What Democrats Should (but Probably Won’t) Learn From the Kansas Abortion Victory

The referendum was a rebuke of centrist Democrats' long-held ideas about appealing to anti-abortion voters.

Calley Malloy, left, of Shawnee, Kan.; Cassie Woolworth, of Olathe, Kan.; and Dawn Rattan, right, of Shawnee, Kan., applaud during a primary watch party Tuesday, Aug. 2, 2022, in Overland Park, Kan. Kansas voters rejected a ballot measure in a conservative state with deep ties to the anti-abortion movement that would have allowed the Republican-controlled Legislature to tighten restrictions or ban abortion outright.(Tammy Ljungblad AP)/The Kansas City Star via AP)

Kansas voters celebrate after a ballot measure to tighten restrictions or ban abortion outright failed on Aug. 2, 2022, in Overland Park, Kan.

Photo: Tammy Ljungblad AP)/The Kansas City Star via AP

The resounding ballot victory to keep abortion protections in the state constitution of deep-red Kansas is a rebuke to the Republican’s far-right agenda. It’s a win worth celebrating. The stakes of preserving legal abortion in Kansas couldn’t be higher. It is a reminder, too, of what those on the front lines of this struggle have long known: Banning abortions is popular only with an extremist yet extremely powerful Christo-fascist minority.

Since the GOP has made clear its comfort with — indeed explicit desire for — the entrenchment of far-right minority rule, the Kansas result will not shift the party’s priorities. Republicans will still push their pro-natalist, white supremacist agenda of taking bodily autonomy away from women and pregnant people. There’s no lesson in Kansas for Republicans.

It’s the Democratic establishment that should instead take a cue from the Kansas victory. The referendum result was, after all, also a rebuke to long-held centrist shibboleths — the same guiding principles that have failed to deliver nationwide abortion protections, let alone robust reproductive justice.

Democrats need to do more than just not be Republicans.

So-called moderate Democrats have consistently dismissed and kneecapped its progressive flank, and left-wing efforts more generally, as out of touch with what the much-mythologized average American wants. This has been true even in the case of abortion access.

Following the Supreme Court decision in Dobbs v. Jackson to throw out constitutional abortion rights, the White House cast calls for full-throated federal action to protect abortion as extreme. “Joe Biden’s goal in responding to Dobbs is not to satisfy some activists who have been consistently out of step with the mainstream of the Democratic Party,” said White House communications director Kate Bedingfield at the time.

The principle has been put into electoral action by the party’s establishment. Democrats in Washington have worked on the assumption that running anti-abortion candidates is a route to win in red states. After a draft of the Supreme Court’s ruling leaked, Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Majority Whip Jim Clyburn continued to support Rep. Henry Cuellar, the House’s most anti-abortion Democrat, against a progressive primary challenger.

Democrats, including Biden, have wisely responded to the Kansas victory by putting abortion rights in the foreground heading into the midterms. “The court practically dared women in this country to go to the ballot box to restore the right to choose,” Biden said on Wednesday.

Given Republicans’ clear plans for passing a nationwide abortion ban should they win strong congressional majorities in November, voting is indeed crucial. But Democrats need to do more than just not be Republicans.

Mealy-mouthed liberal Democrats have not earned our vote. Lest we forget, the party establishment prioritized funding for police and roundly failed to support the basic rights, let alone the flourishing, of those who voted them into power.

As Kansas showed, grassroots struggle remains the sine qua non for defeating the white supremacist nationalists. It was hardly the work of the party establishment that achieved the ballot win. Organizers on the ground worked day and night to alert voters of the ballot measure, raise funds, build support, and counter heavy-handed manipulations from the Republican side. (The ballot’s wording was misleading, and the vote was scheduled on a key primary day for Republican candidates.)

Instead of taking the grassroots approach, though, centrist Democrats have until now been all too happy to compromise with the far right. Purportedly in the name of the “average American,” popular measures like universal health care, climate protections, student debt forgiveness, and minimum wage hikes, among other policies, have been sacrificed at the altar of bipartisan pandering and fealty to moribund institutions.

Part of the failure of imagination, of course, lies in the Democrats’ projection of the mythologized “average American” itself — invariably pictured as white and right-leaning. Among establishment Democrats, this figure has taken consistent precedence over living Black, Indigenous, and other people of color, as well as trans and nonbinary people, from whom Democrats presume support.


Democrats’ Cowardice and Complicity in the Post-Roe World

I’m not suggesting that the intertwined fights for racial, social, economic justice, and LGBTQ+ rights — however necessarily enmeshed they are in the fight for true reproductive justice — carry the same popular support as does protecting abortion access. The Kansas result is unlikely to profoundly shift establishment Democrats and liberal media mainstays away from their long held, false assumption that power is won by finding middle ground with the increasingly fascist right.

Kansas, though, might be enough for a limited Democratic response to campaign harder around abortion. That would be its own small victory.

In the meantime, Kansas is a reminder for the rest of us that there is power in our numbers.

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