How Americans angry over abortion rights, guns can turn rage into action

Will Bunch
The Philadelphia Inquirer (TNS)

Betsy Clarke, a 68-year-old retired psychotherapist in Normandy Beach, New Jersey, is the classic profile of lifelong Democratic Party activist, who first marched for abortion rights some 40 years ago. More recently, she attended the massive Women's March after Donald Trump's inauguration, protested for gun control, donated to congressional candidates, and even sent postcards to Georgia voters in the 2021 special election that flipped the Senate.

This summer, she said she's "livid" over the U.S. Supreme Court ruling overturning abortion rights, but also annoyed with an underwhelming response to that crisis by leaders of the Democratic Party. "Didn't they see this coming?" she asked. "This was not a surprise."

Via Twitter, she told me: "This year I haven't donated to a single campaign or made a single phone call. I feel very guilty about this but I'm not happy with the Democrats, which does not mean I won't vote, just that I'm not happy."

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Clarke's mixture of anger and frustration is hardly unique. Even before the High Court's ruling last month to overturn the 49-year-old Roe v. Wade decision that had guaranteed national abortion rights, an unprecedented leak of the draft ruling in the case had sparked thousands to take to the streets in almost spontaneous protests. Another wave of angry, sign-waving marches came with the actual 6-3 ruling.

But amid the public rage, a growing sense of exasperation was also palpable at the protests, and on social media sites like Twitter. The rhythm of the protest marches, the fiery promises from Democratic Party officials — followed by political inertia — felt numbingly familiar to many.

A number of folks have expressed a burning desire to do something to fight back against the growing clout of America's right-wing minority. But they said they weren't sure where to focus that energy — unconventional protest and civil disobedience, or traditional electoral politics ... or into something else?

Abortion rights activists march with other protesters to the White House to denounce the U.S. Supreme Court decision to end federal abortion rights protections on Saturday, Jul. 9, 2022, in Washington, D.C. (Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

Last week, I took to Twitter to ask readers about their feelings and frustrations over political activism in a post-Roe United States. That word "livid" was invoked several times, along with growing disappointment with Democratic Party leaders who didn't seem to share their passion or their sense of urgency. One woman who's been voting since 1977 told me that she's "furious" and that she has "marched five times since 2017. Don't know what else to do!" Wrote another: "I donate, I make calls, I write postcards, but it's not enough."

Jessica Korpacz, a 32-year-old editor based in Exton, Pennsylvania, told me she's anxious to get involved and attended her first Democratic meeting after the Supreme Court ruling, but that she has a hard time approaching strangers to register them to vote. She added that "donating doesn't satiate my feeling of 'doing something' (because) I can't give much."

There’s little doubt that a series of political bombshells in mid-2022 has somewhat altered the political landscape heading into a crucial midterm election. We’ve had months of speculation about a GOP “wave” fueled by a mix of historical trends, runaway gas prices, and President Joe Biden’s unpopularity. But now the run of unpopular Supreme Court rulings, mass shootings and revelations about Donald Trump’s attempted coup on Jan. 6, 2021, has energized many Democratic voters. Last week’s much-discussed New York Times/Siena College poll revealed a dead heat in voter preference between Democratic and Republican congressional candidates.

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But at the same time, there is a growing vexation with the notion that conventional Election Day politics can solve America's much deeper problems, with a right-wing Supreme Court seemingly locked in for decades to come and with structural issues — the undemocratic nature of the Senate and the Electoral College — baking in minority rule by an increasingly authoritarian Republican Party. In particular, many abortion rights protesters seemed offended that some Democratic elected officials saw the overturning of Roe as an opportunity to raise campaign donations, with little else but exhortations to vote harder.

A video of a young woman at an abortion rights protest who was furious that Biden had sent her a text asking for a $15 donation immediately after the Supreme Court ruling went viral on Twitter and racked up more than 5 million views. Said the woman, identified as Zoe Warren: "I thought that was absolutely outrageous because my rights should not be a fundraising point for them, or a campaigning point."

"It's at a certain point where people need to do more about standing outside the Supreme Court and yelling about a done deal," Dana Fisher, a University of Maryland sociology professor who specializes in studying protest movements, told me. I'd reached out to Fisher to both get her thoughts and bounce some of my own ideas about what a successful left-wing protest movement around the current crises of civil rights and democracy might look like.

Here are some thoughts and suggestions for some things that aren't happening now, but could make a difference.

— Launch an umbrella group that offers a unified progressive front — but outside the Democratic Party. There are a number of existing groups that do yeoman's work on the issues folks are most worked up about — abortion rights, gun violence, climate change, voting rights — but there is also so much overlap between those issues that one can only imagine the combined power of a unified front group. Find it a catchy name like Fight For America, even if too many of the good ones (the Moral Majority ... sigh) have been taken. People need to feel like they are part of something big — and bigger and bolder than a compromised political party.

— "Leaderless movements" don't work. Foster a new generation of young, diverse, bold leaders who are NOT elected officials. The hallmark of social movements since the dawn of the 2010s — Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, the Trump "Resistance," etc. — has been the ability to grow quickly at the drop of a hashtag, yet dissipate just as rapidly. The lack of long-term organizational structure is a big problem, but so is the absence of identifiable leaders. I get the idealistic philosophy of "leaderless movements," but there's also a reason that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. is celebrated every January, and still quoted every day.

— Rally behind big events that are somewhat "outside the box." The recent Roe overturn had some activists on the further left advocating for a national general strike — a big, bold idea that can't work in a nation where workers lack basic labor protections. In 1969, anti-Vietnam War organizers facing this conundrum came up with a national moratorium — a two-part protest of local teach-ins and vigils, followed by a massive march on Washington one month later. This would be a fantastic template for today's movement.

— Make local chapters and local action the fundamental building blocks of a movement. "Structure it so you have tactics and targets that are reasonable and coordinated, because the effect needs to be more about getting results," Fisher said. The issues at hand today — the critical importance of state and even local laws around reproductive rights or gun safety, or the need for volunteers to maintain abortion access where it's still legal — lend themselves to local activism.

— National goals should be big and bold, but also achievable. So much of today's frustration centers around the structural dysfunction in Washington. Overcoming rulings by a rogue Supreme Court that's locked into a long-term right-wing majority feels especially daunting. Yet the building blocks for radical change — ending the filibuster, and using a 51-vote majority to expand and reshape the High Court — are within close reach. Indeed, a victory along those lines could be the launchpad for other radical reforms to end minority rule.

This should not be a time for despair. The majority of Americans who support reproductive rights, stricter gun laws and climate action have both the numbers and the passion to win these fights. All they need is a plan — and a little leadership. But waiting for Godot or Biden or anyone else is not going to cut it. The moment to mobilize is right now — before this nation's ailing democracy goes on life support.

— Will Bunch is national columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.