With the U.S. Supreme Court opening up like the skies beneath a hurricane, progressives often forget about the spectacular American tradition from which we come. Almost all our greatest achievements as a nation -- those accomplishments that Americans today point to with greatest pride -- have come through the work of people who were considered liberal in their time. The 1776 Revolutionaries, the abolitionsts, women's suffragists, early labor organizers, and civil rights activists have given us a country much stronger and more expansive than even they could ever envision.
Today’s Democratic Party and America's political left are the legacy of this tradition of expanded individual rights, destruction of barriers to full citizenship, and creation of greater opportunity. All along the way, standing in the doorways of achievment, were conservatives who fought progress in the courts, in the legislatures, in the streets, and even on the battlefields. Their tradition lives today in the modern Republican Party, not that of Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt, but in the GOP that has grown up over the last 50 years. Conservatives have operated under many different labels over our history -- Tories, Democrats, Republicans, and others. But the philosophy remains constant. Those who called themselves conservatives in their time are the same people who fought against progress and rights that we consider obvious, even natural, today.
• The Revolutionaries. The Founding Fathers’ notion that all men are created equal and should live in a democracy was radical for the 1700s. Breaking from a colonial monarchy was truly revolutionary. Jefferson, Madison, and Adams legitimately feared for their very lives if the struggle failed or if any man were caught by the British before final victory. But they nevertheless demanded something that we do not even debate any more –- government ought to be led by its citizens.
• The Abolitionists. The abolition of slavery required leaders who fought against the established racial and economic "truths" of their time. Our country divided in Civil War over the “unrealistic” – even “un-Christian” – idea that no person should be owned by another.
• The Suffragists. Granting women the right to vote a century ago was considered unthinkable, unnatural, and even dangerous for the stability of society. Today, women vote in greater numbers than their “more responsible” counterparts. And, thank goodness, women serve in elected offices at every level.
• Early Labor Leaders. The founders of organized labor were called un-American, suffered beatings, and were even killed for demanding the simple rights to organize and to speak collectively as workers with their management. The results of this “incendiary” and "communist" movement were child labor laws, the minimum wage, social security and, or course, the weekend.
• Civil Rights Leaders. Civil rights leaders were intimidated, jailed, and lynched because they had the radical idea that every citizen deserved equal rights under the law. Through the 1940s, conservative courts that included the Supreme Court held to a strict interpretation of the constitution and regularly endorsed the notion that blacks were less human than whites and could be kept separate. In the 1950s and 1960s the ideas of Dr. King, Justice Thurgood Marshall, and Congressman John Lewis were called “dangerous” to our nation’s very existence. Today these men are heralded as visionaries, even by conservatives who insist that we live by MLK's own words to judge people by the content of their character and not the color of their skin.
Our nation's monumental advances, considered liberal or even radical in their day, have expanded opportunity, increased equality, and delivered progress. Unfortunately, the Republican Party is working openly and aggressively to turn back the clock, repeal the Twentieth Century, and ignore the hopes of so many who look to our nation as the great beacon on the hill. We cannot stop their desires, but we can thwart their success.
As we push back on the right wing's efforts to stack the Supreme Court, we must arm ourselves with the knowledge of our own traditions. That way, we can do more than oppose the right-wing simply because we disagree with their policies. We can slow them down because history, though difficult, has been kind to liberals who fought hard in their own time.