I see that Tucker Carlson has applauded the demise of Roe v. Wade, and characterized the decision as a “return to democracy.” Evidently, someone needs to explain America’s approach to democratic self-rule to Tucker and his constitutionally-illiterate audience.
Democratic systems can take several forms. In a “pure” democracy, where an unrestrained majority rules, voters participate in all government decision-making; the majority is even able to decide who has the right to vote. (I’m unaware of any country with so “pure” a democracy, for obvious reasons.)
America’s Founders didn’t choose that system. (For one thing, their concerns about the “passions of the majority” were well-known.) Instead, they crafted a republic in which voters would choose lawmakers from among the ranks of the thoughtful and knowledgable (!!), and those lawmakers would debate the merits of legislative proposals, negotiate and compromise among the various points of view, and pass well-considered laws.
Then they constrained those lawmakers by enacting a Bill of Rights.
The Bill of Rights–as I have often explained in these posts–is essentially a list of things that American government is forbidden to do, even when a majority of voters approve. Thanks to the Bill of Rights, government cannot censor our communications. It cannot prescribe our prayers (although after the Court’s most recent ruling, it can evidently coerce them) or dictate our reading materials. It cannot search or seize us without probable cause. It cannot invade our liberties or take our property without due process of law.
Let me reiterate that, for the edification of any Fox viewers who might be lurking: the Bill of Rights limits what popular majorities can authorize government to do. It is a limitation on majority rule–on what the Tucker Carlsons of this world conceive of as democracy. It protects the right of individuals to choose their own political and religious beliefs and follow their own life goals, their own telos, free of government–or majority– interference.
Over the years, the Court has had to interpret the operation of the Bill of Rights–to apply its broad principles and protections to specific situations. Since the 1960s and until this week, the Court has recognized a right to privacy, and has drawn a line between decisions that government can properly make, and those that must be left to the individual. It has based that line on citizens’ right to due process.
There are two kinds of due process: procedural and substantive. Substantive due process (often called the right to privacy) is the doctrine that requires official respect for individual autonomy–the doctrine that forbids government from making decisions that are none of government’s business, “intimate” decisions that under longstanding understandings of the Bill of Rights must be left up to the individual involved.
The existence of that line protecting individual liberty from government interference rests on multiple precedents interpreting the 14th Amendment’s Due Process Clause.
If the doctrine of substantive due process goes away, those “democratic” state governments so beloved by Tucker Carlson will have the right to prohibit same-sex or interracial marriage, re-criminalize sodomy, and ban the sale and use of birth control…All of those rights and others are in the cross-hairs so long as Republicans can keep their stranglehold on American government via gerrymandering, the Electoral College and other mechanisms (mechanisms that are all, ironically, exceedingly anti-democratic).
The decision overturning Roe was deeply dishonest, especially in its discussion about whether a particular right was historically recognized, but Alito’s distorted history is ultimately irrelevant– a red herring. In order to find that the government has a right to control the reproductive decisions of individual women, the Court had to fatally undermine the doctrine of substantive due process. And when that doctrine is no longer viable, all other personal rights are vulnerable.
Clarence Thomas may have been the only Justice willing to admit to the obvious agenda of this rogue Court, but it is abundantly clear that the other four members of the religious tribunal that now controls the Court share that agenda.
Debates about abortion have always been both superficial and dishonest. “Pro life” has always been a misnomer, since anti-choice policy is blatantly indifferent to the lives of women (and to the lives and welfare of fetuses once they become children). But there needs to be far more recognition that this decision isn’t simply an endorsement of the right of state governments\ to make very bad policy decisions–it is an endorsement of autocracy, of the right of government to invade the most personal precincts of citizens’ lives, and to impose the religious views of those in power on those of us without.
Giving legislators the right to make my most intimate decisions isn’t the Founders’ view of “democracy”– and it sure as hell isn’t mine.