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Ruth Bader Ginsburg: Pillar of American Democracy

Revolutionary change is possible within America’s democratic processes.

September 23, 2020
 
 

Save perhaps Barack Obama, there is no one who deserves the Pillar of American Democracy Award over the last half century more than Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Why?

She expanded inclusiveness.

By pioneering the field of gender discrimination law, and winning a number of landmark cases, RBG did as much as anyone in the last 50 years to facilitate the fuller participation of women in American society. The exclusion of various groups, based on race, gender, sexuality, physical ability, religion, etc., is among the great sins, and great contradictions, of American society. RBG’s contributions to this arena have been much written about and cannot be overstated. To be a pillar of American democracy, you absolutely have to fight for wider inclusion.

She built genuine relationships across lines of ideological difference.

Read Eugene Scalia’s reflections on the friendship between his father, Justice Antonin Scalia, and Justice Ginsburg. Justices Ginsburg and Scalia spent New Year’s Eve together, rode elephants together, went to the opera together, argued in private, argued in public, defeated one another and consoled the other after defeat. Most importantly, they learned from the other’s perspective. In a powerful story from Ginsburg’s eulogy for Scalia, she says that he gave her his dissent in the important VMI case as early as possible so that she might have a chance to incorporate her responses to his arguments in the court’s decision. Scalia’s arguments, Ginsburg relates, were of the “this wolf comes as a wolf” variety, and, she adds, they were incisive and important. She disagreed with them, and learned from them, and it made her own decision stronger.

Imagine eulogizing your ideological foe. Spending New Year’s Eve with him, year after year. More importantly, taking his arguments seriously enough that you learn from them. (For faculty, this is an interesting assignment to give students: if you were asked to eulogize an ideological opponent, what would you say about her?)

A diverse democracy requires respectful friendships across lines of ideological disagreement.

She revolutionized the system by working within it.

There is a powerful scene in the film On the Basis of Sex, where Ginsburg’s teenage daughter, Jane, confesses to skipping school to attend a feminist rally headlined by Gloria Steinem. Ginsburg scolds her daughter for skipping school. Jane responds by dismissing her mother’s work as a bunch of sitting around and talking and tells her mother real feminists are out in the streets, like Gloria Steinem.

It wasn’t just a daughter-mother dynamic. In her 2018 New Yorker profile of the justice, Jill Lepore reminds us that many feminist groups initially opposed President Clinton’s nomination of Ginsburg to the Supreme Court in 1993. They were concerned that she was too temperamentally moderate, too cautious about activism, not willing to move fast enough to change things.

Lepore highlights that all the memes about RBG dissenting are ironic given how relatively rarely she did it, and how, on the whole, moderate the substance of those dissents actually were.

Being out in the streets matters. Radical challenges to the system can be very useful. Activists change the climate that everyone operates in, including lawyers and Supreme Court justices.

But I find myself concerned when protest-type approaches are promoted as the only way to social change. As Deepa Iyer and others highlight, there is an ecosystem of social change. When activist/disrupter types accuse people who choose "within the system" and "slow but lasting" modes as too tepid, they are accusing willing allies of being traitors. It’s not a smart move.

I for one am deeply grateful for the rare figure like Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, because not only did she create a revolution, she showed us that it could be done within the system and without destroying your opponents. Improving our democracy through the established system -- elections, advocacy, laws, nonprofit organizations, reformist programs that work, teaching, writing, peaceful protests -- really matters. If you destroy a system, either through revolutionary violence or by cynicism or by slowly leeching away people’s faith in it, you have to take the responsibility to build a better one. Far wiser to improve this one.

While her job and style were quite different than the other person who I think deserves the Pillar of American Democracy Award for the last 50 years, I think the substance of their vision and approach is much the same. In celebrating Ginsburg’s legacy, I find myself recalling the first line of Obama’s election night speech in Chicago in 2008: “If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.”

If there is anyone who doubts that revolutionary change is possible within America’s democratic processes, Ruth Bader Ginsburg is your answer.

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