Oliver Wiseman

    Will abortion rights galvanise the American left?

    Will abortion rights galvanise the American left?
    Protests against the Supreme Court's decision to end federal abortion rights (Credit: Getty images)
    Text settings
    CommentsShare

    Sometimes, defeat is just what a party, or a movement, needs. Hard lessons are learnt, uncomfortable realities are acknowledged and the group in question emerges more serious, more competitive, more potent a political force.

    In recent years, liberals and conservatives have often failed to learn the right lessons from their losses because they won’t accept defeat in the first place. From crackpot theories about Cambridge Analytica swinging 2016 for Trump to the idea that 2020 was stolen by Joe Biden four years later, both sides of America’s political divide have opted for comforting fictions over hard truths.

    But the case of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization represents unambiguous victory for the conservative movement and impossible to ignore defeat for progressive America. The imposition via trigger law of strict abortion bans in states immediately after the decision is just one of the ways which the decision and its very real consequences will hit home — and perhaps force the left to reckon with defeat.

    Betting on Dobbs changing the American left is one thing. Predicting exactly how it might do so is another matter. One theory is that the removal of a nationwide right to abortion will shock left-wingers out of some the outlandish and obscure identity politics in which it has indulged. As others have pointed out, a movement that can’t even use the word 'woman' or agree on its meaning may not be well-equipped to protect women’s rights.

    As Phoebe Maltz Bovy writes on The Spectator World, 'If you’re looking to sort out how the ostensibly pro-choice side got complacent enough to let the right to choose get overturned, look no further than the sorry state of contemporary feminism.'

    And so Dobbs may prove to be the start of a fight for a more mainstream, old-timey feminism and liberalism. In other words, prepare for a revenge of the Karens: white, middle-class liberal women may lose patience with the polite intersectional apologising and acknowledgments of their privilege. They may be less tolerant of pointless transgender word games that stamps out any acknowledgment of the biological differences between men and women.

    While it’s possible that it empowers more moderate voices, Dobbs could also prove radicalising in ways that are ultimately counter-productive. First, within the abortion debate, the ruling could drive the left even further towards a pro-choice permissiveness. The Democratic party is already a long way from Bill Clinton’s 'safe, legal and rare' middle-ground, often arguing for abortion rights that go a lot further than most European countries. Dobbs-induced anger could drive things further in that direction, ultimately alienating the left from the moderate middle on the issue.

    More generally, there is a strong chance that Dobbs serves to convince the left that the rules of American politics are rigged against them, and that now is the time for radical action: abolishing the filibuster, packing the court, calling on the federal government to ignore the law of the land.

    One possibility is that the ruling, and the multitude of coming abortion fights — in courts, in state legislatures, and beyond — simply intensifies pre-existing debates on the left. Some will argue that the need for mainstream electoral competitiveness and moderation matters more than ever. Others will claim that now is the time to escalate: direct action, extralegal pro-choice mobilisation and so on. In this scenario, the same intra-left split will simply deepen. The effect would be a movement that gets angrier, crazier, less organised and less electorally palatable.

    But anger can be a helpful emotion too. And it certainly seems possible that the summer of 2022 ends up being a galvanising time for American liberalism, and that a more focused, motivated and ruthless left emerges from this defeat.