Democracies are run by those who show up. Which is why Tryce Czyczynska’s article on the low turnout for Stop Stupak rallies last week is more than a little bit troubling. Czyczynska observed that those who attended the rally in San Diego were largely seasoned political activists:
Of the 80 to 90 attendees, too many were the above-average, over-informed folks who thrive on community board meetings, phone-banking and public debate. These weren’t your average citizens. Almost any one of them could recite the Stupak-Pitts Amendment without hesitation. Almost all of them are painfully aware what’s at stake for women, and know you may be next at the chopping block of human rights. It was disappointing to notice an absence of the common voter.
The phenomenon that Czyczynska describes is not new. Countless political scientists have written about the lopsided playing field of political action, and they all say pretty much the same thing: a fairly small percentage of Americans are of the above-average over-informed variety that Czyczynska describes, and they get a lot of attention from Washington precisely because they’re the ones doing the heavy lifting. These activists, from all corners of the political spectrum, are frequently signing petitions, calling their elected representatives, attending rallies, writing letters to the editor, and volunteering for candidates or causes. The rest of America is too busy with work, family, and the daily concerns of life to do much more than vote once every four years (if that), or shake or nod their heads at political news on TV. For some women, hearing about the Stupak amendment in brief on the evening news in between shuttling the kids to soccer practice or finishing a presentation for work (or both) means that the danger it poses may simply not register. It’s important to note that the Internet is slowly changing this by making some political activity as easy as the click of a button, though the digital divide remains a hurdle, as does the fact that many women with Internet access do not necessarily seek out information on the state of reproductive rights.
The second wave feminist movement brought millions of American women to the recognition that the personal is political. The challenge now facing women’s rights advocates is to find the words and the venue to articulate how the political is personal to women who have never thought to consider themselves activists, or perhaps even feminists. The Stupak amendment (as well as the comparable Nelson amendment in the Senate, which luckily did not pass) will not only impact seasoned women’s rights activists. They will impact any woman who ends up facing an unplanned pregnancy.
Successfully engaging the "common voters" that Czyczynska talks about is obviously easier said than done, and there is no single road map to follow. NARAL’s television ads are a good start:
They place the issue squarely in the line of vision of many female voters. Continuing online outreach, particularly to younger women, is also key. Overall, organizing tends to be most successful when it grows out of established venues; what those venues are for pro-choice American women in the twenty-first century is the next question. For instance, some researchers have noted that anti-choice forces have successfully used socially conservative churches, where people are already congregating for community activity, as bases for their political engagement. Pro-choice activists need to find comparable venues to reach like-minded women in settings where they are already prepared to listen and act.