This evening I listened to columnist David Brooks on NPR telling us that Democrats are wasting their time talking about reproductive rights, racial injustice and legal protection for sexual minorities. What Americans are concerned about these days are “kitchen table issues.” That is, they care chiefly about issues that have an immediate impact on their daily lives, the chief one being inflation, i.e., the rising price of gas, rent, groceries, heating fuel and consumer goods. That, says Brooks, is what will drive the outcome of the midterm elections and beyond.
If Mr. Brooks is right about the voting proclivities of the American public, the American public had best heed the admonition of Benjamin Franklin to the effect that “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” Just to be clear, I am not a Democrat, nor am I interested in wasting my breath telling Democrats what they should or should not be saying to do well in the next election. But if you are one of those people telling pollsters that you have got a family to feed, a mortgage to pay and places you need to drive and that you have no time to waste on esoteric legal issues that don’t affect you, then listen up.
Just a century ago, before I was born, there was a nation suffering a good deal more than the United States is now. It was a nation that suffered a severe and humiliating military defeat in a world war for which it was unfairly held responsible and punished with crushing demands for reparations. Inflation was so bad that a wheel barrow full of paper money could hardly buy a loaf of bread. Unemployment was rampant, crime and corruption systemic and poverty the norm. But a leader arose who was able to deliver jobs, an economic revival, a renewed sense of national pride and a measure of international influence. Yes, the press was being systematically repressed, but its criticism of the new regime that was doing so much for the nation seemed to justify these measures. Yes, it was a shame that so many Jewish people were losing their homes and businesses. But what is that in the grand scheme of things? And anyway, it doesn’t affect us. Bottom line, the leader has given us jobs, incomes, pride in our country and a strong economy. For that we can surely overlook his personal flaws and the unfortunate effects of his policies on people at the margins. I don’t have to finish the story for you. You know how it ended.
Unlike a tank of gas, a bottle of milk or a 401K, fundamental rights cannot be seen, measured, weighed or given a dollar value. They are like the air you breath. You never notice or think about them until the day you discover you don’t have them anymore. Then they become pretty damn urgent. The right of privacy recognized in Roe v. Wade is no longer theoretical when the state demands that your ten year old daughter bear the child of her rapist-regardless the physical and psychic trauma that induces. And be advised that rights protected in Roe v. Wade are far more extensive than the right to an abortion. If the Supreme Court carries forward the reasoning it used to overrule Roe v. Wade, you stand to lose your ability to make decisions affecting birth control, end of life treatment and other deeply personal medical decisions that will sooner or later affect all of us. Obergefell v. Hodges might not mean anything to you now. But you might feel differently when your son comes out, gets his head dunked in the toilet at school and you are told that you have no legal recourse because civil rights laws do not protect gay persons from discriminatory treatment or harassment. Loving v. Virginia mean anything to you? It will once the Supreme Court decides, as it very well could, that the right to marry affirmed by this case is not recognized by the constitution such that the state can determine who you can and cannot marry and insurance companies are free to deny health coverage for you when you marry or have children with a spouse carrying a genetic abnormality.
Think I am being alarmist? Well, I may not be old enough to remember Hitler’s Germany, but I can remember a time in these United States when women were dying routinely of sepsis form self induced abortions, when interracial marriage was illegal in most states, when prayer was imposed on public school children, when kids merely suspected of being gay were routinely bullied and the school authorities turned a blind eye. I am old enough to remember how my mother, who rose to the level of supervisor of her department in a government agency, was paid half of what her male counterparts were paid-and the law said that was just fine. I can still remember how four KKK members bombed a Birmingham church killing four little black girls and got off scott free. This is the country we had before, Brown v. Board of Education, before Roe v. Wade, before Loving v. Virginia, before Obergefell v. Hodges. It is the sort of country you get when rights are taken away.
So, I have to ask you, is that the kind of country in which you want your children to grow up? Are you really willing to trade the precious freedoms won with the blood of our soldiers, the sacrifices of civil rights leaders and the courage of ordinary citizens over the centuries for cheap gas? I hope not. I hope you are all better than Mr. Brooks thinks you are. I hope that you stand up and tell political leaders who trample on your civil liberties while wooing you with the promise of a better economy that your rights and the future of your children are not for sale. I hope you have the courage to tell your congressional leaders, be they Democrat, Republican or something else, that if they won’t defend your rights, they can’t expect your vote. At the end of the day, we get the leaders we deserve. If the price of defending our rights doesn’t fit into the family budget, then perhaps we no longer deserve them.