Mickey Huff Nolan Higdon Supreme Court

Nolan Higdon and Mickey Huff: Did Dobbs Help the Left Rediscover How Political Change is Made?

The progressive push for Biden’s executive order illustrates that abortion rights needed to be protected, not taken for granted by party leaders.
The Supreme Court Building. By nutzk on Flickr

By Nolan Higdon and Mickey Huff / Project Censored

This piece is a Bonus Op Ed to help kick off Project Censored’s new column; Dispatches from Project Censored: On Media and Politics. See the first installment here.

On July 8, President Joe 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. The order was in response to a two-week pressure campaign by leftists who were frustrated by the Democratic Party’s tepid response the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which overturned the 1973 Roe V. Wade ruling protecting abortion rights for women. Many threatened that they would not fund or vote for the Democratic Party 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: one 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, they ignored the demands from the left because many were never willing to actually withhold their votes on election day– ultimately succumbing to the fear tactics of 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 decision was leaked a month ahead of time, Biden did not devise a plan to protect abortion rights following the Dobbs decision. Meanwhile, Republicans made plans years in advance, passing so-called trigger laws that automatically outlawed abortion in states once Roe V. Wade was overturned. The Democratic Party response was limited to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi reading a poem, Vice President Kamala Harris tweeted 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 that allegedly 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 near states that outlawed abortion. They rebuked the Democratic Party in general and Biden in particular for serving as enablers of the Republican Party’s anti-abortion agenda. Leftists were met by Democratic Party apologists who took to social media to deflect and blame Bernie Sanders supporters, Susan Sarandon, and other so-called far-left types for taking down Hilary Clinton’s 2016 campaign, which they argued paved the way for Trump to appoint three Supreme Course Justices that were integral in overturning Roe V. Wade. However, these self-righteous social media users were outflanked by dozens of other Democratic Party apparatchiks, who 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 the Executive and Legislative Branches – dithered on abortion rights. Some even questioned if the president 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.”

Those protesting from the left were showing that any fundraising campaigns or voter drives would be moot until they had faith in Biden as a change maker. This was certainly difficult to imagine from Biden, who promised wealthy donors in 2020 that if he was elected president, “Nothing would fundamentally change.” However, these critiques seemed to put pressure on Democratic Party leaders. After the Dobbs decision was announced, Biden was reportedly making a deal to appoint an anti-abortionist to a lifetime judicial appointment, but as the pressure from progressives mounted, his rhetoric became more aggressive as he expressed his willingness to remove the filibuster to codify abortion rights. Time will tell, but further inaction likely does not bode well for the president.

Despite the notable shift, that rhetoric has done little to mask previous inaction. As a result, the protests continue and his poll numbers continue to fall. Since Biden’s election, American’s confidence in the Office of the Presidency in general dropped 15 points, from 38% in 2021 to 23% in 2022 – 2 points lower than the Supreme Court. Further, Biden’s approval rating– 36% on July 6, 2022 – was just 2 points above Trump’s dismal 34% when leaving office. Translation–currently, some 64% of Democrats do not want Biden to run for a second term. 

Elites never admit failure. The Democratic Party will conceal, but never confront, that they failed to protect abortion rights from the far right and the GOP. As a possible defeat may await Biden’s party this fall in the midterms, they will blame the other party or voters, never themselves, for promoting candidates and policies that will not keep them in office. This was already demonstrated in a July 10 interview on CBS where Vice President Harris claimed that Democrats were not at fault for the reversal of Roe because they “rightly believed” that abortion rights were settled law. This is rich coming from someone who served in the U.S. Senate with colleagues who openly appointed anti-abortionist judges and 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’ presidential campaigns and remove all funding for Nevada’s Democratic Party after a slate of democratic socialists were elected to lead the party. These efforts seem to communicate that risking a Republican Party victory is worth neutralizing progressive activists.

It is not surprising that the White House communications director Kate Bedingfield, who said the Biden’s cabinet would “not to satisfy some activists who have been consistently out of step with the mainstream of the Democratic Party.” In reality, activists may not be in line with the neoliberal corporate leaders in the DNC, but they are not out of step with the mainstream, considering that their goal to protect abortion rights is supported by 60% of the electorate and 80% of those who are members of or lean toward the Democratic Party. Biden finally acted when he signed the July 8 executive order, which is hardly a substitute for codified abortion rights, but it illustrates that sustained protest of those in power is the only hope for making change. More protest and pressure will be needed to achieve a goal of passing legislation that codifies abortion rights.

Moving forward, the party can continue to berate activists to deflect their failures, but the reality is that the activists are moving the party to 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, one must protest and pester those in power, not just vote and hope. Rather than attack 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. There is much to be done. Let’s get busy.

Nolan Higdon

NOLAN HIGDON is a Project Censored judge and lecturer at Merrill College and University of California, Santa Cruz.  His most recent publications include The Anatomy of Fake News: A Critical News Literacy Education (2020) and The Podcaster’s Dilemma: Decolonizing Podcasters in the Era of Surveillance Capitalism (2021, with Nicholas L. Baham III) and, with Mickey Huff, the coauthor of Let’s Agree to Disagree: A Critical Thinking Guide to Communication, Conflict Management, and Critical Media Literacy (2022).

Mickey Huff

MICKEY HUFF is the director of Project Censored and president of the nonprofit Media Freedom Foundation. To date, he has co-edited 14 editions of the Project’s yearbook, including most recently Project Censored’s State of the Free Press (2022), with Andy Lee Roth. He is also co-author with Nolan Higdon, of Unites States of Distraction: Media Manipulation in Post-Truth America (and what we can do about it) (City Lights, 2019) and Let’s Agree to Disagree: A Critical Thinking Guide to Communication, Conflict Management, and Critical Media Literacy (Routledge, 2022). 

8 comments

  1. Nolan your democracy is dead. Also, there is no left in America it was eradicated long ago. No political change is possible short of revolution.

    How can people still not know this.

  2. “… many were never willing to actually withhold their votes on election day– ultimately succumbing to the fear tactics of the party’s ongoing ‘vote blue no matter who’ propaganda campaign.”

    And guess what, many will do the same when faced with “those awful Rs!” as they have been for the last several decades – so we will hear a lot of noise, some “executive action” – but here’s the thing, leave the Ds in power and “nothing will fundamentally change”, as Biden said, but folks, scared of “those awful Rs” (aided and abetted at every step of the way by the Ds) will vote Blue, no matter who” … and here we go again

    As pointed out they will blame, and are blaming, anybody else but themselves – blaming “lefties” for Hillary’s loss is a riot – Hillary lost because the Ds, under the sainted Obama administration, didn’t do squat – sorry, wasn’t Russia, nor Stein – it was their own incompetency (kindest interpretation), or their sell out to corp Amer (most likely). So “pressuring Biden” will not save the day – unless one has equal success with every Dem in Congress – lotsa luck .. how bad must they be that they could lose to a schmuck like Trump – they seem to be preparing to do it again …

    We did the Blue thing in ’20 to beat those “awful Rs” and what did we get – a nothing fundamentally changing Biden

    And will we put the same amount of pressure for CC, or even decent gun control – remember, the Ds failure is not just with regard to abortion rights, they have been failing at just about everything for decades …

    It is time, way past time that we actually carry out our threat to not vote D – but that isn’t enough – they must lose to another Party – a lefty non-corp party – if we had done that, building momentum in every election, hadn’t chickened out, since ’00, you would see, at least, a truly “reformed” DP by now – otherwise fuhgeddaboutit ,,, if they lose just because we “hold our votes” as has been done before (in ’16, e.g) there is no “message” sent that will not be interpreted as “apathy” or citizen laziness – they will never blame themselves – but if we vote FOR what we want by voting for a Party that stands for that – the message is loud and clear – we will not chicken out any more … it’s time to put up or shut up and not just in regard to abortion rights …

    In the immortal words of Eliza Doolittle “Words, words, words, “I’m so sick of words, I get words all day through, first from him now from you – is that all you blighters can do! Sing me no songs, read me no rhymes, don’t waste my time, show me! Never do i ever want to hear another word, there isn’t one i haven’t heard … say one more word and I’ll scream! ….. Show me, now!”
    And that is what we must do – show them time’s up – you’re outa here …” it’s too late, baby it’s just too late though we really did try to make it, something inside has died – and (you) can’t hide and (you) just can’t fake it “- anymore Basta!

  3. RADICALIZATION (As Centrist Distortion)

    Old leftists know what +radical+ really means and that until fairly recently, it was a synonym for left. Its etymology is root; implying a connection to basics, to groundedness, to true grassroots.

    The term once used for right wing, *reactionary*, has disappeared. While +radicalization+ is currently applied in reference to how Americans become activists with racist, fascist, and outright Nazi groups. Especially by younger writers.

    The change to how derivatives of radical are now (mis)used is likely deliberate. It seems to have accompanied the unfriendly take-over of the D party by a corporate friendly elite that ditched the New Deal and abandoned labor. Actually center/right, they refer to themselves as centrists, as do their powerful MSM allies.

    Thus applying the term +radical+ to any non-conformist politics, left or right, works in favor of the centrists. Especially when it obscures how close they are to destructive neoliberalism and how far they are from the few remaining New Dealers. As well as from everything else left, like econ reform and eco-activism.

    The deliberate shift in meaning of +radicalization+ functions to bind everything even slightly left with the absolute worst of the right wing. A nasty little trick to make “centrism” seem reasonable.

    Clearly the roots of radicalization need to be rediscovered, too.

  4. Learn the difference between middle class liberals and the political left.

  5. Under the premise that Dems would actually try to end the filibuster, Manchin and Sinema are still in the Senate. President Manchin and VP Sinema would never allow this to happen. There is no solution within the present system.

    Obama had 60 Senate Seats and a ridiculous majority in the HoR. Did the US get anything for the mandate? Nope, the ACA was a trash marketplace where we could buy rapacious high premium coverage with high out of pocket costs under the threat of being taxed to hell if we weren’t covered. The only advantage was being on your parent’s insurance until age 26, assuming your parents had insurance. Democrats have produced almost nothing productive since Johnson. Neo-liberalism is killing the Earth and us.

    The only solution I can envision is a second Constitutional Convention. A regionalization of this nation with substantial independent sovereignty from the other regions, and the federal government.

    If the South and fly over states want to live in a Christian Hamas society, let them do it. They don’t deserve influence over New England, the West Coast, and the Great Lakes region. Once the south is uninhabitable due to climate change, they can come crawling to the north begging for forgiveness. Only to be denied, as they denied rights and repealed rights to minorities and women.

    Their heresy against Christianity and democracy will require recompense. That recompense is living in the hellscape they’ve created for themselves. I don’t want to see people suffer, however they’ve sowed their fate. One snow storm made Texas’ electricity grid useless. Let them fail, let them have their Randian dystopia, and let them fall. It sounds cruel, it may even be cruel. We suffer the consequences of their actions. It’s time to let them suffer the consequences. The other regions can send them thoughts and prayers as a kind gesture.

  6. Here’s an example of what a real counter-action would be executed:

    Identify federal bases in or near the moron states.
    Make them places where abortion clinics could located.
    Provide armed federal escorts for women seeking abortions, fly or convey them to the clinics.
    Use deadly force to stop attempted arrests or interventions.
    Cut off all federal assistance for any state that tries to prosecute any of these women, ALL funds, immediately.

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