Ahead of the 8 November US midterms, the narrative went like this: Democrats focused on democracy and abortion; Republicans talked about crime and inflation. Democrats, conventional wisdom went, needed to do a better job of talking about the economy and about issues that matter to the working class.
Democrats should, of course, improve their messaging on the economy (and where possible, improve the economy). Democrats should, of course, try to alleviate pain for working-class people, and should communicate how they are doing so to voters.
But it also needs to be understood that abortion is an economic issue. Abortion is an issue for the working class.
The Democrats, in reminding people that Roe vs Wade was overturned by Republican justices on the Supreme Court in June (leaving Republicans free to attack abortion rights at the state level and flirt with a federal ban at the national level), were not speaking about something abstract or intellectual. Abortion is not only an economic issue – it’s a privacy issue, and a health issue too. But to say “elect me to protect your right to an abortion” and to say “elect me for more economic security” are not separate statements.
The typical person getting an abortion in America has some college education – but is not a college graduate – and is low-income. Roughly half of the people who have abortions live below the poverty line; another quarter are close to poverty. On the flipside, women who live in states with access to abortion are less likely to live in poverty, and women who are able to delay motherhood by a year are able to increase their wages by 11 per cent.
A person’s ability to have some say in how many children they have and when they have them has a direct impact on their education and professional opportunities, which are, to put it plainly, economic issues. And not only – or even especially – for liberal elites.
Consider, for example, two states often hailed as working-class strongholds, which have toggled back and forth between Democratic and Republican control over the past decade.
The former US president Donald Trump won Pennsylvania in 2016, and the current president, Joe Biden, won it in 2020. The state’s abortion rate is higher than the national average, and its attorney general Josh Shapiro, who vowed to protect abortion rights if elected governor, has just won Pennsylvania’s gubernatorial race. A pledge to protect reproductive rights in that state needs to be understood as a pledge to help working-class families – because that’s what it is. John Fetterman, the state’s Democratic Senate candidate, won his race too.
Similarly, Trump won Michigan in 2016 and Biden won it in 2020. On Tuesday, Democrats in swing House districts, like Elissa Slotkin, were able to hold on to their seats. The Michigan legislature flipped and is now under Democratic control. Michigan voters, who had an abortion ban on the books, also voted for a state constitutional amendment to codify abortion rights. The candidates who ran on abortion were not doing so instead of economic issues. They were not asking voters to pick either greater economic control over their own lives or bodily autonomy. These are two sides of the same coin. On Tuesday, that coin flipped for Democrats.
This is true not just of abortion but of reproductive rights more broadly, which were on the ballot across the country. Legislation in certain states would curtail access to contraception. Birth control, and the ability to start a family when you want and not before, is an economic issue too.
We do not know the final results of the midterm elections yet, and abortion is not the only reason that Democrats did well. Young people turned out and voted for them. There was significant local and state variety in how each party fared. But for those who complain that the Democrats talk too much about abortion instead of “kitchen table” issues have it backwards. Democrats need to talk about economic problems not instead of, but including, abortion rights in America.