Melissa Harris-Perry: Thanks for joining us on The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry. Just hours after the Supreme Court overturned Roe V. Wade, President Biden implored Americans to elect more Democrats in the midterm elections.
President Biden: This fall, we must elect more senators and representatives who codify women's right to choose in the Federal Law once again. Elect more state leaders to protect this right at the local level. We need to restore the protections of Roe as law of the land. We need to elect officials who will do that.
This fall, Roe is on the ballot.
Melissa Harris-Perry: If that sounds a little familiar, here is then-Senator Barack Obama during his first presidential campaign back in 2007 speaking at a Planned Parenthood event.
President Obama: The first thing I'll do as president is sign the Freedom of Choice Act.
Melissa Harris-Perry: But by the 100th day of his presidency in 2009--
President Obama: The Freedom of Choice Act is not my highest legislative priority.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Now, that's despite the 2008 election that gave Democrats firm control of both Congress and the White House. Yet, the Freedom of Choice Act was never sent to the President's desk in either term of the Obama administration.
Friday's Supreme Court opinion in Dobbs V Jackson Women's Health reversed Roe V. Wade and explicitly turned over abortion policy to, "The people and their elected representatives." Leaving many to ask what elected Democrats are prepared to do to ensure safe, legal access to abortion?
Rebecca Traister: I am very happy to be here though I wish we were under other circumstances.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Absolutely. Look, one of the first conversations I had following the decision was with my mother who was an adult person before Roe v. Wade. I was so surprised that among the first things where she was expressing anger was she was expressing anger about President Biden, about President Obama, about Democrats and I was like, "Whoa." She's a white woman chronic voter. She is the demo. She was mad not so much with the Court, well, certainly there, but with Democrats.
Rebecca Traister: Yes. That's the case for me too. It's certainly, Democrats have been the subject of a lot of my writing on this in the past couple of years, but also going back to the early part of my career where I was just like a little rudimentary baby feminist. [chuckles] I wasn't very good at this thing but was beginning to think about these things in more complex ways. If I go back and look at what I was writing in 2006, 2007, 2008-- Coming after 2004, I have a story for you about Democrats coming out of the 2004 presidential loss of John Kerry.
The issue they all went running from was abortion. That was why Democrats, that's why John Kerry lost in 2004 was abortion. Again, there are more complicated stories to tell about how abortion polling was really bad in this country until very recently. There was this myth substantiated by bad data that the country was irrevocably split on abortion. Then that turns out not to be true, in fact. We have majorities supporting abortion access and legality in every state, red states included, but at the time they were operating off of bad polls.
You had Howard Dean after 2004, who was running up the DNC, saying, "We need to make our party more welcoming to pro-life Democrats." You had Hillary Clinton telling a group in Albany -I believe this was in 2005- telling a group of reproductive healthcare providers that we had to make abortion more rare by keeping pregnancies from happening, telling people who work in contraception that abortion should be rare.
That was through all those years where in fact, a lot of Democratic voters, perhaps white women, like your mother, like me, were told that the notion to be overly concerned with abortion, which was always presented as safe because of Roe. Roe was never going to get overturned, that we were single-issue voters if we cared that much about it. There were no litmus tests. You had all kinds of people-- This continued up through. That's not just 2004, 2005. That's the unity tour in 2017 where Bernie Sanders and Tom Perez go on the road and are talking about some of the same stuff.
Nancy Pelosi in 2017 is saying abortion is a fading issue. The Democrats have always said, "Vote for us because we're the ones who can protect abortion." Then in the same breath have talked about how we need to make the party a bigger tent, that people who are so overly focused on abortion, and it's kind of like feminizing and diminishing approach or like single-issue litmus test voters who are getting in the way of bigger progress. That's always been the message. That was the message I'm telling you the week that the Alito draft leaked saying, "We are overturning this law in the starkest ways possible."
That week, the first week of May, Democrats were also out there saying, "You got to vote for us." Sean Patrick Maloney from the House saying basically, "Vote harder in November." The same week, the Democratic leadership was sending support to Henry Cuellar in Texas, an anti-abortion member of the House and a Democratic incumbent who was being challenged muscularly by Jessica Cisneros, a terrific candidate.
That election came down to something like 200 votes, which means that Democratic leadership that sent all that money and all that support to their anti-choice house member, Cuellar won him that election. He wouldn't have picked up those extra, whatever it was, 150 votes to beat Jessica Cisneros, a righteous candidate had it not been for Democratic leadership. I want to say we are looking at a future in which every tactic has got to be really carefully thought about.
Absolutely, we have to elect people who are going to protect reproductive access and healthcare in states. I don't want this critique to say, "Don't vote." Because we got to be able to say two things at the same time. Part of what people should be thinking about as they are voting because-- damn straight is it incumbent on people to vote-- is what party they're voting for and what kind of candidates they're voting for within that party and what messages they want to be sending that party?
Melissa Harris-Perry: I want to make sure that we've walked folks through that because first of all, I hear your righteous anger in this moment. I hear the frustration. I think, so many have felt, especially maybe over the course of the weekend, that while still processing Dobbs and what that was going to mean and to be getting fundraising, text messages, and emails and Tweets all weekend. The number of folks that I was hearing from about if I get one more fundraising message.
That notion that in this moment, resources are being poured into Democrats. If that's true, then how do those interested in restoring reproductive rights in this country ensure that the precious resource of their Dollars or their vote are going to not just a Democrat but to someone with really that as a top agenda item?
Again, not so much to play the blame game, but to try to understand the ways that we all got in a car and drove here together. To even go back to 1992 and Bill Clinton as a candidate and his phrase--
Bill Clinton: Our vision should be of an America where abortion is safe and legal, but rare.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Then when Hillary Clinton is running later in 2008 in her first presidential run, she uses "rare" several times. It's safe, legal, and rare. She says, "When I say rare, I really mean rare." In a certain way, that's coalition-building. That's big tenting. That's bringing in more folks. I'm wondering also about the ways that it then comes to misunderstand the vulnerability of abortion rights in the ways that you've just articulated.
Rebecca Traister: Safe, legal, and rare is really crucial to understanding the story. It is rumored by the way that Hillary Clinton was the originator of that phrase, that it didn't start with Bill. That's a phrase that I despise and have been writing about critically forever because it does this thing which is cast abortion as some unfortunate outcome, rather than as a cornerstone of healthcare, which is what it is, and one of the biggest problems we've had.
This is as a society within our own families, within our civic institutions, within our religious institutions, and within the Democratic party and even the pro-choice, another language choice we can talk about later, "pro-choice movement" as it was called for a long time, is like siloing abortion off from the rest of health care which only seeds the frame of, there's something 'icky' about abortion, there's something different about abortion.
One of my critiques about how all of this has happened over the five decades that Roe has stood is that we just haven't done a good job of muscularly selling it as a moral, medical, and ideological good and a normal thing. Safe, legal and rare was the most powerful political phrasing that articulated that. It should have been safe, legal, and immediately accessible to every damn person who needs it, like that's the idea.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Safe, legal, and accessible is really quite different than safe, legal, and rare.
Rebecca Traister: Yes, rare casts it as a bad outcome when in fact, for millions it is a good outcome, a life-saving outcome, a family-saving outcome. There are a million different ways to experience individual abortions as there are a million ways to experience pregnancies themselves or other medical procedures, colonoscopies. It is a safe health care procedure that is absolutely critical, that happens in every community and every family and Renee Bracey Sherman, who is an abortion storyteller and activist has pioneered this phrase, "Everybody loves someone who has had an abortion," and that's just true. Yet, we've treated it as if it's in the special category.
Yes, Hillary Clinton is rumored to be the architect of that phrasing. I do want to say though, in the critique of Democrats, she's also somebody who grew in her ability to talk about abortion on public stages. I call her out for safe, legal, and rare and for that speech to providers in Albany, which still makes me cringe. She also articulated first when she was in her hearings to be Secretary of State in 2009 and was grilled about abortion by Chris Smith, this virulently anti-abortion politician from New Jersey. She gave one of the most just beautiful and passionately articulated defenses of abortion is crucial to health care that I'd ever heard.
Then again, in I believe the third debate with Donald Trump, when he tried to do the fictionalized grisly ripping babies from bodies language in a debate, she absolutely stood there, and this speaks to how rare it has been to see our major politicians speak with moral passion on these subjects. She just responds to Trump on abortion, including late abortions was one of the best articulations of a defense of abortion that I have seen from a major politician.
Hillary Clinton: I strongly support Roe v. Wade, which guarantees a constitutional right to a woman to make the most intimate, most difficult, in many cases, decisions about her healthcare that one can imagine.
Rebecca Traister: I do want to say as long as I'm critiquing Hillary, which I do over the years around the abortion stuff, I also want to say that she is responsible for two of the best examples of how I've seen major Democratic politicians talk about abortion.
Melissa Harris-Perry: All right, we've been talking a little bit about Hillary Clinton, who I think is such a key figure in all of this less because she is personally responsible, I don't think there's any one person personally responsible for any of these questions, but because her trajectory from early '90s, safe, legal, and rare through, as you describe it, this very strong articulation in the context of her 2016 debate with Donald Trump and the way she articulates her defense of abortion. Of course, the key thing that presidents do or have done over the past 50 years to either protect or threaten abortion rights has been the decisions about whom they nominate to the Supreme Court.
Hillary Clinton never had an opportunity to nominate anyone to the Supreme Court, but we did have this moment during her 2016 election bid where President Obama did have an opportunity to nominate someone to the court. His nomination is now the attorney general of the U.S. Merrick Garland. Of course, Garland never received even a vote. I want to go back to that moment and to the ways that the Garland nomination was handled or mishandled by Democrats, both in the administration and more broadly in the Congress and Senate.
Rebecca Traister: I didn't expect to be actually poleaxed by that very basic question, but there's certain moments where something hits me is so profoundly tragic and thinking about this moment just actually brought tears to my eyes, which I'm slightly embarrassed by, but have to admit, because-- We're talking about Democrats and the choices that they've made. There is no question here, and I get this all the time, "Why are you blaming Democrats when it's Republicans?"
Okay, so let's be real clear. The right-wing has strategized and in part by weaponizing the issue of abortion, has strategized a multi-decade takeover of courts, state and local legislatures, school boards, has built this toward this reversal and so many other reversals over decades. The right wing is the malevolent aggressive actor here, but the Democratic Party is the closest thing we have to their opposition. When we're talking about the Democrats, we are talking about how they behaved in direction conflict over life and death policy, legislative, judicial priorities over a period of 50 years.
The moment that you just picked out, was in this during Barack Obama's administration for reasons that are certainly tied to racism and motivated by racism, and misogyny, okay? Because it was Barack Obama with Hillary Clinton on deck. You had a Republican Party where the younger generation of radicals was rising and in fact, the older generation was permitting them to steer the ship. And they were willing to take it, and in some cases, it wasn't breaking institutions, because the institutions were designed to enforce all race, class, and gender inequalities.
They were using the institutions at hand, like the Electoral College, for example, to win two presidencies over the winner of the popular vote. What Mitch McConnell was doing in that moment that you cite, was taking the institution in which he had so much power and saying, "I'm going to break this thing," or, "I'm going to break the norm around it to get my way." How did the Democratic Party respond to this violent and immoral incursion on their rights, on their ability to shape a judicial future, is by not doing much at all. I remember you had the rise of a right wing Tea Party, and you had a Democratic Party that was saying, "Basically, we got this."
I remember, in those elections in 2016, you had hard-right candidates running around the country crowing about Mitch McConnell's victory, "We got that seat, we held that seat open, we won." You had Democrats who not only had not acted strategically, right? I think you're a person who once walked me through various other nominations that Barack Obama might have made that could have forestalled this outcome.
They didn't publicly treat the opposition party as though they were behaving monstrously and imperiling democracy. The Democrats were not out there telling voters, "They are taking away your rights to have a popularly elected president, determine who's on the Supreme Court. They are manipulating these institutions to serve their extreme ideological goal, and they are depriving you of the judiciary that you should have based on how the system is supposed to work." They weren't making that clear to voters. In addition to not making particularly clear the stakes of having that seat open going into 2016. That is on Democrats, right?
There is a way to be and I understand, this is a point Dahlia Lithwick has made to me before, like, there's a nihilism operating in the Republican Party. Like, we will take the systems that were built to enforce inequality, and we will squeeze every drop out of them, and we will break the other ones and it's all in an attempt to rollback the victories of the late 20th century for all civil rights movements and political and social movements.
We will do anything to strip this stuff back and to regain our minority power, right? There's just been a passivity in their opponents. A faith that those institutions will stand, a faith that we have ample evidence in front of us right now unfolding over the better part of a decade that know those institutions may not in fact stand.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Then I want to walk through two emotions with you. One is anger. Your text around women's anger suggests the possibility of anger being revolutionary. Now, I want to be very clear, there are women who are not angry about the Dobbs decision. There are many women very much at the core of the movement to overturn Roe v. Wade and to end abortion rights in this country. I do not want to conflate identity with political position here. For women who are angry about this, is there still a revolutionary possibility, or at least, do you believe and see that there could be? What is that [unintelligible 00:20:49]?
Rebecca Traister: There has to be. What if we say there isn't? There has to be. That's the only way to move forward. I think it's really incumbent on people to remember. I think that this is particularly for people who have only recently come to anger. From this angle, because as you say, it is crucial to say that women's anger has also, in part, motivated the anti-abortion movement and all kinds of anti-desegregation movements.
Women's anger operates in lots of directions on behalf of a system and in challenge to that system. For the anger that is in challenge to that system right now, one of the things that I think is incumbent on those who lived with relative assurance and comfort that things wouldn't get bad, that we were moving in one direction, that comfort is afforded by privilege and insulation, because Roe is being hollowed out and eroded and abortion made all but inaccessible to vast swathes of this country long before it was overturned.
There have been millions of people who've had to travel and suffer and forced to carry pregnancies they didn't want. There have been people who have been imprisoned, this has been happening in this country. It's a failure of the political parties and the media to not have made that plainer, as it was happening. For those who are recently to anger, I think that we have done a bad job of teaching history in this country, and being really clear about how long progress takes and that it can and has been reversed multiple times in our history.
That people operating from places, actually with far less than what we have, even now, as this has been wholly overturned and so much else around labor protections and voting rights and has been overturned, and we are operating from a bad place now and it's going to get worse. I think it's really crucial that we're playing about that because I think the like, "Don't worry, it's not as bad as you think," is totally a lie. Also, anesthetizing and makes you think, "Oh, things will be okay, there's going to be a system that saves me." No, you save you, and more importantly, others.
I think that people forget because there was this period of half a century where there was a feel-good narrative being told about how things were just getting better and more equal. Those of us and I include myself here born in 1975, who were raised within that era, do not have a keen sense of the generations that came before them, starting their fights with greater and more punitive structural battles and impediments, who nonetheless, were willing to give their entire lives toward working for that revolutionary possibility, a possibility that they would not see come to fruition in their lifetimes.
That, in fact, would never have come to fruition if they hadn't been willing to work through their entire lives. In recent decades, there has been inculcated in an American populace a real desire for quick payoff. Man, the number of people I have heard, not just since overturn, but since the leak and before that, like, "well, what can we do? What can we do to reverse this right now?"
Now, wait a minute, I also want to say and that doesn't mean that some of the immediate like, not to be the Democrats and say vote harder, but every election is going to matter. Every election is going to matter. Not only find candidates that you want to vote for, become candidates you want to vote for, encourage people around you [chuckles] to become candidates you want to vote for, look to people like the people who run for something that is encouraging a new generation of Democrats with 100% pro-choice politics to get into politics.
There is stuff that's quick, but we are also looking at a very long haul on many fronts and not just about abortion. It is incumbent on us to dig into that long-haul fight and absolutely to believe that the revolutionary promise is still ahead of us, but also to acknowledge that if it's not ahead of us in my lifetime, that doesn't get me off the hook for spending the rest of my life working toward it. In fact, it makes it all the more important that I give the rest of my life working for it.
Melissa Harris-Perrya: Rebecca Traister, writer for New York Magazine and author of Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger. Thanks for joining us today.
Rebecca Traister: Thanks, Melissa.
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