August 8, 2022 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

Time for a revival of the democratic imagination

The people, not the Supreme Court, decide on individual rights.

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Shortly after the rightwing supermajority of the US Supreme Court struck down Roe, I wrote a piece in which I said that you still have the right to an abortion. You still have the right to privacy. But now, I said, you don’t have the right to federal protection of those rights.

I thought it was important to draw attention to that distinction. First, because the press corps wasn’t speaking in those terms. By and large, the reporting on the court’s heel-turn gave the impression that these rights had poofed, as if the ruling were a consequence of institutional change rather than a consequence of democratic politics.

Liberals need to hear that the right to an abortion – the right to privacy – still exists, because liberals are the first to defer to the authority of facts. But facts are of the past. Journalists report them in the past tense. Therefore, if we limit ourselves to facts, we limit our democratic imaginations. We limit our collective capacity to hope, which, in turn, limits our capacity to feel our faith in democracy.

That the press corps operates in this way is my second reason. Journalism can tell us what happened. It can tell us how and why, to whom and by whom. It can inform us. It can provide the political context for understanding democratic politics, what has succeeded, what has failed. But despite this, even the best journalism is limited to the past tense. It can’t tell us about the present or the future. 

We need political journalism. We can’t function without it. 

But it’s empirical, not creative. 

It’s no substitute for the democratic imagination.

Democratic imagination
There’s a third reason. 

Liberals need to hear that the right to an abortion – the right to privacy – still exists, because liberals are the first to defer to the authority of facts. But facts are of the past. Journalists report them in the past tense. Therefore, if we limit ourselves to facts, we limit our democratic imaginations. We limit our collective capacity to hope, which, in turn, limits our capacity to feel our faith in democracy.

If we can’t feel our faith, we’ll never imagine a new democracy, which in turn means we’ll never reclaim federal protection of those rights. We’ll never imagine ways of establishing and protecting new rights.

Liberals need to be reminded that democratic institutions like the Supreme Court are not where individual rights come from. The people are the ultimate judges of constitutionality. Liberals need to be reminded that even though liberals in the past fought for Roe, they knew it was a bad idea to let a court tell us what our rights are. 


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Liberals need to be reminded that liberals in the past yoked themselves to the court, because that was the surest way, they believed, to secure the protection of rights, like abortion, in a time when most Americans opposed abortion. We need to be reminded that liberals in the past imagined democratically how to use the courts, instead of the Congress, to secure those federal protections. 

Liberals need to be reminded of these things, because we have largely forgotten, I think, how to imagine democratically. We have forgotten because we didn’t need to remember. With Roe in place, everything was jake. As long as liberals defended a democratic institution – the court – we didn’t need to imagine democratically.

Fascist imagination
Now that a rightwing supermajority has taken over this democratic institution, however, and now that it has begun dismantling a half century of federally protected individual rights, I sense that many liberals don’t know what to do. What do we have without the court? Their capacity to imagine democratically has atrophied. The result has been a painful lost capacity to feel their faith in democracy.

The rightwing base of today’s Republican Party, on the other hand, has never lost its capacity to imagine. They always believed in their innate authority to rule by right of blood. So instead of a democratic imagination, it was a fascist imagination. Instead of imagining the new, they imagined how to restore the old by knocking down the new. Instead of defending institutions, as the liberals did to protect rights, like abortion, the fascists imagined how to knock those institutions down, in the process knocking down individual rights.

The fascists never lost their capacity to feel their faith, not in democracy, obviously, but in white power. As long as democracy enabled white power, everything was jake. When democracy disabled white power, or appeared to disable white power, as when Barack Obama was elected president, that democracy has to go.

They never lost their capacity to feel their faith in white power and with that faith, they overtook a democratic institution for the purpose of undercutting democracy, thus restoring the white-power order. 

We the people
I do not mean to suggest that liberals behave like fascists. I do mean to suggest, however, that we avoid doing what liberals did in the past – that is, pin their (and our) faith in democracy on democratic institutions that are by their nature vulnerable to fascist takeover. 

Same thing goes for norms. 

If norms that used to run with the grain of democracy are running against it, it’s time to imagine new norms. There’s no sense in preserving something that backfires in the process of preserving it.


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Similarly, I think the debate over court reforms is, while needed, too narrow. It limits our democratic imaginations more than it promises to protect individual rights. The people are the ultimate judges of constitutionality. The people are the ultimate deciders of rights. 

But the people are neither unless we have faith in being both.

Fortunately, history appears to be on the liberals’ side. In the past, they needed to use the court, because most Americans opposed the right to abortion. Today, they don’t need the court. Their argument has been made. Most Americans support the right to abortion. Indeed, the fascist hope to use the court to reverse that trend.

They may succeed if liberals try to reclaim the glories of the past. 

They may fail if liberals imagine a new democratic future.


John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.

1 Comment

  1. Kathy Routliffe on August 8, 2022 at 3:41 pm

    I feel as if my imagination is stuck. I imagine us working like hell to bring voters to the polls, to back democratic candidates, to support referenda that support democracy and democratic rights, to push back against fascist candidates and ballot initiatives … but that all boils down to keeping progressives involved in the political arena. I guess I also believe in community democracy, where we encourage that sense of community through self-help, through education, etc., but are there other routes that your imagination takes you?

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