The long arc of history


In 1981, newly-elected President Ronald Reagan had the opportunity to appoint his first justice to the Supreme Court. It was an important appointment for a variety of reasons, not least because he would be replacing Justice Potter Stewart, a centrist who had supported Roe v. Wade.

Reagan had been strongly supported by the newly-animated Christian conservatives, who had made opposition to abortion rights the centerpiece of their movement. Though he had supported abortion rights as governor of California, Reagan had campaigned as a staunch opponent of abortion, going so far as to support a constitutional amendment overturning Roe. He won his party’s endorsement and the presidency thanks to his fellow social conservatives. He was clearly beholden to them, clearly in their debt.

Reagan appointed Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman to serve on the Supreme Court. Her record on abortion would prove to be complex, but when push came to shove, she became a vote in support of Roe. She wrote the plurality opinion upholding Roe in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, a case that bitterly disappointed pro-lifers.

O’Connor was joined in that opinion by another Reagan appointee, Anthony Kennedy, who, while more pro-life than O’Connor, has proven to be anything but a culture warrior. While he did write the opinion upholding the ban on soi disant partial birth abortion, his support of the plurality in Casey meant that two of Reagan’s three Supreme Court justice appointments ended up supporting at least the basic right to abortion. Kennedy also

And they were not alone among Republican appointees. George H.W. Bush’s first appointee, David Souter, also joined the plurality in Casey. Of the five justices appointed by Reagan and G.H.W. Bush, three ultimately voted in favor of abortion rights — and given the narrowness of Casey, those three votes proved decisive in allowing women the right to choose.

And so the anti-choice movement could have been forgiven if, somewhere around 1992, they simply threw in the towel, and gave up on the Republicans as a vehicle for the change they sought — eliminating abortion in America.

But they didn’t. They stuck with Reagan, with Bush, with Dole, with Bush again, and with McCain. They pushed for every scrap of ground they could in their quest to eliminate a woman’s right to choose. Instead of lamenting that Casey didn’t destroy abortion in one fell swoop, they took what they could from the decision — its lowering of the threshold prohibiting legal restrictions, its moving target on viability — and they used those small steps forward to push for greater and greater restrictions, slowly working toward their goals.

And what has the result been? Well, ask anyone who’s in the trenches whether those of us who support abortion rights are winning or losing. On the top line — basic support for the right — we’re still winning. But the ground game is a mess, with women having to jump through more and more hoops to exercise control over their bodies.

Why is this? Because the anti-choicers didn’t complain when things didn’t go their way. They didn’t give up on their political allies just because they didn’t get everything they wanted when they wanted it. They accepted that getting a slice of bread is better than nothing, even if you wanted the whole loaf. And they recognized that those who were opposed to abortion rights were their allies, even if they weren’t always perfect allies, even if they didn’t always get them all the way to their goals.

In short, the anti-choicers have been playing the long game for the past thirty years. And while they haven’t won yet, they’re winning.

We on the left don’t like to play the long game. It’s much easier to complain when things aren’t perfect right away. In some ways, it’s a fault that’s in our DNA; we can see the problems in the world, and we want to fix them, and we don’t want to be told that fixing them takes time. That kid is starving now. Those two women want to get married now. That war is happening now. Why should we wait ten years or twenty years or forty years to fix this? Fix it now, we demand.

But our government is designed to move slowly. Fitfully. Infuriatingly. And it takes a long time to make a course correction. The right has understood this far better than the left over the past three decades. They’ve been working to move our course slowly rightward. Sometimes they’ve succeeded. Sometimes they’ve merely prevented a move further to the left than was otherwise going to happen. But they’ve kept their pressure resolutely focused on pushing ever right.

Until and unless we on the left learn these lessons, we will continue to lose ground to those on the right. It is easy to attack President Obama and the Democrats for all the places where they’ve failed to achieve victory. And yes, the list is long. But so long as we spend our time attacking our allies for not fixing everything immediately, we will fail to put our energy into counterbalancing the right. We need to learn from our enemies. For they may be wrong in their prescriptions for society. But they are right on strategy.