Bernie Sanders’s Abortion Comments and the Unnecessary Intolerance of the Culture War

There are lots of ways that Democrats could appeal to pro-life voters. What they lose when they choose not to.

In a town hall last week, MSNBC’s Stephanie Ruhle asked Bernie Sanders, “Is there such a thing a thing as a pro-life Democrat in your vision of the party.” Bernie’s response was blunt—“I think being pro-choice is an absolutely essential part of being a Democrat.” 

That was a terrible answer. Not only did this response send a negative message to millions of pro-life Democrats, it also actively repulses pro-life voters who dislike Donald Trump, and—even worse—it was a symbol of the way that the American culture war has grown unnecessarily and gratuitously intolerant. 

Why do I say unnecessary and gratuitous? Let’s consider a different answer from Bernie—one I’m pretty sure he could give without altering a single one of his policy positions. Here’s Earth Two Bernie with an alternate-universe answer:

Yes, absolutely, Stephanie. In my vision of the party, pro-life Americans would want to be Democrats. No, not because we’re going to reverse Roe. We’re not going to do that. Protecting a woman’s right to choose is a core plank in the Democratic Party platform, and I’m going to protect that constitutional principle. 

But here’s why pro-life Americans will want to vote for me—because in my America there will be fewer abortions, a lot fewer abortions. No woman will struggle to afford contraceptives. Fewer women fear that they can’t afford to be pregnant. No longer will they worry if they’ll have the financial resources to raise and educate a child. And they won’t worry that they’ll lose their job if they want to spend valuable time with their newborn. If their child is diagnosed with special needs, they won’t bear the crushing burden of the costs of care. 

Remove the cost of health care and education, along with the corresponding fear and economic insecurity, from women’s lives, and I believe with all my heart that we’ll see the abortion rate decline even more. It declined during Barack Obama’s presidency when he expanded access to health care even while he protected abortion rights. It will decline in my presidency when I expand access to health care even while I protect Roe. 

With a response like this, Sanders tells pro-life voters he values them. He tells them that he believes that Democratic policies will save lives. And he also communicates directly to a segment of the voting public that calls itself pro-life but isn’t seeking a total ban on abortion. 

It isn’t just Bernie who could give this answer. Every Democrat who is aware of long-term declines in the abortion rate can justifiably argue that those declines will continue in his or her administration, and they can also argue in good faith that their policies—which are often designed to provide greater financial security to struggling and marginalized families—may well hasten the decline. 

In fact, a shrewd Democrat could aggressively confront a pro-life Republican and argue that he’s selling his pro-life constituents a bill of goods. He can’t ban abortion. He likely can’t even assure that Roe will be overturned. Even worse, his policies will provide less care for pregnant women and young mothers and perversely may sustain the demand for abortion. 

Moreover, an aggressive Democrat could challenge pro-life Americans by arguing not only that their policies would lower the abortion rate, they’d lower the rate without having to compromise commitments to human dignity after a child is born. Pro-choicers have long accused pro-lifers of being “pro-birth,” not pro-life. Now they can tout no more “kids in cages.” No more family separation.

The reasons for the decline in abortion are varied and complex, and there are responses to these hypothetical pitches to pro-life conservatives. I am deeply skeptical, for example, that a regime that directly publicly funds abortion (as many Democrats want) will lead to fewer abortions. I’m also skeptical of the affordability and wisdom of Medicare for All for a host of reasons. But if Sanders is the nominee, I strongly suspect that Republicans won’t have to worry about overtures to pro-life voters. I strongly suspect he’ll simply stick with the answer he gave Stephanie Ruhle.

Here’s why—in the extremist world of the revolutionary left it is often unacceptable even to imply that there should be any discomfort at all with the decision to abort a child. In that world, there is only one way to speak about abortion—as an empowering, even possibly virtuous act. Abortion isn’t problematic. Abortion is simply health care. 

That’s why you don’t hear many Democrats repeat the Bill Clinton-era mantra of “safe, legal, and rare.” And while activists who “shout their abortion” are so few and far between that hardly anyone has heard of them outside of political hobbyists, the Online Left punches far, far above its real-world weight. 

As negative polarization accelerates, politics is becoming less about bridge-building and far more about line-drawing. Activists want to win, certainly, but they want to win with their people by their side. It’s good versus evil, and who wants to ally with evil? 

In fact, in addition to shunning pro-life voters, Bernie himself has demonstrated unacceptable, open hostility to believing Christians. Remember when he grilled a Trump appointee to the Office of Management and Budget over his theological beliefs about Christianity and salvation? He said that a person who believed and wrote completely conventional Christian teachings about the necessity of faith in Christ for salvation was “really not someone who this country is supposed to be about.”

Not only was this statement contrary to the spirit of American religious tolerance, it violates the text of the Constitution itself. Article VI prohibits religious tests for public office. 

I would not expect Sanders to share an Evangelical Christian’s theology. In another setting they could debate their differences vigorously. Instead, Sanders chose unnecessary and unlawful provocation. And yes I know that neither Sanders nor any other Democrat has the market cornered on unnecessary and unlawful provocation (just read my previous newsletter), but there is a better way. Amy Klobuchar, for example, gets it. The tweet below offered a refreshing contrast to Sanders’s radicalism:

Andrew Yang’s recent comments on abortion are interesting as well. He’s pro-choice, but he’s also under fire from some abortion rights activists for the words below:

But Yang’s words ring true to countless Americans who are both uncomfortable with the morality of abortion and uncomfortable with abortion bans. In fact, I’d argue that this exact moral position is in part responsible for the increase in the percentage of unplanned pregnancies carried to term. Many pro-choice women simply won’t abort their own unborn child, no matter their personal circumstances. 

In that context, being “personally pro-life” saves lives even if it doesn’t change laws.

Make no mistake, a Democrat may well win the election even if he or she drives virtually every pro-life voter outside the Democratic tent and then places armed guards at the door to keep any stragglers from sneaking back in. This is an era of base-mobilizing politics, and they’ll be running against a president who is going to be smacking his enemies in the face, all day, every day. Trump will be motivating his base by mobilizing his opposition.

But there is a different path, and there are Democrats who know there’s a different path. In a recent Vox interview, Democratic strategist James Carville launched a memorable rant against the Democratic temptation to embrace revolutionary, radical politics. I could quote entire paragraphs (read the whole thing), but here’s one of the tamer portions:

The real argument here is that some people think there’s a real yearning for a left-wing revolution in this country, and if we just appeal to the people who feel that, we’ll grow and excite them and we’ll win. But there’s a word a lot of people hate that I love: politics. It means building coalitions to win elections. It means sometimes having to sit back and listen to what people think and framing your message accordingly.

There are a pro-life Americans who want to save unborn lives and who want an alternative to the Trumpist GOP. A Democratic candidate who would shun these voters is a candidate who only reaffirms the core Republican attack—that the party is in the grips of a fringe that is more pro-abortion than it is truly pro-choice. 

One last thing ... 

You knew it was coming. Another Ja Morant highlight. It’s often said that it’s better to be lucky than good. But the ideal is to be lucky and good. Watch the greatest rookie in the NBA turn a broken play into a dagger three. 

Photograph of Bernie Sanders speaking at the Our Rights, Our Courts Forum at New Hampshire Technical Institute in Concord, N.H. on Feb. 8, 2020, by Jessica Rinaldi/Boston Globe via Getty Images.