The dogged pursuit of a goal
It helps if you believe that you have an Almighty friend by your side
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I’ve been feeling very cynical lately.
Naturally, I’ve been processing the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade by launching myself into a rabbit-hole investigation of Marjorie Dannenfelser. When my emotions are hard to access, I over-intellectualize to self-soothe.
But there are lessons here.
Marjorie Dannenfelser has led the Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life Foundation since 1993. She has been focused on overturning Roe v. Wade for almost 30 years, patiently playing the game for decades. I’ve got to give it to her, she’s accomplished a huge feat — overturning a law that 61% of Americans support.
How did she pull that off?
As far as I can tell, there are 2 major components:
A belief that an Almighty Higher Power is helping you
Small yet incredibly pivotal actions over a sustained period of time
A belief that an Almighty Higher Power is helping you
Five years ago, I heard Stanford anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann give a talk about imaginary friends.
She wasn’t talking about children; she was studying adults who have romantic relationships with My Little Pony dolls and Evangelicals. This talk stuck with me because I had never thought about God as an imaginary friend before.
I was recently reminded of this framing when I found a Christian self-help book in my childhood bedroom (I have no idea how it got there). The book mostly consists of quotes and quips about how God is by your side, supporting you in your dreams, as long as you work hard and do the right thing. Honestly? It was kind of nice to read.
As someone who has always shunned organized religion, I have never once believed in this type of unwavering, Almighty support system. I always thought it was funny when celebrities thanked God during award acceptance speeches; it seemed like they were thanking God for making them special. Now I realize, a lot of people actually go about their day believing that some benevolent force is simply … on their side. That’s powerful.
Religion gives a lot of people meaning in this country. Even though numbers are on a slow decline, I was shocked to read that 70% of the country is religious.
More than meaning, religion has given some people, like Marjorie Dannenfelser, their life’s purpose. I imagine that once someone finds their purpose, they cling to it for dear life. That’s why Dannenfelser has been singularly focused on repealing abortion laws; she believes she is doing God’s work. She’s been able to persevere because she sees each setback as a test, and that ultimately God is helping her on her journey. What else could be more motivating?
Small yet incredibly pivotal actions over time
Powered by her belief, Dannenfelser’s activism has played out over 3 phases:
Grassroots: Build Pregnancy Centers for vulnerable, pregnant people
Political: Move the center-point of the political conversation to paint others as extreme
Legal: Elect justices and change the laws
Dannenfelser started out by taking local actions with crystal clear outcomes.
By creating Pregnancy Centers, she created a place for vulnerable people to turn to at a pivotal moment. What’s the most obvious way to stop an abortion? Convince the person carrying the baby to keep it.
Staff at the Pregnancy Centers tug at the heartstrings (easy) and provide minimal support for <9 months (buy a crib, some diapers) under the guise of real support. Then the job is done! The baby is alive and the parent can figure the rest out.
I can’t deny that the strategy behind these Centers is smart. Dannenfelser gained social capital and created a clear avenue for others to participate, to “help” those who were considering abortion. The Pregnancy Centers spread.
What’s ironic is that the promise of the Pregnancy Center is actually what most people want from our healthcare system — affordable, compassionate care. Unfortunately, like with most brand promises in the U.S., the message is strong (to support a specific agenda), yet leaves the person feeling empty after the transaction.
Aside from these local actions, Dannenfelser was strategic about her message.
At the beginning, Dannenfelser wasn’t too flagrant in her demands; she didn’t advocate for an outright abortion ban. She asked for a ban after 20-weeks. That’s the strategic genius of a compromise — to most people who haven’t had an abortion or have never been pregnant, 20 weeks might sound fine. By advocating for this first, she could “other” everyone else as “extreme”.
As she gained more momentum (and support of her Evangelical community), she made demands from hopeful Presidential candidates. In her own words:
“We started to ask presidential candidates to make a pledge of action. With the pledge, it became a primary debate among all the Republican primary candidates: Who’s the most pro-life? That’s exactly what you want.”
This is a master class in understanding incentives. She knows that Presidents care about the Evangelical vote — 25% of the population — who are very likely to vote united.
As soon as she hears this pledge, she has the leverage to work with Presidents to deliver on their promises. Marjorie was pivotal in helping Trump select judges for the Supreme Court, who share the same belief systems as she does.
Given our split Do-Nothing Congress and the fickle nature of Executive Orders, it’s been understood that the Supreme Court is one of the few ways left to create long-lasting legal change. She understood that and went straight for the area of government where she could make the biggest impact.
What if this strategy was applied to other movements?
What if other movements learned something from Dannenfelser?
When it comes to politics, this type of singular focus feels foreign within the Democratic party. It feels like there’s a lot of talking, but no singular vision for what’s right.
I am in awe of Republicans and how they seemingly know exactly what they want. They’re outcomes-oriented and they don’t waver. Mitch McConnell doesn’t care about the sanctity of “the system”; he simply does whatever it takes to enact the change he wants to see in the world. Is that ethical? I don’t know, but I think we’re past that conversation.
At this point, you’ve got to wonder, why are Democrats not applying the same dogmatic approach to climate change or the number of other critical issues our country is facing? There is a playbook at this point.
It feels like the Democrats don’t actually believe in anything wholeheartedly, which is odd given that we’re living in “Unprecedented Times.”
Until very recently, I assumed U.S. institutions were bedrock. I’ve since realized that everything is very malleable. This has been a most important lesson for me — to understand that change is possible. It can be deeply unsettling when things change in a way you think is wrong, but it must mean that it can change the other way, too.
Nature published a report that modeled 100,000 different potential future scenarios around emissions, based on different social, political, economic, and technology variables. Apparently, very few analyses consider all of these dynamics together.
What they found isn’t really earth-shattering. It basically says that no amount of individual action would ever reduce emissions enough (even if everyone quarantined peak Covid style forever). However, individual actions do influence the culture. Culture then impacts politics. If we can implement the necessary political change fast enough, there’s hope for us yet.
How incredible would it be if the Evangelical community threw itself behind reducing emissions rather than banning abortion? That would be dope. Then we’d all be saved!
I wonder if a religious experience (or something as powerful as that) is what’s necessary to sustain the momentum required to make real, long-lasting change?
Another example that comes to mind is that of Rick Doblin, who founded Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS). After personally experiencing the power of psychedelics, he reoriented his life to make psychedelics more accessible for healing purposes. He stopped working on his construction business, got a Ph.D. in Public Policy at Harvard, and has since been working with scientific and legal communities to change public perception and laws. He started this work in 1986 and estimates that psychedelics will permeate the mainstream by 2070. Although he doesn’t necessarily believe in an Almighty imaginary friend the same way that Dannenfelser does, his spiritual personal experience is driving his mission.
Regardless of politics, it’s fascinating to see how decades of work start to unfold; more importantly, it’s a good reminder of how important it is to stay motivated over the long term to make an impact on some of the biggest issue(s) of our time.
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