I came to a sobering realization in the wake of the historic Supreme Court term that protected guns and prayer at school while condemning abortion rights and the planet itself: I’m almost as angry at the hapless Democratic leadership as I am at the Republicans who methodically plotted this outcome. Both parties took us here. Only one of them—unfortunately, that would be the GOP—had a plan.
As much as I look with disdain at the credibly accused sexual abusers on the high court adjudicating on life-or-death issues for some 330 million people—and the elder, white, cisgender, heterosexual Republican senators (and Joe Manchin) who installed them (you too, Susan Collins, who doth protest too much about taking Brett Kavanaugh at his word on Roe v. Wade)—I expected nothing but the worst from these multibranch conservative Avengers. I knew they’d come for the rights and humanity of everyone who doesn’t share their privileges, not that it made it any less surreal to see a headline declaring Roe dead in 2022. But it’s another thing entirely—a particularly dispiriting thing—to feel unprotected and abandoned by the people who are ostensibly your own: the Democratic establishment who claims to care about civil rights and the soul of our nation. It’s a lack of faith in government that I know is all too familiar to people of color, the LGBTQ community, and underrepresented groups at large.
I’m angry because Republicans mobilized behind and meticulously plotted their cartoon-villainous goals: They didn’t blink at doing the most with their power, from gerrymandering and trampling on voting rights to obstructing the legislative efforts of the first Black president in American history—including shattering a long-held governmental norm and stealing a Supreme Court seat—to reach their ends. They never hesitated to game the almighty 200-year-old system and bend its rules to serve themselves, all while enriching the operation with gun-lobby cash. Meanwhile, Democrats told us—still tell us—to vote, vote, vote our way out of an increasingly broken system.
We did vote, by the way—to the point where two of the Republican presidents who helped create the current Supreme Court raining evangelical Christianity on the masses, George W. Bush and Donald Trump, did not win the popular vote. We voted—in some cases, many times—for Democratic leadership. Alas, here we are: dying from assault-weapon wounds at Fourth of July parades and bringing pregnant 10-year-old child-abuse victims across state lines for an abortion.
In the fieriest, most furious of times, the response from establishment Democrats has been crushingly tepid. As has been much discussed of late, they have failed to meet the multiple crises of the moment—from reproductive rights and threats to the LGBTQ community to climate change—with the urgency and big ideas they demand. There are references to Democrats bringing knives to a political gunfight, but that feels unfunny amid a largely unchecked gun-violence epidemic—another fight Republicans continue to win. “On [Democrats’] watch, a radicalized Republican Party has gained so much power that it’s on the verge of ending American democracy as we know it,” Washington Post columnist Perry Bacon Jr. wrote last week, and yet party leaders are largely silent on the sort of bold, sweeping changes Republicans readily reach for, like packing the Supreme Court.
Following Politico’s leak of a draft opinion by Justice Samuel Alito foretelling the fall of Roe in May, Democratic leadership did what, exactly, to plan for the dark decision that followed? “Nothing about the decisions surprised me,” Brian Fallon, a former aide to Senator Chuck Schumer turned cofounder of Supreme Court reform group Demand Justice, told Vanity Fair. “The thing that surprised me is how little evidence there is that anybody on our side took advantage of the lead time to get our response coordinated.”
On the wrenching day that Roe was overturned, “eliminating a constitutional right that the Democratic Party had pledged to fiercely defend,” Bacon wrote, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Democrats assembled on the steps of the Capitol, not to vow to protect abortion rights at all costs—but to tout “the passage of a fairly limited gun-control bill.” Pelosi was then among the Dems who blasted out a round of fundraising emails, failing to read the room or ask themselves how their perpetual defeats to Republicans could possibly justify even five more dollars. It took a week (a week that felt like a year) after the Roe decision for Biden to state that he supported abolishing the filibuster to attempt to codify Roe in Congress. (Just before the looming Roe news, he balked at repealing the senatorial stalling tactic.) If precedent is any indication, rallying to craftily rewrite the old rules—no matter how entrenched—would have been the first, fierce response from Republicans. The president has also weighed an executive order to protect abortion rights but has yet to issue it. Sure, it would hardly be a cure-all, and yes, it could later be challenged in court—but it would also represent a show of force, a sign that the Democrats’—and the country’s—leader shares the ire spilling out onto the streets and is taking tangible action.
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As we commiserated about the news this week, a good friend linked the Democratic approach to Michelle Obama’s now legendary 2016 Democratic National Convention line: “When they go low, we go high.” Mrs. Obama is the opposite of a lukewarm leader; she is one of the Democratic Party’s most powerful and valuable communicators, blowing any number of actually elected officials out of the water. To be clear, I don’t believe she is in any way to blame for establishment Democrats’ limp response to the current crises. But I heard my friend as she wondered if some Democratic leaders had warped Mrs. Obama’s message and taken it too far, twisting it beyond a call to maintain morality in an increasingly corrosive Washington and instead adopting it as a form of passivity. To put it mildly, some Democrats “fear that Biden remains trapped in a prior age of political decorum and unquestioning fealty to institutions,” Christopher Cadelago and Jonathan Lemire wrote in a Politico report this week on the hunger for a more emphatic and concrete response from the president. Biden and other leaders have seemingly clung to the “the mythology of the Supreme Court as an apolitical institution,” Fallon told Vanity Fair, “even as decisions that should have been viewed as break-glass moments—like Bush v. Gore and Citizens United—piled up.” Democrats continued to play by the proverbial house rules while Republicans burned the whole house down.
The unspoken message from Democratic leaders seems to be that their hands are tied. What so many of us are crying out in response is: Try anyway, by any means necessary—and if you’re unwilling to be as heated as this moment is, step aside to make room for those who are. Some of the only Democratic politicians who outlined plans or shared their unfettered rage and emotion after the Roe news were Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who listed seven ways Democrats could fight back (including by expanding the court and opening abortion clinics on federal lands), and Senator Elizabeth Warren, who joined a post-leak protest outside the court in May to remind everyone of Congress’s power to “keep Roe v. Wade the law of the land.” (Warren also pointed to specific state ballot measures to protect Roe that people could champion and donate to—a bit better than the blanket encouragement to simply vote blue.) As Ocasio-Cortez lamented of her party on Twitter: “We simply cannot make promises, hector people to vote, and then refuse to use our full power when they do.” It’s time for Democrats to use that full power, tenuous as it may be. If going low means Republicans being ruthless in their quest to deny our rights, can’t Democrats be equally ruthless to protect them?