Responding to the Supreme Court
What are strategies of hope?
Ok. It’s bad. We all know that: the climate crisis, war, the threat to American democracy, our politics more generally, this damned persistent pandemic.
What is particularly disconcerting is the sense that the forces of repression, illiberalism, inequality, and injustice are locked into a system of power and governance that seems to make overturning these wrongs increasingly difficult.
At the heart of that concern lies the United States Supreme Court. This nation is still feeling the aftershocks of a term that, though it ended a month ago, continues reverberating across America. And it will continue to do so for the foreseeable future, perhaps for years or even decades.
Part of that is the result of the impact of the decisions themselves — on guns, the environment, religion, and abortion. Then there is the expectation that the court is not done. Quite the contrary. A sizable hard-right majority is determined to remake American society in a manner that, according to the most reliable poll information, is very unpopular with the electorate at large.
It is vital that we keep track of the results of these decisions. To allow any of this to be normalized is dangerous for the country.
But what are those who oppose such actions to do? Despair is a natural response, but one that is hardly a rallying cry for resistance, let alone progress.
In searching for another approach, we came across a thought-provoking string of tweets written in late June in the wake of the Supreme Court’s assault on American rights. It is courtesy of Niko Bowie, whom Harvard Law School dubbed “a scholar of constitutional law, local government law, and legal history” when promoting him to a full professor last month.
Bowie’s academic pedigree is impressive: Yale undergraduate, Harvard Law School, a Ph.D. in history from Harvard, as well. He is the son of the late legal scholar Lani Guinier.
However, one of the striking things about Bowie’s effort to inspire those who oppose radical-right judges and justices is that he starts with the limitations of legal elitism. He points the way for a more popular approach, recognizing that the “histories of working women, people of color & abolitionists” contain a long list of improbable victories in America’s march toward greater liberty, equality, and justice.
Although Professor Bowie writes of “liberalism” and the political “left,” his argument has potential for appealing to a wide swath — a majority — of Americans of varying political persuasions: Democrats, yes, but also Independents, moderates, and even many Republicans.
A commitment to “collective action.” Rallying around bottom-up activism. A recognition that there have been “specific strategies ordinary people have used to change legal structures worse than today’s.” This is the language of action and hope. This taps into a deep vein of popular movements that have propelled our growth as a nation from the words of our founding documents to a society more aligned with those lofty ideals.
Ultimately, in a democracy, the energy for change must come from the people — a rising chorus of voices clamoring to be heard and recognizing their power. As Professor Bowie points out, time and time again in the course of American history, those who used their perches in the marbled halls of Washington to try to resist the will of the people had no choice but to listen — or get out of the way.