Busted: Melinda Henneberger

Melinda Henneberger, a former reporter for The New York Times and a former contributing editor for Newsweek magazine, spent 18 months talking to 234 women in 12 states—both “red” and “blue”—about the political issues that concern them most, from national security to abortion rights. Her findings, contained in the new book If They Only Listened to Us: What Women Voters Want Politicians to Hear (Simon and Schuster, May 2007) indicate that for many American women not all political issues are created equal—and that politicians on both sides of the aisle fail to take notice at their peril.

BustedHalo.com: How did the idea for your book come to you? Was it incredulity at how the presidential election turned out in 2004?

Melinda Henneberger: I was scheduled to go on TV the morning after the election to explain the results and I was kind of happy about that—not only because I thought Kerry was going to win but because I thought I knew what the election itself meant. I was going to say, “Americans do not consider the Geneva Convention remotely quaint and we do not consider torture an appropriate means of interrogation and, basically, we know a mess when we see one.” But whatever I mumbled on TV that morning, it was clear to me that I had no idea what the election really meant. I noticed that the gender gap, by which women had traditionally favored Democrats, had narrowed slightly, so I decided that I needed to get out and ask women what they really care about. These were very open-ended conversations—the opposite of a poll.

BH: One of the interesting things about your book was that the subtitle could have been “It’s the Abortion Issue, Stupid.”

MH: I was surprised that abortion seemed to be the main reason that a lot of women peeled off from the Democrats in 2004. These were obviously not your classic single issue voters; if they were, they would have peeled off long before now. Rather, they are women who have felt increasingly excluded from the party over abortion. They said to themselves, “I’m with the Democrats on almost everything else, but if you’re pro life, they don’t even want you.”

“The majority of Americans don’t want to see abortion outlawed altogether. At the same time, they’re obviously not comfortable with the laws that exist, either.”

BH: But why was 2004 the breaking point?

MH: I think it made a difference when the bishops said, in effect, “If you’re a good Catholic, you’ll vote this way.” It came pretty close, in some places, to the message that “a vote for Kerry is a sin.” I heard from women who were swayed by that message even as they were angered by it. Often, they didn’t vote for Bush, they just didn’t vote for Kerry. They would write-in a pro-life Democrat.

BH: Interesting. It seems that Hillary Clinton has made some movements toward a more moderate stance on abortion over the last year or so.

MH: I think Hillary Clinton is listening on this. I think she’s pretty keenly aware of the importance of reaching out to people of faith.

BH: Despite their rhetoric, I often wonder whether some Republican strategists’ greatest fear is that Roe v. Wade gets overturned? It would take away an enormous red herring that they get to throw out to distract people every election.

MH: I see very little chance of Roe being overturned, but if it were, the Democrats would be ensured a lock on power for the next generation. The majority of Americans don’t want to see abortion outlawed altogether. At the same time, they’re obviously not comfortable with the laws that exist, either.

BustedHalo.com: Did you get the sense that a lot of the women you talked to think that overturning Roe v. Wade is the answer to their concerns?

Melinda Henneberger: The Republicans say, “If you stick with us, baby, we’re gonna overturn Roe for you next year, or the year after that, or the year after that.” It’s astonishing to me that people still believe these promises. I think there are some Republicans who are truly sincere on this issue, but do I think Bush wants to see Roe v. Wade overturned? Not for a minute.

BH: And yet that’s not perceived as cynical by the voters who have supported the Republican platform for years?

MH: That’s why it’s so unfortunate that the Democratic Party has such a hard time moving at all on the issue, or allowing dissent, or even entertaining the notion that it would not be cataclysmic to have some limits on abortion. I spoke to a woman the other day from Norway who said, “All over Scandinavia we consider ourselves pro-choice. It’s not a big deal in the first trimester. But it’s shocking to me that you can have an abortion here at any point.” She told me that they have to go to a court to get special permission after a certain point in the pregnancy.

BH: What then do you say to all the people who tell you, “Don’t be naïve; putting limits on abortion is the first step down a slippery slope toward a total ban on abortion rights”?

MH: There’s remarkable similarity between the true believers on one side, who tell you we should not have abortion even for rape and incest, and the true believers on the other side, who tell you that if abortion is not fully available during every moment of pregnancy then a woman’s reproductive health is threatened. They all make the same slippery slope argument.

BH: Do you offer a prescription in your book?

“My deepest hope for this book is that people will read it and say, “Hmm. Here’s somebody I completely disagree with. I’m not persuaded by her point of view, but I can see why she feels the way she does.”

MH: My deepest hope for this book is that people will read it and say, “Hmm. Here’s somebody I completely disagree with. I’m not persuaded by her point of view, but I can see why she feels the way she does. I think that would go a long way toward easing the polarization. Because a lot of us don’t even dare talk about politics. Women in particular often don’t feel competent to talk about it. But if we don’t talk about these things with people we disagree with, how can we even know what we ourselves think?

BH: To do that, you really need to be able to say, “I want to hear what you have to say, rather than listen to myself tell you what I think.”

MH: The thrill of this book was seeing that attitude in action. My group of friends from high school had not talked about politics before, and they didn’t all agree, but they were so respectful of each other. It was an exotic and mesmerizing thing in this culture to watch them instinctively reach for the position, “Okay, I’m not with you here, but I am with you here, and here’s the common ground.” Common ground is a phrase that we hear quite a lot these days, but we don’t see it in practice very often. It was a beautiful thing to see in practice, and I think it’s something that everyone can reach for.

BH: That’s an idea that both political parties, and the media too, really need.

MH: If you have no practice speaking respectfully with people you don’t necessarily agree with, then when it comes time to talk you don’t know how to do anything other than keep silent or scream.

BH: Do you think that people in the Catholic Church might also be better off with a different tone of discussion, especially on the issue of abortion?

MH: Sure I do. Tone matters a lot. Tone is everything.