-party candidates haven’t been able to break through is also the abortion issue. If the third-party candidate is pro-choice, the pro-choice vote will be split, ensuring a win for Republican politicians to stack the courts with judges that are anti-choice. We see this in the backlash to independent candidate Howard Schultz from the left with little regard from the right. Likewise, if the third-party candidate is anti-choice, the result would be similar, ensuring the election of a pro-choice candidate. Neither side will support a third-party candidate because they refuse to give any ground to the other side, which they find to be fundamentally immoral.
In the lead-up to 2018’s midterm elections, Reuters reported that approximately 70% of Americans support universal health care, the Atlantic indicated that 70% of Americans support the Paris Agreement (combating climate change), NPR/Ipsos stated that 75% of Americans want stricter gun laws, and the National Employment Law Project (NELP) reported that 80% of Americans want higher minimum wages. Yet, none of these things can become reality because too many of the people that support these things can’t bring themselves to vote for politicians that will actively work to make them a reality. We recognize this disconnect as corruption. If our system of representative government was working as it should, programs and ideas with this much support would have been passed years ago. The fact that they haven’t been passed reveals a corrupting influence.
When the vast majority of Americans who tend to vote for one candidate or another just because of the abortion issue begin to vote, instead, in support of candidates whose policy proposals they find most appealing, the corruption that has tied America in knots for decades will start to loosen. Until that time, I fear we are headed further down the path of our rhetorical civil war.
R. Douglas Helvering is an active composer, arranger, conductor, and educator of music. His music has been featured at major national, regional, and state conventions as well as at prestigious venues worldwide including the historic Carnegie Hall in New York. Dr. Helvering has served on a variety of non-profit board of directors and currently serves as Treasurer of the Central Jersey Symphony Orchestra. He lives in West Windsor, NJ, with his wife, Megan. Find him online at www.rdouglashelvering.com.