The Politics of Single Issue Abortion Voters
About 81% of self-identified evangelicals voted for Trump. My parents voted for Trump. Many of my relatives voted for Trump. And many of them voted for him because they are single-issue voters on anti-abortion issues. People vote with a focus on abortion access on the left, too. In her contribution to Liza Featherstone’s edited collection False Choices: The Faux Feminism of Hillary Clinton, Maureen Tkacik argues that Democrats also want to keep the abortion as an issue alive even though it could have been put to rest by making medical abortions more accessible. That didn’t happen because the same pharmaceutical companies that support Democratic candidates made the pill so expensive that the pill cocktail for a medical abortion costs $600, which in some cases is more than a surgical abortion costs. If abortion was cheaper, something that could be done in your local doctor’s office, and most often done at 8-10 weeks, it’d become less of a political divider. But it would also do less to get people to the polls for both Republicans and Democrats. Then they’d really need to make a case to people that their programs are good for us.
This election seemed a little bit different. First, I was disappointed to see that so many people actually thought Trump cares about these issues. But there was a second problem–voting this way has produced a drive to justify policy and perceptions of the world in order to justify this single-issue voting practice. For a long time, I thought that these voters really only did care about this issue and that was why they voted this way. If you think one issue is where a civilization will stand or fall, then forsake all other commitments for it. That seems like the right thing to do. But in the aftermath of Trump’s election these people did not say, I just vote on abortion so I can’t speak to or defend what these candidates say about regressive tax policies or racial housing policies, at least some of them insist that they do care about racism, but these policies are not racist. Some, maybe even many, Trump voters acknowledged all these negative things and justify their vote by saying that Trump was the lesser evil–I actually think that is more honest even if I think they are wrong about which evil was lesser. At least they admit to there being something wrong with their candidate.
But many single issue abortion voters began to argue that Trump is not a racist (or a sexist) and that his election has not emboldened racists and sexists in the face of much evidence to the contrary. This move is worrisome to me and I think it says something about how our limited voting options keep us from being capable of reflective criticism even of those candidates we might have others reasons to support. It’s destructive if it means that in the effort to defend a decision to vote for Trump, who supports racist and sexist and xenophobic policies, people seek to defend a view of the world where people try to see racism and sexism as something other than what they are. It leads me to wonder if this swing to defend the candidate as a whole has made it impossible for there to be real argument with anti-abortion voters on any other issue because the dispute is never about those other things but about justifying their single issue commitments.
These voters have had to associate with a party with a terrible history on race relations, including acknowledgement of dog whistle racist campaigning. I’m coming to think that their views of race politics are not why they are Republican voters, rather their being Republican voters shapes their views of race politics in an effort to defend their voting as single issue voters. They become supporters of states’ rights, of market-based solutions, of testing in public schools, of law and order candidates, of regressive tax policies, of segregated schooling because these are the policies of candidates that support criminalizing abortion. I think this came home to me when I realized that when confronted by people of color that they know who express concerns about what things will be like in Trump’s America these voters dismiss those concerns as exaggerated.
This candidate was unapologetically racist and sexist, so this defense became more transparent as a justification than it was previously. What is disappointing to me is to see now how a candidate who campaigned on explicit racist, sexist and anti-immigration policies is now being given cover and defended as not racist, sexist or anti-immigrant for the sake of justifying anti-abortion positions. This unwillingness to be critical on these issues is where I think that these voters have lost their moral compass and the higher moral ground they claim drives their political engagement. Some even argue here and here that God uses bad men for God’s purposes as when he used neighboring empires to accomplish His Purposes in the Old Testament. Their unwillingness to acknowledge that they make moral compromises to support their single issue requires ethical blinders in order to pull off. But what this explanation of their reasons for defending Trump and the GOP party line also makes evident is these voters notions of race and gender are not deep and fundamental, but political strategies to defend their partisan commitments to those who oppose abortion. They could think otherwise. They could vote otherwise.