May 13, 2022 | OPINION | By Tom Byron | Illustration by Patil Khakhamian
Last week, a leaked Supreme Court draft opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization showed a majority of justices now support overturning Roe v. Wade, likely bringing an end to a national right to abortion. Though the leak shocked many Americans, it’s only one example of a conservative Supreme Court using its power to undermine landmark decisions. What’s more disturbing is just how many of those decisions are the only thing upholding vital civil rights.
Ever since the 1960s, Democrats have resorted to the courts to bypass legislatures hostile to civil and human rights. This has resulted in a list of victories in the language of court decisions instead of legislation: Brown v. Board of Education for school integration; Loving v. Virginia for interracial marriage; Griswold v. Connecticut for contraception; Roe v. Wade for abortion rights; Gideon v. Wainwright and Miranda v. Arizona for defendant’s rights; and most recently, Obergerfell v. Hodges to ensure a national right to same-sex marriage.
Each of these cases has been a landmark force for Democrats, crafting a vision of the U.S. constitution as a living document dedicated to protecting the civil rights of all Americans. They ended legal segregation in schools, supported reproductive rights, protected defendants against police intimidation, and allowed countless Americans to legally marry those they love. And because of the way these rights were won, many of them could be overturned by a single Supreme Court decision.
But regardless of whether these rights survive, Democrats need to change our strategy. For decades, we’ve relied on lawyers, lawsuits, and Justices to do what our politicians could not. We’ve poured money, people, and prestige into supporting legal cases instead of political organizing. We’ve taken voters for granted while giving up on building coalitions. Despite being the party of voting rights, we’ve relied on unelected justices and elite legal organizations to win our victories for us.
Now that Republicans have secured a solid conservative majority on the Court, we’re seeing how fragile those victories truly are. But in focusing on the cases themselves, we’re losing sight of the bigger picture. These rights demand protection, and we’ve left them vulnerable. If we want to hold on to what we’ve won, restore laws gutted by the Court, and continue to fight for a more just America, Democrats need to change our focus.
We need political strength, popular support, and a powerful, unified group of legislators at every level who are dedicated to turning our vision into reality. These rights are popular, and so is much of the Democratic platform, but our party hasn’t put in the political work to turn that popularity into Congressional seats. While Republicans hold on to state houses, build political networks in Democratic strongholds, and shamelessly try to strengthen their grip on power, Democrats are still arguing over whether talking to people outside our base is even worth it.
I hear these conversations every day here at Colorado College. I see them in the campaigns I work on, many of which don’t have the resources to talk to people who aren’t already strong supporters. Many liberal Americans aren’t sure if engaging with people who disagree with us is even moral, let alone a good strategy. Winning through court cases lets us ignore the hard, frustrating work of building a coalition, and lulls us into apathy by convincing us our fragile achievements are secure. But if we really want the country we say we want, we can’t afford to take shortcuts anymore.