The Supreme Court Vs. Democracy

How easy it is to forget. 

Or to not have remembered in the first place.

Or to not care. 

Or to ignore history. 

Or to play cynical games with American democracy. 

A flood of thoughts came over me in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision this week to further gut the Voting Rights Act of 1965. I thought of my time covering the front lines of the voting rights fights in the early 1960s, of white men in uniforms carrying the power of government and law enforcement turning away Black voters seeking to exercise their constitutional rights. I thought of state-sponsored violence to deny the vote. I thought of the heroic actions of my old friend John Lewis, now sadly gone when our country is so desperately in need of his voice. I thought of Medgar Evers and the many times I marveled at his calm determination to tear down the legal and social barriers to enfranchisement. And then I thought of seeing Evers’ wife and young children in the immediate aftermath of his murder. I thought of the Freedom Riders. I thought of long lines of Black faces waiting to vote in election after election. I thought of struggle, and sacrifice, and the faint flickering of hope. 

This Steady newsletter is barely 6 months old, and already we have written about disenfranchisement and the injustices it embodies many times. At some point, what more is there to say that hasn’t been said before? And yet, weariness, fatalism, and hopelessness is exactly what the forces that are seeking to once again tilt the balance of power in this nation by limiting the vote instead of winning debates want us to feel.

This is the intended response —to be too tired to fight. This is Mitch McConnell’s grand plan —do whatever he could to entrench the courts. And Chief Justice John Roberts has made it very clear that he has no problem with his legacy being the man who undermined some of the most significant progress on our nation’s tortured and uneven path towards greater racial justice. 

The vote is everything. It is the means by which we can make change without violence. It is the way that our country can grow, can evolve, and can lock in progress. It is the ultimate belief that the will of the people should be honored. But which people? The Republicans want it to be the “right” ones, their people. To accomplish this, they are playing to the deep sins of exclusion, marginalization, and inequality that have been a hallmark of this nation since its founding. And the Supreme Court, bolstered in its majority by the destructive obstructionism of McConnell, is eager to play along. 

In passionate and eloquent dissent, Justice Elena Kagan spoke for millions of Americans who are left heartbroken and fearful about this undemocratic jolt to our nation. 

“What is tragic here is that the Court has (yet again) rewritten —in order to weaken— a statute that stands as a monument to America’s greatness, and protects against its basest impulses... The Voting Rights Act of 1965 is an extraordinary law. Rarely has a statute required so much sacrifice to ensure its passage. Never has a statute done more to advance the Nation’s highest ideals. And few laws are more vital in the current moment. Yet in the last decade, this Court has treated no statute worse.”

Kagan goes on to give a lesson of the extraordinary history that led up to the Voting Rights Act, and what came after its passage. She writes about the law’s wisdom, about how “much of the Voting Rights Act’s success lay in its capacity to meet ever-new forms of discrimination.” And then she writes about what happened the last time the Roberts Court weakened the law’s protections, and what is likely to happen now — an undermining of the fairness and freedom of American elections.

One senses Kagan was writing both for history and as a rallying cry to those across the country fighting had in this moment for voting rights. The focus now will shift to Congress. Will voting rights bills get new life in the wake of this decision? Will Joe Manchin, in particular, be willing to move ahead by changing or abolishing the filibuster? There can be no euphemisms for what is happening. There is no room for false equivalence. This is an attack on American democracy, orchestrated by one political party in service of its own agenda. And the Supreme Court is aiding and abetting some of the worst anti-democratic impulses of Republican state, local, and national officials.

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What worries me almost as much as the specifics of the anti-democratic movement that is sweeping the country is the effects it is having on the psyche of those who are resisting. As people see the losses mount, as they see the deck increasingly stacked, as they see bad faith arguments get turned into laws, as they see those with the most privilege claim to be victims, will the response be to give up in despair? 

I will not in any way minimize the challenges. I will not deny the odds or the dangerous path on which this nation finds itself. But one thing I also learned from covering the civil rights movement is that this struggle has been long, and patience as well as perseverance is essential. Now patience cannot become an excuse for inaction. It’s just a realistic recognition of all that must be accomplished.

Most who fought for this cause more than a half century ago are no longer with us, never mind those who fought for greater racial justice a century before that. What would these women and men from the past make of the current moment? I think they would be pleased by much of the progress, but they would know that intransigence born from a deep well of racism in America will not be easily overcome. 

It is one of the true wonders of our nation’s story that Black Americans, who have been subjected to violence and injustice sanctioned by law and originally written into the Constitution, have been such stalwart defenders of our democracy. Where would this nation be without all the Black voters who stared down intimidation and fear to line up to cast their ballots? Where would we be in the last election without the people who waited in long lines made worse by Republican-controlled legislatures seeking to break the spirit of those who are fighting for democracy? I will personally never know how this legacy of disenfranchisement feels. And so it is all the more incumbent for those of us who have positions of privilege to not get weary, to not let this fight for democracy lapse on our watch. 

I know, with this week’s Supreme Court decision, another round of despair kicks in. But that is not an option. So the question is what can any of us do? For one, states run by Democrats must become exemplars of good elections. What has happened in New York, particularly the mayor’s race fiasco, is unacceptable. Secondly, we must recognize that the tools the Republicans are employing to limit the vote are blunt. They are not the wholesale voter suppression efforts of decades past. They are still very dangerous, particularly in close elections. But they can be overcome, and that means voter turnout in 2022 will be vital. There must also be a renewed push to pass something in Congress, but that will likely rest on the whims of a few Senators. Will they hear a defeated message from the masses? Or will they hear a clarion call for action? 

This cannot be the end of the story. There must be other chapters to come. I will continue to shine a spotlight on voting rights here and elsewhere. I fear I cannot provide much that is new, but new is not what’s important. It is the constant drumbeat of history and activism. It is taking the baton from those who already ran many laps. It is the determination that this is a country and a future worth fighting for, and that fight begins with the right to vote. 

—Dan and Steady Team

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