If the impending overturning of Roe v. Wade has reminded us of anything, it is that democracy is never a done deal.
Growing up, I naively thought maintaining a democracy was like driving a brand-new Ferrari, a car that I had always heard of, but never actually seen. I imagined that a democracy, like the mythical Ferrari, was fast and nimble enough to smoothly maneuver past any obstacle.
In reality, however, democracy is more like the battered and time-worn car in the driveway of 1990s sitcoms. You know the car – the dream car that’s constantly being tinkered with but that never quite runs smoothly. You spend hours working on it – changing the oil, replacing the battery, rebuilding the engine, repairing the body – and enjoy a nice leisurely drive only to have it sputter to the side of the road after a few miles, smoke fuming from the hood.
Right now, we’re in that smoking car. We seem to be in a never-ending battle over the soul of our nation and how exactly we should define “liberty and justice for all.” I used to think that once a battle had been fought and won, that the struggle was over. I seemed to be proof of this; I was a little Black girl in the South going to integrated schools who would grow up to vote and go to college. Though I knew my father still bore the trauma of living under the threat of white supremacist violence in the South – his uncle was lynched about ten years before his birth – I thought the days of strife were largely behind us.
But I’ve come to understand that though battles come and go, there is a near-constant struggle for who will enjoy the fruits of democracy. The Civil War was decided in 1865, but its central sticking points – Blacks’ right to exist as free and equal citizens and states’ rights to enact laws that codify their bigotries – have been fought ever since.
That’s likely why we, the marginalized people of the United States, have long understood the precariousness of our imperfect union and the perennial work needed to move us toward a more perfect one. We have had to fight for the basic rights that wealthy straight white men gave themselves at our country’s founding: the right to vote, the right to buy a home in the neighborhood of our choosing, the right to marry a person of any race, ethnicity, or gender we desire; our rights have always been precarious.
With the anticipated overturning of Roe v. Wade, the precariousness is spreading. Though the human right to decide whether to bear life seemed to be settled in 1973, a leaked draft opinion from the Supreme Court says otherwise.
The opinion is astounding, though not necessarily surprising. After all, conservative Republicans have stated their desire to overturn Roe v. Wade for decades and finally have the political power to do so. What was most galling to me, though, was the reasoning provided in the draft opinion written by Justice Samuel Alito.
Justice Alito drew from centuries-old laws written by well-heeled white men.
“Until the latter part of the 20th century,” he writes, “there was no support in American law for a constitutional right to obtain an abortion. Zero. None. No state constitutional provision had recognized such a right…Nor had any scholarly treatise of which we are aware.”
Actually, this right wasn’t recognized by men. Women couldn’t vote until 1919 and wouldn’t hold significant legal, political, academic, or societal decision-making power until many, many decades later. What other rights, I wonder, will be tossed aside because there is no lengthy history of legal or scholarly arguments supporting it? The right to not be enslaved? The right to a divorce? The right to marry someone from another race or gender? The right to be gay or transgender and not be committed to an asylum? The right to receive gender-affirming care? The right to have accommodations for physical, mental, or developmental disabilities? The right to not be harassed at work? The right to not be retaliated against for being a whistleblower at work? The right to own property? The right to breathable air and drinkable water? The right to child labor laws? The right to a free education?
The draft opinion signals not just the end to the right to reproductive self-determination, but also threatens the surety of these other rights, too.
We find ourselves at a crossroads – we and this smoking, fixer-upper of a car we’ve been assured has great potential. It’s tempting to walk away from it and cut our losses, or maybe just bury our heads in the sand by the roadside as our democracy coughs on the asphalt.
We would do so at our own peril.
Our present struggle is so rattling, so jarring, that if you pay attention, you can sometimes feel its tremors in your bones and beneath your feet.
I first remember feeling the tremors in the final years of George W. Bush’s presidency, when members of his own party lambasted the evangelical Republican for not being conservative enough.
I felt the tremors again in 2009, when the Tea Party formed and set itself up against the newly elected President Barack Obama. I remember some members of the Tea Party calling him the most divisive president in our history. In one sense, they were right; seeing him and his Black family residing in the White House seemed for some a confirmation that white people would no longer be the sole bearers of power. Some people saw this as a good thing. They looked at Obama’s Kenyan name, mocha skin, and scrappy upbringing and saw a country finally making good on its promise of equality, even if they didn’t necessarily agree with his politics and policies. Others looked at Obama and felt threatened; they felt their foothold softening at the top of a hierarchy white people of yore had violently erected and protected.
The next big tremors came in the 2016 election when candidate Donald Trump used race-baiting as part of an overall campaign that denigrated Black people, Asian Americans, Mexican Americans, Muslims, undocumented immigrants, women, and at least one war hero. Politicians, activists, and scholars of all sorts warned that we were entering dangerous territory. They reminded us that acts of violence often start with words of dehumanization like those spewed by candidate Trump.
Dissenters were called snowflakes for questioning the political fitness of a man who made fun of a disabled reporter, who bragged about grabbing women’s genitals without their consent, and who treated anyone who disagreed with him – including members of his own party – as though they were enemies of the state.
With this new president came a new status quo. Racists grew more comfortable sharing their views aloud and marching openly in favor of white supremacy. Even as some states and cities looked to remove their Confederate statues, Confederate flag sales skyrocketed.
The hardest-to-ignore tremor came just last year when far-right insurrectionists attempted to overthrow the United States government. According to many of their own accounts, the insurrectionists were stoked by a president who publicly questioned the legitimacy of the elections he oversaw. While we watched in horror as the insurrectionists marched through the Capitol like they owned it, exactly zero Black people were surprised. In fact, for years, Black and brown and LGBTQ+ people had been sounding the alarms. They were told, time and again that our systems are strong. That we have established precedent. That we can’t go backwards.
But we can. And we have.
Though the treasonous insurrectionists didn’t overthrow the government, the far-right rhetoric that inspired them has taken root in electoral campaigns across the country. Right now, voters of color, undocumented immigrants, LGBTQ+ people, people seeking abortions, and history itself are in their crosshairs.
How long before you are, too? That is, if you aren’t already.
I say all this not to frighten, but to remind us all: Democracy is not a set-it-and-forget-it endeavor. It’s not a Timex watch. If it takes a licking, it won’t keep ticking. It can stop. It can reverse.
And so, it is not enough to be angry; anger alone won’t propel us forward. We have to work hard for the country we want to see. We have to vote. We have to write and call our representatives. We have to support activists. We have to mobilize. We have to educate our children. We have to donate our time, money, and talents to those working for a better future, for a fairer and more just country. We don’t have to do all these things all at once and never all by ourselves. But doing nothing is a privilege none of us can afford – not for long, anyway.
We can’t just leave our democracy at the side of the road. We need it. It’s the only one we have, and we can’t afford to lose it. To keep it, we have to roll up our sleeves, grab our friends, and get to work.