Friday, November 10, 2023

What went wrong with Ohio's abortion referendum

 Like many I was shocked by the outcome of the referendum in Ohio on November 7. It is so sad that Ohio's constitution now gives almost blanket protection to abortion.

Worse, this amendment likely creates a "right" for minor children to be groomed into a transgender identity, with their parents barred from intervening to protect them from life-altering decisions in their teen years, whether abortion or transgender quackery involving massive doses of drugs that distort their bodies, or even surgery that mutilates their bodies.

The really dismaying thing is, I believe this outcome could have been different. 

Referenda and ballot initiatives are, in my judgment, a poor way to make laws. I wish our country never went down this road; they date to the late 1800s and early 1900s, when first so-called "populist" movements, and then self-described "progressives" of the time, promoted them.

They're bad because some, probably most, decisions about law and policy are pretty involved and maybe trying to reduce them to a few paragraphs on the ballot, and to a few seconds of vivid commentary on TV and radio, are a poor way to go. If you disagree, then I ask: why don't we do all our legislating by ballot, and not have an elected legislature altogether? Who thinks that would work?

Of course, many will say, we don't like or trust the legislature, so we'll go around them. OK, but then you make it less likely you get a better legislature, and more likely they'll be worse, because the legislators are more than happy to let tough decisions go to the ballot. "Not my fault, the people chose!" One way you get better legislators is by putting them on the spot: "where do you stand on this controversial issue?" Make them vote and then hold them accountable for that vote. It's hard work, but it's a better way forward than trying to enact public policy via referenda.

But let's talk about the specific case of the 2023 referendum on abortion in Ohio and why it need not have been a defeat for the pro-life cause.

There were several major mistakes by those who led the pro-life fight. Really astonishing errors.

1.    The pro-life side wasted everyone's time with a special referendum in August, which would have raised the vote threshold for enacting constitutional amendments.

This was a waste of money and more precious still, time. Why? It was transparently about blocking the expected pro-abortion November referendum. Which means, everyone who was going to vote yes in November was primed to vote no in August. So if you have the votes to win in August, then you have the votes to win in November. So no need for the August vote. 

On the other hand, if you think you lack the votes to win in November, then you almost certainly lack the votes to win in August. What? Do you think there was a sizable number of people who would vote pro-abortion in November, but somehow, were going to vote in August to make their desired outcome in November not happen? Who would those people be? They say, "oh yes, I want the state constitution to protect abortion on demand, so now I'll vote in August to block that from happening?" That's crazy!

While there were a few other groups supportive of the August measure -- gun-rights groups and some business groups -- by far the major backing came from pro-life groups. And I'd bet real money that vast majority of funds raised, and volunteers mobilized, for the August measure, came from pro-life ranks.

That means all that money and energy was not available to build opposition to the November abortion proposal. The pro-life side was out-spent as it was; some millions of dollars that might have been raised for the November fight was, instead, spent on the August trick play.

2. The pro-life messaging was absolutely incompetent.

The group that led the pro-life opposition to the abortion measure called itself, "Protect Women." And most of the messaging was the same: this is about protecting women.

And you might say, oh isn't that clever? And you might say, yes, that's what we want is to help women, and it's absolutely true.

However, when you are attempting to communicate with millions of voters in a referendum fight, the messaging, alas, must have a crystalline clarity; it must be capable of being boiled down to very concise ideas and images. You may hate that oversimplication, but then, maybe you, like me, hate the law of gravity or the law of entropy (which together, mean I get older and I get added chins); but I will do better working with those realities than I will trying to pretend they didn't exist.

Here's the central argument of the pro-abortion side, for decades: The woman (or the girl) is in trouble. She deserves a "choice" that solves her crisis. Why do you hate women so much that you won't help her out? Note well: the focus is on a concrete reality, not an abstraction. A woman. A girl.

And here's the central argument that pro-lifers have made, that has been successful: another concrete reality, a baby. Of course there is far more complexity, and yet: the only practical way to win, when the other side is pointing to a deeply sympathetic reality, a woman in trouble, is to respond, yes, but there's also a baby in trouble. Worse: that baby is going to die.

When one side has a powerful, concrete image, and you come back with an abstraction, guess who wins?

The messaging in this campaign from the pro-life side barely mentioned unborn children. There were vague -- abstract -- references to family and children, which were true, but weak. There were tepid, abstract claims of the other side being extreme. How extreme? That was never explained.

Here's one way to explain it. A prominent-in-Ohio abortionist, who specializes in just-before-birth abortions, contributed very sizably to this referendum. Why would he do that, if (as the pro-abortion side claimed), the proposed amendment would still keep his grisly trade illegal? An ad highlighting his butchery and his support of this referendum -- obviously to keep him in business -- would have been far more effective than what we got.

The pro-abortion side was allowed to frame the debate almost unchallenged: it was about women in trouble (which everyone agrees is bad), but barely a reminder of the babies who die -- so, perhaps the proposed solution (abortion on demand) is the wrong way to help women in trouble.

Here's a law of rhetoric which flows over into politics: he who frames the debate, wins the debate.

Just about every message ought to have been: babies. Here's a baby who will die through abortion on demand; here's a baby that was saved by pro-life laws. Here's 10,000 babies who will die. Imagine an ad showing six happy babies on the screen, then the screen pans out, and pans out, and pans out, to illustrate 10,000 (or whatever the number would be) babies on the chopping block.

Oh, too gruesome, let's be gentle and mild! That must have been the planning made months ago for this fight, because the messaging was consistent in this regard.

Look, it's not improper to paint the facts -- if they are, indeed, facts -- in vivid terms. What are icons? Icons, as a form of religious art, are deliberately not realistic. When the Lord is shown on the cross, or rising from the dead, the imagery is focused on key details and images. The cross, or the crags of the mountain of Transfiguration, or the grave from which Jesus emerged, are not presented with realism. Why not? So as to focus on the essential reality. Who says icons are immoral because they simplifie a complex reality?

But tell me, what happens when one side shows up to play touch football, the other side says, no we're going to play full contact, and the first side says, oh no, that's beneath us! We insist on sticking to touch football! That's more dignified!

You know what happens. It's what happened in Ohio on Tuesday.

Yes we could have won. How do I know? Because there is a history of ideas that poll well going down to defeat as ballot measures; the reason being that the opposition is able to demonstrate convincingly that there are bad things that will arise from passage of the measure. That's the great benefit of having the "no" position; even if you support the "yes" position generally, if you begin to have serious doubts about the consequences, you pull the "no" lever, just out of caution.

That's all for now, back to my day job.

1 comment:

rcg said...

Good essay. My opinion is that the discussion became about Catholicism and religion. There was the huge bulletin board on I-75 “Pro-Choice Catholics, you are not alone. Vote Yes on Amendment 1”. Arguments against abortion had many of the humanist elements, as your argument does, but most were thinly veiled religious arguments speaking to a specific group. The swing voters felt proselytized for voting no. Almost nothing was said about the grooming issue, which flew in the face freedom from Government intervention in our personal lives. Bringing that argument back to the abortion issue almost no one addresses the enslavement of women to sexual gratification that precedes the need for abortion. The most effective speaker I heard against Amendment 1 told that archeologists know they have discovered a Roman brothel when they find piles of bones of infants. Pro-Life groups have fumbled this by relying strictly on emotional and near-religious arguments that do not appeal to most voters. The emotion already resides in the unplanned pregnancy, the life changing decisions, the sexual exploitation that brought this insane question to the people.

You also make the distinction between a democracy and a republic. The opposition does a superior job of mobilizing voters that support their issues, if not in mind or spirit, at least mechanically. For they support coalition issues: one may personally oppose abortion but supports that choice for others in return for support grooming underage children for sex. The same goes for the sister issue of recreational cannabis. Support for Issue 1 was carried by the clearheaded allies supporting Issue 2.

An important point, perhaps the most important, is that voter participation that reaches 60% is considered a high turnout. So the real votes were cast for complacency, or despair.