The fall of Roe has energized the left: Now will it wake up the Democrats?

Pressure from the left forced Biden to change his tone. Now activists must push the party further and harder

Published July 14, 2022 6:00AM (EDT)

Joe Biden | Demonstrators are seen on H Street NW, during the Womens March to the White House to call on the Biden Administration protect abortion rights on Saturday, July 9, 2022 (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Joe Biden | Demonstrators are seen on H Street NW, during the Womens March to the White House to call on the Biden Administration protect abortion rights on Saturday, July 9, 2022 (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

This article is published in collaboration with Project Censored.

On July 8, President Biden signed an executive order that directed the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to take steps to protect and expand access to medical abortion and contraception while ensuring that patients are eligible to obtain emergency care. In addition, the order seeks to push back against threats posed by surveillance in states outlawing abortion by directing federal agencies to take additional actions to protect patient privacy.  

It's important to understand that this order came in response to a two-week pressure campaign by leftists who were frustrated by the Democratic Party's tepid response to the Supreme Court's decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization, which overturned the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling protecting abortion rights. Some progressive activists, as well as ordinary voters, threatened that they would not fund or vote for the Democratic Party and its candidates unless leaders took action.

The ways in which this pressure moved Biden from inaction to an executive order illustrates what activist scholars such as historian Howard Zinn long argued: You can't be neutral on a moving train, and change only occurs through sustained protest and agitation from the citizenry. Indeed, Lawrence O'Donnell explained that when he worked for the Democratic Party, it typically ignored demands from the left because few progressives were actually willing to withhold their votes on Election Day, ultimately succumbing to the party's ongoing "vote blue no matter who" propaganda campaign. As Biden's recent executive order illustrates, those seeking to codify abortion rights need to agitate and annoy Democratic leadership to take aggressive action.

Case in point, even though the Dobbs decision was leaked weeks ahead of time, Biden apparently had no  plan to protect abortion rights after it was finally announced. Meanwhile, Republicans had planned years in advance, passing so-called trigger laws that automatically outlawed abortion in states once Roe was overturned. The Democratic Party response was limited to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi reading a poem, Vice President Kamala Harris tweeting a picture of herself watching pro-choice protests, Democratic members of Congress singing "God Bless America" on the steps of the U.S. Capitol, a vast fundraising campaign, and chiding the electorate for not "voting harder" for Democrats — the party that allowed this all to happen. 

Through podcasts, op-eds, street demonstrations and more, progressives and leftists mobilized to pressure the Democratic Party to stop dithering on abortion rights and take substantive action, including removing the filibuster, packing the court or adding abortion clinics to federal lands in or near states that outlawed abortion. They rebuked the Democratic Party in general and Biden in particular for serving as enablers of the Republicans' anti-abortion agenda. In response, Democratic Party apologists took to social media to deflect and blame Bernie Sanders supporters, Susan Sarandon and other so-called far-left types for taking down Hillary Clinton's 2016 campaign, which they argued paved the way for Trump to appoint three Supreme Court justices who were integral to overturning Roe. Somewhat surprisingly, however, these self-righteous social media users were outflanked by dozens of other mainstream Democrats, who largely echoed the critiques from the left.

These included celebrities such as Debra Messing and "two dozen leading Democratic politicians and operatives, as well as several within the West Wing." They complained that they were being asked to do more fundraising and voting, while the Democratic Party — which controls both the executive and legislative branches in Washington, at least nominally — dithered on abortion rights. Some even questioned whether Biden was capable of taking action. Some "mocked how the President stood in the foyer of the White House, squinting through his remarks from a teleprompter as demonstrators poured into the streets, making only vague promises of action because he and aides hadn't decided on more."

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Those protesting from the left hoped to demonstrate that any fundraising campaigns or voter drives would be moot until they had somewhat more faith in Joe Biden as a change maker. This was certainly difficult to imagine, given that as a candidate in 2020, Biden promised wealthy donors that if he were elected, "Nothing would fundamentally change." These critiques seemed to turn up the pressure on Biden and his party, however. In the wake of the Dobbs decision, Biden reportedly made a deal with Mitch McConnell to appoint an anti-abortion judge to the federal bench in Kentucky. But as pressure from progressives mounted, the president's rhetoric became more aggressive as he expressed his willingness to remove the filibuster to codify abortion rights. Some critics have already contended that the executive order was too little and too late. Whether Biden has now been moved toward more serious action, only time will tell.

That shift in rhetoric has done little to quell the  protests or bolster Biden's poll numbers. Since his election, Americans' confidence in the office of the presidency in general has dropped by 15 points, from 38% in 2021 to 23% in 2022 — two points lower than even the Supreme Court. Further, Biden's approval rating — 36% on July 6 — was just two points above Trump's dismal 34% when he left office. At the moment, some 64% of Democrats do not want Biden to run for a second term. 

The Democratic Party will never confront its massive failure, or give progressive activists credit for forcing it into motion. But the real question is whether it's ready to change.

Elites never admit failure. The Democratic Party will conceal but never confront its massive failure to protect abortion rights from the far right and the GOP. As a possible or likely defeat awaits Biden's party this fall in the midterms, Democrats will continue to blame the other party or their own voters, but never themselves, for promoting candidates and policies that will not keep them in office. This was already demonstrated in a July 10 CBS News interview, when Vice President Harris claimed that Democrats were not at fault for the reversal of Roe because they "rightly believed" that abortion rights were a matter of settled law. That's rich coming from someone who served in the U.S. Senate with colleagues who openly appointed anti-abortion judges and repeatedly advocated for overturning Roe v. Wade

The Democratic leadership will also never give progressive activists credit for forcing the party to try to protect abortion rights. Their disdain for progressives was illustrated by their efforts to undermine Bernie Sanders' two presidential campaigns and remove all funding for Nevada's Democratic Party after a slate of democratic socialists was elected to lead the state party. These efforts seem to communicate that it's worth risking Republican victory in order to purge progressive activists.

It is not surprising that White House communications director Kate Bedingfield said that Biden's recent actions would "not satisfy some activists who have been consistently out of step with the mainstream of the Democratic Party." But that analysis simply isn't true. While progressive activists may not align with the neoliberal corporate leaders in the DNC, they are hardly out of step with the "mainstream," considering that 60% of the overall electorate and 80% of Democratic voters and "leaners" share the goal of protecting abortion rights. Joe Biden's July 8 executive order is no substitute for codified abortion rights, but it illustrates that sustained protest against those in power is the most effective way to make change. More protest and pressure, likely over a period of years, will be needed to pass legislation that codifies abortion rights nationwide.

Moving forward, the Democratic Party can (and probably will) continue to berate activists to deflect attention from its own failures, but the reality is that activists are moving the party toward action and should be embraced. There is still a long way to go, but this should be a lesson to those who support abortion rights or any other civil or human rights policy: to make change, voting and hoping is never enough. Rather than attacking the left, Democratic voters should hold those in power accountable to their base and a majority of Americans. As early 20th century labor activist and songwriter Joe Hill once said in the face of defeat: Don't mourn, organize. Then agitate like hell for real change. Democracy is not a spectator sport. 


By Nolan Higdon

Nolan Higdon is Project Censored national judge and a lecturer at Merrill College and the Education Department at University of California, Santa Cruz. His recent publications include "The Anatomy of Fake News: A Critical News Literacy Education" and "Let's Agree to Disagree: A Critical Thinking Guide to Communication, Conflict Management, and Critical Media Literacy" (with Mickey Huff). He is a contributor to "The Media and Me: A Guide to Critical Media Literacy for Young People."

MORE FROM Nolan Higdon

By Mickey Huff

Mickey Huff is the director of Project Censored and president of the nonprofit Media Freedom Foundation. Since 2009, he has co-edited the annual "Censored" book series for Seven Stories Press, now in partnership with The Censored Press. He is professor of social science, history and journalism at Diablo Valley College. His recent publications include "Let’s Agree to Disagree: A Critical Thinking Guide to Communication, Conflict Management, and Critical Media Literacy" (with Nolan Higdon).

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Abortion Commentary Democrats Dobbs Decision Progressives Reproductive Rights Roe V. Wade Supreme Court