It’s not supposed to work this way for patriots. Only liberals are supposed to get huge political wins through long campaigns of institutional takeover. Conservative victories are supposed to be exclusively rearguard actions, delaying the inevitable, but always doomed to eventual defeat.
But on Friday, that playbook went out the window. Forty-nine and a half years after Roe v. Wade legalized abortion in the U.S. nationwide, the Supreme Court reversed itself. In the landmark Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision, Justice Samuel Alito announced that Roe was wrong from the day it was decided:
Abortion presents a profound moral question. The Constitution does not prohibit the citizens of each State from regulating or prohibiting abortion. Roe and Casey arrogated that authority. We now overrule those decisions and return that authority to the people and their elected representatives.
In one stroke of the pen, five decades of abortion jurisprudence was undone. Abortion is once again an issue for states to decide on their own.
This was a remarkable victory, and adding details only underscores just how remarkable. Public opinion on abortion has been stable for decades. It’s fairly clear there was no overwhelming public support for overturning Roe, or for banning abortion more generally. Even more importantly, elite opinion in the United States is decisively pro-abortion. Dobbs was the rare right-of-center case where a smaller but more passionate and committed political faction carried the day.
This wasn’t a fluke or a random twist of fate. Alito’s ruling was the byproduct of decades of effort by the pro-life movement. That movement operates very differently from other conservative and populist political causes in America, so the fact that it has won so many victories, and just won its biggest one yet, deserves close attention. All patriotic Americans looking to secure long-term political victories should be looking to the pro-life movement for lessons on how to succeed.
Here are some lessons that everybody could learn from the pro-lifers’ success.
1. You have to have women involved.
In contrast to basically every other right-of-center political movement, and in defiance of the large gender gap in American politics, the pro-life movement has long been a very feminine movement. The head of the National Right to Life Committee is a woman and has been since 1991. A woman, Nellie Gray, founded the March for Life, and the group is still led by a woman today. Live Action was founded by Lila Rose when she was just 15. Rank-and-file anti-abortion demonstrators are heavily female; it’s likely that the issue is the single most popular one for women getting involved in right-of-center politics.
One reason this matters is obvious: America is a democracy, and women are a majority of the electorate. But it’s also far more than that. Having a large mass of women within a political movement confers advantages that are missing in a movement that is too predominantly male.
For one, people generally like women (especially cute young women or loveable motherly types), or at least don’t like being nasty to them. There’s a reason that, as some say, “women’s tears” perform so well in the marketplace of ideas. When a lot of women turn out to protest or to lobby a lawmaker, they’re a lot less likely to face police resistance, and a lot more likely to have lawmakers looking to please them.
Substantial female involvement also means that anti-abortion activism is a full-blown family affair. Pro-life moms raise their kids to be pro-life too.
For millions of Americans, anti-abortion campaigning is a major part of life, has been as long as they can remember, and will remain that way year in and year out. It is not a passing concern ginned up by the news cycle or the passing actions of the current presidential administration.
There are internal advantages too. Consider this photo of a Louisiana Right to Life demonstration held last month.
The demonstration features both men and women, but if one looks closely it becomes clear that the vast majority of people in the photo are women. Women are more inclined to “do the work” of day-to-day activism drudgery. Since women are more likely to work part-time, have flexible hours, or not work at all, they have more likely to time to commit to activism. They turn out for protests. They call and visit lawmakers’ offices to lobby them on bills. Much like wives who will never forget the details of an argument five years ago, pro-life women will never forget which lawmakers stayed loyal to the cause, and which ones disappointed them.
Women’s involvement in anti-abortion activism isn’t a surprise, given how innately the issue is bound up to the uniquely female experience of motherhood. But at the same time, there is no obvious reason other issues can’t cultivate female participation as well. A hundred and fifty years ago, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union spearheaded the drive to restrict and eventually ban alcohol nationwide. In 1890, the WCTU was the largest women’s organization in the world, and it managed to get the 17th Amendment banning alcohol passed before women could even vote nationwide. Today, there are plenty of critical issues in modern America where women’s involvement can and should be cultivated, whether its protecting teen girls from transgender propaganda, keeping critical race theory out of public schools, or helping America’s husbands, brothers, and sons escape from the clutches of drug addiction. Even gun rights could become a more feminine issue: What better than a gun, after all, to equalize the physical difference between a vulnerable woman and a predatory violent criminal?
2. Constant state-level action.
At the federal level, abortion policy was largely frozen in place by a combination of court rulings and overall legislative paralysis. It would have been easy for anti-abortion campaigners to use this as an excuse to do nothing and focus on advocating pie-in-the-sky policies that would never happen, like a constitutional amendment banning abortion.
But that’s not what they did. Instead, advocacy moved to the states. Pro-life activists were constantly looking for chinks in Roe’s legal armor, and that meant constantly experimenting with new anti-abortion laws. Sympathetic lawmakers took abortion restrictions as far as they could under current Supreme Court precedent, and then looked for plausible ways to go further. They didn’t just try and limit the range where abortion was legal. They tried all kinds of other tricks to make them harder to get and harder to provide: Mandatory counseling, waiting periods, parental or spousal notification laws, burdensome regulations on clinics. Because abortion is a life-and-death matter for pro-life activists, any law could be justified as long as it might prevent even a single abortion.
After the 2010 wave election, these new laws went into overdrive. In 2011, abortion foes enacted more than eighty new restrictions on abortion nationwide. Last year, anticipating the imminent Dobbs ruling, they passed more than a hundred.
These laws mattered for far more than just their direct impact on the abortion rate. Constant struggle gave the anti-abortion movement vitality and energy. It kept activists engaged, by allowing them to win small local victories at the local level instead of remaining fixated on a distant, unlikely goal. With abortion was always on the agenda in state politics, conservatives had an incentive to invest themselves in it.
And, most important of all, the constant barrage of new anti-abortion laws meant that the issue came before the Supreme Court regularly. Besides the major Roe, Casey, and Dobbs decisions, there were more than a dozen other notable abortion cases. When those cases went well, they nibbled away at Roe’s precedent, making a full reversal easier to imagine, and when they went poorly, they allowed pro-lifers to fine-tune their legal strategies.
Every other political movement in America could learn from the pro-life movement’s intensity and commitment when it comes to state-level legislation. Revolver wrote recently about all the laws that could be passed to push back against the ongoing transgender insanity:
What action could be even taken, you might ask? That’s the fun part: Concerned Florida Republicans and independents can get creative! First, fight tooth and nail against covering transgender care with Medicaid. Medical licensing is handled at the state level, so start going after their licensing of doctors who promote transitioning children. Second, create a registry for patients to lodge complaints against “transition” doctors, like we do for sex offenders or like New York City does for landlords. Or, make quack transition doctors into actual sex offenders, and create entirely new crimes like “child mutilation” to describe their actions.
Next, sharply increase a doctor’s liability exposure for any patient who later regrets the procedure they received. If post-transition regret and detransitioning is so rare, there should be no problem with putting doctors on the hook for six or seven-figure payments if their patients decide what happened to them as children was a mistake.
Then, go after their malpractice insurance. Already, many states ban insurance coverage for certain kinds of conduct, like fraud. Malpractice insurers should be allowed to protect good faith providers of mainstream medical care — but there should be no coverage for pediatric trans “therapies.” Or, go the other way: require the doctors to carry huge amounts of malpractice insurance, to shave away at their profit margins.
But this advice applies just as well to issues outside the culture war. Ever since the Supreme Court chucked out Arizona’s SB 1070, states have avoided passing bills targeting illegal immigrants and the businesses that employ them. But that ruling was a 5-4 decision authored by Anthony Kennedy. Since then, the Court has changed and new opportunities may exist. Rather than waiting for Donald Trump to ride back into the White House and finish the border wall, American nationalists should be fighting every day to build the reality they want, by any legislative means they can devise.
3. Hold lawmakers accountable.
Point #3 is downstream of of the second. Because of the constant flow of laws, resolutions, and votes, the pro-life movement also has a constant stream of data on which lawmakers are its real allies, and which ones are flaky and can’t be trusted.
Texas Right-to-Life, for instance, releases a scorecard after every single state legislative session, grading every lawmaker in the state for how they voted, what legislation they co-sponsored, and even what speeches they gave.
Every single one of the seven lawmakers in the above screenshot is Republican; likely all of them self-describe as pro-life. But Texas anti-abortion campaigners have a quick, quantitative way of gauging who is a lukewarm supporter of their cause, and who is truly engaged and committed. That means that when higher offices open up, like statewide offices or U.S. House seats, they know who should be encouraged to run.
Some other conservative groups also makes use of scorecards. The Club for Growth is an avid user and often puts out state-level versions reflecting its policy priorities. But on other important issues, like immigration, there is essentially nothing. Nobody is maintaining, at the state level, databases that will help national activists recruit and elevate reliable pro-border stalwarts for higher office. Is it any surprise, then, that Republicans in Congress so routinely disappoint their base on this issue?
4. Keep a toehold in elite institutions.
Friday’s ruling wouldn’t have happened without Trump’s appointees. All three of his Supreme Court picks — Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett — were part of the Dobbs majority. Two of them, Kavanaugh and Barrett, replaced judges who had previously voted to affirm Roe.
But those three justices were not the first three nominees chosen for the purpose of overturning Roe. Nominating judges who would topple Roe has been a priority for movement conservatives since the 1980s; it was one of the major goals of President Ronald Reagan when he made his own appointments to the Court. Yet of Reagan’s three Supreme Court picks — Antonin Scalia, Sandra Day O’Connor, and Anthony Kennedy — only Scalia turned out as pro-lifers hoped. Similarly, George H.W. Bush made two appointments, and while Clarence Thomas has been one of the greatest judicial picks in history, David Souter was one of the most disastrous.
So how did conservative legal warriors go from batting under .500 to crushing three crucial picks in a row? It wasn’t that Trump simply got lucky. The elevation of three anti-Roe Justices onto the Court was the culmination of a decades-long process. This process legitimized an alternative judicial worldview where overturning Roe was acceptable, and made sure there was a ready supply of qualified judges who could be counted on to do that. This process was the work of the Federalist Society, a collection of thousands of conservative and libertarian lawyers opposed to the activist, progressive judicial philosophy that brought about Roe. The Federalist Society started as a law student society in the 1980s, but it quickly grew into one of the most formidable institutions within the legal profession. Crucially, though, the Federalist Society is not an advocacy group:
[The Federalist Society] is best understood as a provider of public goods (in the welfare economic sense) to the conservative legal movement. First, it engages in recruitment of law students and practicing attorneys who can identify with and participate in the movement. Second, it invests in the human capital of members through frequent debates, which acquaint them with conservative legal ideas and heighten their intellectual self-confidence, and through their participation in its student, lawyer, and practice groups, which provide leadership experience. Third, the Society produces cultural capital, in that its activities facilitate the orderly development of conservative legal ideas and their injection into the legal mainstream, reducing the stigma associated with those ideas in institutions that produce and transmit professional distinction. Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, the Society is a producer of social capital in the form of networks that develop as by-products of Society activities.
[Teles, The Rise of the Conservative Legal Movement, p. 136]
Thanks to the Federalist Society, every pro-life lawyer has a path they can follow to a successful career: Join the Federalist Society, and leverage its vast network to get judicial clerkships and other elite legal jobs that pave the way to judicial appointments. Thanks to the Federalist Society, there is a large supply of well-credentialed, elite lawyers available to staff conservative administrations and to fill judicial vacancies. And thanks to the Federalist Society, the vetting for these vacancies is much better than it was before. In 2005, that vetting system came to the rescue when George W. Bush tried to nominate Harriet Miers to replace Sandra Day O’Connor on the Supreme Court:
Miers, testifying in a voting rights case in Dallas, was asked about organizations she belonged to. She said: “. . . I have tried to avoid memberships in organizations that were politically charged with one viewpoint or the other. For example, I wouldn’t belong to the Federalist Society any more than — I just feel like it’s better to not be involved in organizations that seem to color your view one way or the other for people who are examining you.
“I did join the Progressive Voters League here in Dallas during the campaign as part of the campaign,” she said. That’s a Democratic organization. Did she think the NAACP was “in the category of the organizations [she was] talking about?” she was asked.
“No, I don’t,” she responded.
[A]lthough much of the political chatter on Miers has focused on Roe v. Wade, Federalist Society types, already concerned about Miers’s skimpy paper trail, are finding it difficult to climb on board when her judicial philosophy, from matters of property rights to civil rights to federalism, is so opaque.
Miers’ old condemnation of the Federalist Society was a litmus test for her ideological unreliability. The network’s disapproval of her in turn doomed her nomination. And it was a good thing it did. When Bush made a second pass at filling O’Connor’s seat, his choice was Samuel Alito, the author of Dobbs.
5. Seize the moral high ground.
The success of the pro-life movement starts with its very name: “Pro-life.” First, it’s always better to be “pro” than “anti.” Second, it excellently framed the stakes of the issue itself: Abortion is not about bodily autonomy or reproductive freedom, but about individual unborn human lives which hang in the balance. The pro-life movement wishes to save these lives; their opponents seek to destroy them.
This little rhetorical win was one small part of a broader reality: The pro-life movement never conceded even the slightest presumption of moral superiority or even moral legitimacy to its opponents. Abortionists were “baby-killers,” birth control pioneer Margaret Sanger was a racist eugenicist, and Planned Parenthood itself was a sinister abortion profiteer.
But at the same time, the pro-life movement developed a savvy PR sense. In the 1980s, pro-life activists got a bad reputation for harassing women entering abortion clinics. But today, the movement instead frames mothers, even those getting abortions, as the victims of abortion. The annual March for Life concludes with women who regret their abortions speaking on the steps of the Supreme Court. Instead of vilifying young pregnant women, the movement reserves its venom for organizations, clinics, and particularly despicable villains like mass-murdering Pennsylvania abortionist Kermit Gosnell.
“Seize the moral high ground” might sound very obvious, yet on so many issues, it’s not! Conservative causes routinely flounder by submitting to the left’s sense of moral imperialism, consciously or subconsciously ceding the right to define what is right and wrong to its enemies. This goes a long way toward explaining why the Republican Party so frequently falls apart on issues relating to crime, or race, or immigration. The GOP simply lacks the self-confidence to truly, in their gut, believe that their cause is right, and the opposing cause is not merely mistaken, but often evil.
6. Go outside.
A cause that is only propagated on Twitter or in magazine articles may get a lot of attention from the the most engaged, but it will fail in the public arena. All of the most successful political causes have a physical component. So it’s fitting that the pro-life movement, the most successful right-of-center political cause, is the only one that resembles progressives in getting people outside. Pro-life activists pray outside their local abortion clinics. They put up protest displays at churches or on campuses, sometimes inviting violent attacks from their opponents. The March for Life draws tens of thousands of people to D.C. every single year, and thousands more attend smaller marches and protests in other cities.
This is more than just a show of strength. The very act of participating in group political activity like this increases morale. Why did Donald Trump generate so much passion and loyalty on the right? One very real factor was his ubiquitous rallies, which he continued to hold throughout his presidency. Support for Trump, and witnessing his entertaining, barely-scripted remarks live, was a bonding exercise that infused the “Make America Great Again” movement with passion, energy, and excitement.
7. Embrace a diversity of tactics.
The pro-life movement has always been a big-tent one, both demographically and tactically. The general posture of the pro-life movement is that, if it might lower the number of abortions or take it closer to becoming illegal, it is good and worth trying. We already mentioned all the various laws that are constantly being passed at the state level. But laws furthering the pro-life cause didn’t even have to be aimed specifically at abortion. The Unborn Victims of Violence Act, passed in 2004, had no effect on abortion at all, but by treating the unborn as persons when they were victims of violent crime, the law greatly furthered the normalization of the unborn as persons rather than “blobs of tissue.”
Nor is the cause limited to mere political campaigning. The pro-life movement took to heart criticisms that it only cared about children before they were born. So now, across America, thousands of crisis pregnancy centers offer prospective mothers prenatal care, financial assistance, child-rearing products like cribs and car seats, and referrals for adoption services. The best endorsement of these clinics’ effectiveness is how utterly berserk they make the left.
Pro-life activists do Project Veritas-style undercover stings of abortionists. They produce theatrical films.
In the pro-life movement, doing something is always better than doing nothing. And last week, all of that something paid off. Now, it’s time for the other arms of the MAGA movement to learn to do the same.