The tragedy of fractional-issue politics

And the devil, taking her up into a high mountain, showed her one more Supreme Court justice . . .

On The Daily (NYT podcast), one of the best interviewers out there talks with the president of The Susan B. Anthony List, an anti-abortion organization. At the link you can either listen to the podcast or read a transcript.

The interviewee, Marjorie Dannenfelser, is obviously a personable, intelligent woman, not hard to talk with, not slimy and evasive like so many people who end up getting interviewed. But to me she seems a tragic figure. She really does seem to believe that if (when) Trump appoints his third pro-life justice to the Supreme Court, everything and she and her group and her movement have been working toward for decades will be realized, Roe v. Wade will be overturned, and millions of lives will be saved. It will all have been worth it.

“All” includes a lot.

Michael Barbaro gently asked her about the compromise that was required on her part, as a Christian woman, to endorse for the presidency a man who boasted of abusing women (the Access Hollywood tape), and whose boast was then confirmed by many women who have testified that he assaulted them precisely in the way that he described in the Access Hollywood interview, and in worse ways. She brushed that aside pretty quickly.

Barbaro didn’t even try to ask her about other instances in which Trump has breached legal, moral, ethical, and patriotic standards in ways that Christian people, and morally decent people in general, find shocking and absolutely unacceptable. He didn’t ask about the overwhelming cumulative evidence that Trump is strangely beholden to Vladimir Putin. He didn’t ask about stewardship of creation and the consequences of climate-change denialism. He didn’t ask about the clear warning signs that Trump and his enablers intend to throw the election into chaos, defy the will of the people, and hold on to the White House by any possible means. He didn’t ask about so, so many things. He is a good interviewer, but a kindly man, and he has a limited amount of time on the podcast.

Marjorie Dannenfelser exemplifies the fate of the single-issue campaigner and voter. You put all your eggs in one basket, and sell your soul to gain that one basket, and what if it falls through?

The single issue in this case seems to me not even to be a single issue. It is a fractional issue. I guess she is called pro-life; but in response to Barbaro’s careful, respectful questioning she clarified that all she and the Susan B. Anthony List are about is this: fighting abortion by electing anti-abortion people to public office and getting anti-abortion judges appointed to the courts. The entire project is exclusively political (in the narrow sense of that word).

And what if that’s not how you save those unborn lives? What if the abortions are happening not because evil people want them and could be restrained if only there were legal structures in place to prohibit them, but because their lives are challenged and constrained in ways that, even if they have personal objections to abortion, make them feel compelled to seek abortions?

What if—as all our experience over recent decades suggests—the solution to the problem is not legal restriction and coercion but a well-rounded, truly pro-life package, including poverty-reduction measures for which the Republican version of pro-life has no use?

Or what if that Supreme Court justice for whose appointment you sold your soul to the devil turns out to be an impartial judge who when hearing arguments in the case you thought was going to overturn Roe v. Wade, says:

“Here I sit in my black robe, not representing any political constituency, and not operating as a private agent out to enact my own personal agenda. I have been entrusted with a high constitutional office, and I will be faithful to that office. I am not being asked whether I am in favor of abortion or opposed to it; I have not been empowered to legislate; I have been asked to decide a technical point of law, and I will decide it according to my legal learning.”

This mad abandonment of everything else—all decency, all concern for every other moral and political issue, and even of any realism about likely outcomes with regard to the one point you claim to care about most—is insane. Dannenfelser likes using the words “prudent” and “prudential.” She explicitly recognizes that political action necessarily involves deciding between relative goods and relative evils. But the choice she has made, and the choice that similarly blinkered abortion-only voters have made, is far from prudent.

Their single issue is fractional—perhaps a half of a half of a half of an issue: caringly only about the anti-abortion part of pro-life; adopting only half a strategy (the coercive/restrictive half, not the helping half) for keeping women from having abortions; and finally betting the farm on effecting the coercion by appointing another Supreme Court justice, when there’s maybe only half a chance that when the right case comes up the justices will do what you hoped they would do. A fractional issue in that sense. Also fractional in the sense that fixation on this point fractures the electorate into non-communicating, intractably opposed factions.


And the devil, taking her up into an high mountain, shewed unto her one more Supreme Court justice. And the devil said unto her, This Supreme Court justice will I give thee, and the glory thereof: for that is delivered unto me; and to whomsoever I will I give it. If thou therefore wilt worship me, this appointment shall be thine.


Jesus thought it was tragic—and forbidden—to sell your soul in exchange for the whole world. What about selling it in exchange for just one more Supreme Court justice? This woman seems to honestly think that she is saving millions of lives. But what if all she is doing is losing her own soul?

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