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Opinion: When Will Democrats Take Off Gloves In Fight For Civil and Human Rights?

We all know the chilling parable of the hangman.  First, the hangman came for the Jews, and I did nothing. Then they came for African Americans, and I did nothing. And so on down the line until, finally, the hangman came for me, and there was no one left to stand up for or defend me.

This instructive story encapsulates the warning in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s sage observation that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” and comes to mind after the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments last week in the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the case that represents a direct challenge to the 1973 precedent set in the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, which effectively protected a woman’s right to an abortion, to control her body and make decisions about her reproductive health.

The six Republican-appointed Supreme Court Justices, carefully lined up over time by right-wing organizations like the Federalist Society in part precisely to overturn Roe v. Wade, gave every indication in the hearing that they are prepared to endorse legislation that effectively strips women of their right to an abortion, to control their own bodies, thus, by extension, stripping them of their civil and human rights.

This is a huge deal. For years Congress, whether controlled by Republicans or Democrats, has neglected or simply refused to pass the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), to procure agreement on the proposition that women are people and thus merit equal protection under the law as the fourteenth amendment guarantees.  A main reason behind this opposition to passing the ERA has been the worry that granting women equal rights would make it harder to pass legislation outlawing abortion.

And now we see Republicans and the broader right-wing and conservative movements, who have plotted, indeed warred, persistently and patiently for decades, on the brink of stripping women of their civil and human rights by turning control over their bodies to the patriarchal state.

It’s a huge deal—right up there with the stripping of civil rights we see afoot by Republicans in their efforts at voter-suppression legislation.

Do we see a lot from the Democrats, who actually have a substantial political arsenal at their disposal to actually wage this important war?

Sadly, in truth, we see little fight.

What would fight look like?

Well, how about starting with removing the filibuster, which is exactly what Mitch McConnell in playing his role in waging the war on women, on voting rights, on civil and human rights altogether?

Back in 2017, when Senate Democrats had in fact blocked the nomination of Neil Gorsuch for Supreme Court Justice, McConnell simply led the Republican-led Senate in voting to reduce the threshold for confirmation from 60 to 51 votes.

And, of course, we can never forget McConnell’s violent shenanigans in refusing to bring Merrick Garland’s Supreme Court nomination to a vote many months before the 2016 presidential election, claiming the process was occurring too close to an election and that the American people ought to decide, and then scrambling to confirm Justice Amy Coney Barrett just days ahead of the 2020 presidential election.

The consequences of these actions are matters of life and death for many Americans, particularly women, people of color, and LGBTQ people, whom the Democrats often like to pretend they represent.

And yet moderate and conservative Democrats still demonize progressive democrats as the problem, while availing themselves of little to none of the power they have at their disposal to protect civil and human rights in America.

Democratic Senators Kyrsten Sinema (AZ) and Joe Manchin (WV), of course, have been the most vocal and adamant about maintaining the filibuster (which has no constitutional grounding), voicing fears that if it is done away with, then when Republicans hold narrow majorities they will simply reverse course, legislating out of existence everything Democrats passed.

Here’s a news flash for pacifist Democrats:


Synema, Manchin, and the many less vocal Democrats who stand with them think and behave as if the reversals, the Republican over-rules, they surmise are projections into the future. They are NOW, and last week’s Supreme Court hearing should be a loud wake-up call and in a very long string of wake-up calls.

Unfortunately, it may be the case that too many Democrats share the view supposedly liberal Garrison Keilor voiced in October 2020, when he let us know that sexism and the undermining of human and civil rights have bi-partisan support.

He basically capitulated on this fight, sacrificing women’s rights on some liberal political altar:

“I don’t think Roe v. Wade is worth fighting for anymore. It’s an issue that’s torn the country asunder and to what good? We can accept a system of states’ rights, whereby abortion is legal in some states, illegal in others, same as you have a death penalty in some states, nor in others.”

Basically, if folks want civil and human rights, they can move to a state that is more hospitable to them. And let’s not bother to consider people’s economic wherewithal and mobility when it comes to re-locating. And let’s not bother thinking about which states will remain as safe havens after more and more Americans are disenfranchised.

For whom does the hangman need to come for moderate and conservative Democrats to care?

In the context of how our government operates, the maneuver for Democrats in this war on civil and human rights is to respond to this blitzkrieg from the judicial branch with a response from the legislative branch, passing legislation to protect voting rights, women’s rights, and more.

That we’re at war is clear. It’s not yet clear whether Democrats will fight.

Tim Libretti

Tim Libretti is a professor of U.S. literature and culture at a state university in Chicago. A long-time progressive voice, he has published many academic and journalistic articles on culture, class, race, gender, and politics, for which he has received awards from the Working Class Studies Association, the International Labor Communications Association, the National Federation of Press Women, and the Illinois Woman's Press Association.

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