DOLLARS FOR LIFE
The Anti-Abortion Movement and the Fall of the Republican Establishment
By Marie Ziegler
318 pages. Yale University Press. $35.
The upheavals of recent years have been so relentless that it can be hard to remember just how odd the partnership was: Donald J. Trump and the social conservatives, an odd couple for the ages. As legal historian Mary Ziegler writes in “Dollars for Life,” the start of the 2016 election cycle had evangelicals extremely concerned. Hillary Clinton – whose eventual presidency they deemed “catastrophic” – was running on what Ziegler called “arguably the most pro-choice platform in history”. Could a “crass real estate tycoon” really turn out to be “the savior they were looking for”?
Somehow, says Ziegler, the author of several books on the history of abortion in the United States, although his argument in “Dollars for Life” goes mostly the other way – that over the decades , the anti-abortion movement laid the groundwork for an insurgent candidate like Trump.
Much of this has been accomplished through easing restrictions on campaign finance or changing how money works in American political campaigns. While progressives have long argued that allowing more money to flow into politics allows plutocrats to ignore the will of the people, Ziegler shows that its effects have been more “ambiguous” than that. Yes, she says, billionaires like Charles and David Koch have worked diligently to deregulate campaign finance, but big industry has not been the only beneficiary; some members of the anti-abortion movement recognized early on that deregulation could help populist outsiders like them “break through the traditional GOP hierarchy.” Money moves in mysterious ways.
This “traditional GOP hierarchy” has not always been committed to the anti-abortion cause. Republicans in the late 1960s, Ziegler points out, were actually more likely to favor repeal of criminal abortion laws than Democrats. “Abortion itself was only one issue – and for the establishment, far from the most important – in a broad right-wing agenda.”
Even when Republican politicians tried to appease their party’s wayward anti-abortion wing, they could count on campaign finance restrictions that favored party machines, which in turn could crush any upstart competition. A Georgian delegate to the 1988 Republican National Convention described his socially conservative colleagues as “the people who brought you the Spanish Inquisition and the Salem Witch Trials”.
Learn more about the American abortion debate
“Dollars for Life” begins in the years leading up to Roe v. Wade, whom the Republican Party power brokers tried as hard as they could to use to their advantage. On the one hand, the 1973 decision could bring together a divided party. Supreme Court scrutiny “motivated conservative voters who agreed on little else,” Ziegler writes. But mainstream Republicans were also afraid that Roe would be overthrown. Roe, says Ziegler, was their “shield”. Without it, anti-abortion activists would demand that Republican politicians, inevitably preoccupied with electoral odds, pursue a more radical agenda than American voters actually want. After George HW Bush’s 1992 defeat of Bill Clinton, who put abortion rights at the forefront of his platform, Republican leaders “seemed to want the issue to go away.”
But people like James Bopp Jr. weren’t about to let that happen. A central character in Ziegler’s book, Bopp was 24 when Roe was decided and has been a determined anti-abortion Republican ever since. He made a direct connection between money and speech, noting that even Republican control of the White House was not translating into the kind of anti-abortion regime he wanted to see.
“He believed that limits on the spending of privileged big government at the expense of liberty protected incumbents of popular movements and made it difficult for advocacy organizations to operate,” Ziegler writes. More money, more influence. If establishment Republicans grew nervous about abortion as an issue, thinking it was electorally safer to veer to the center, Bopp decided that an influx of money raised by the anti- abortion would convince them otherwise.
You get the feeling that Ziegler could recite this story back and forth, comfortably analyzing the arcane differences between 501(c)(4) and 501(c)(3) nonprofits. She takes bits of levity where she can find them – an hapless Republican populist victim of a pancake-flipping contest; an anti-abortion activist who thinks she “could help end abortion in America” by directing an autobiographical romantic comedy – but “Dollars for Life” is an inevitably sober book.
Although social conservatives like Bopp were initially discouraged by Trump’s antics, they soon realized that his weakness in the Republican Party could work in their favor. Isolated and unpopular, Trump depended on the support of the anti-abortion movement — and always in tune with his own self-preservation, he behaved accordingly. “He went above and beyond what is normally expected of a pro-life president,” Ziegler writes.
Ziegler acknowledges a number of forces that have contributed to Trump’s rise — negative partisanship, for example, and the proliferation of conservative media. But money, she points out, played “a key role in this new politics”, with outside groups amassing formidable war chests to fund candidates who could be counted on to further the interests of these groups rather than to capitulate to the restraining pressures of the Republican Party. machine. “The rise of Trump and candidates like him,” she asserts, “is the story of the demise of the Republican establishment.”
What looks like Roe’s impending overthrow has taken decades. And if the anti-abortion movement has its way, a post-Roe world won’t mean the issue is simply pushed to the states. Ziegler shows that the movement turned to incrementalism strategically – settling for pragmatic solutions only in pursuit of a much larger goal. “Anything short of a national abortion ban will not satisfy them,” she wrote. “Dollars for Life” tells how the religious right learned a useful, if secular, lesson: you get what you pay for.