Disengagement and Cynicism About Politics Are Luxuries We Can No Longer Afford.
What we do at the local level matters because it’s the local legislatures that are introducing and passing voter-suppression laws and abortion bans. Across the country hostile state legislatures continue to introduce copycat bills of draconian abortion restrictions that have found success in other states. Arizona was a leader in the sheer number of restrictive voting bills introduced in 2022, making it what the Brennan Center for Justice calls “the epicenter for the fight for voting rights.” The state legislature is where laws are made, whether about abortion, voter suppression, or other issues that matter.
Many people avoid politics because of cynicism. They think, The electoral process is broken. Elections won’t affect anything, so why should I vote? After all, most Americans support abortion, yet as of this writing, 13 states are without access to abortion and in others access is greatly restricted. Obviously, something is wrong. But cynicism isn’t the answer. Action is. The Brennan Center for Justice points out that “the movements to eliminate abortion and restrict the vote are both undergirded by many of the same powerful forces.” These forces include those who want to uphold patriarchy, misogyny, heterosexism, and white supremacy. When the rights of the majority are being ignored, fighting for abortion includes fighting for fair elections.
Voter suppression has created a situation in which elected officials do not represent the will of their constituents, and we see this in the abortion fight more clearly than in many other issues. Voter suppression leads to a sense of hopelessness and cynicism which leads to inaction. It is a deliberate tactic to get people to disengage. The stark divide between what voters want and what their politicians do as it concerns abortion just might be our wake-up call and our opportunity to turn things around. The good news is that abortion rights—and voter rights—are now hyperlocal, and that’s where grassroots political organizing and voting can work best. In the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization opinion that overturned Roe v. Wade, Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito wrote, “The permissibility of abortion, and the limitations upon it, are to be resolved like most important questions in our democracy: by citizens trying to persuade one another and then voting.” Thirty-nine days later, on August 2, 2022, citizens in Kansas delivered a landslide victory for abortion rights. Almost 60 percent of voters rejected a referendum to strip abortion rights out of the state constitution, thus enshrining state protections for abortion in the state of Kansas. Voters turned out in record numbers in this deep-red state that Donald Trump won in 2020 by 15 percentage points.
The win was historic and deeply meaningful, but it wasn’t a given and it wasn’t easy. Activists formed a bipartisan, broad-based coalition, Kansans for Constitutional Freedom, more than a year before the vote. They raised millions of dollars, outfundraising even the Catholic church’s $3 million haul. They pushed for voter registration, helping create a situation in which during the week after Dobbs more than 70 percent of newly registered voters in Kansas were women, a trend that held until the referendum. They put up signs and ran ads. They knocked on thousands of doors, made endless phone calls, and held countless living room tea-and-cookie parties, taking the time to explain one on one the deliberately convoluted language of the amendment—a no vote meant yes, keep abortion rights in the constitution. They had to work to combat misinformation, confusion, conspiracy theories, and outright lies. A lot of people worked extremely hard for a long time against deliberately dishonest and underhanded tactics to get Kansas voters informed and to the polls.
We’ve come to a point in time where we can’t just say I’m not political or I don’t do politics. Our lives are at stake. We know community and grassroots political activism works. When we put ourselves to the task of getting people informed and to the polls, the right people are elected to office who then do the right thing. Think about how President Obama got elected. Think about how community members in deep-red Kansas came together, educated one another, and pulled one another to the polls using a unique and powerful tactic: the truth.
We must continue to fight to be in a position where we have the power. We can’t all do everything, nor should we be expected to. Everyone must find their own path to how they can best react considering their own specific conditions, skills, and talents. There are so many ways to show up and support the cause of advancing reproductive health, rights, and justice. There’s a place for everyone in this moment. An important step is to stop the cynicism about politics and get involved because when we deliver a rational, honest message, change can happen. Red Kansas showed us that.
Justice Alito told us that the power now lies with the states and each of their individual electorates. Now, we must go out state by state, ballot measure by ballot measure, election by election and take control of that power.
Dr. DeShawn Taylor, MD is a Gynecologist and Family Planning Specialist, Gender Affirming Care Provider, and Reproductive Justice Activist, and Author whose work advances reproductive health care access through direct services, education and training, advocacy, and leadership. As founder and CEO of Health Justice MD, Dr. Taylor helps organizations incorporate a justice lens into new and emerging commitments to support reproductive rights.