This Is the Fight of Our Lives. It’s Time Progressives Act Like It

“Threats to democracy” have overtaken the cost of living as the top issue facing the country for voters. (Ted Eytan / Flickr)

I was 17, bisexual, and like a lot of LGBTQ teenagers, nothing mattered more to me than getting away from my parents. And I did—hitchhiking to a friend’s apartment on Bank Street in the West Village, New York.

It wasn’t exactly a pilgrimage, but the next morning I walked to Soho and the converted firehouse that was then home to the Gay Activists Alliance. It was the winter of 1974 and GAA was the epicenter of what, back then, was called: the gay liberation movement.

As I was browsing through their pamphlets, a man waved me over to a crowded office. I don’t recall any of what we talked about, except that when I made a passing reference to an effort back home to legalize marijuana, he dismissed it in a heartbeat.

“There’s nothing more important than human rights,” he said.

He was right, of course. What matters more? Making it so LGBTQ people aren’t living in terror—or making it legal to smoke pot?

The answer was—and is—obvious. Or at least it ought to be. But instead of standing up for human rights and the democracy that guarantees it, the priorities of many on the left and center left are failing to meet the demands of the moment. There’s nothing bad about people who are devoted to ending the use of plastic bags, promoting electric powered school buses, or achieving other laudable goals. But the only reason they can advocate for this is because the Constitution enables them to.

Like the size of the universe, the threat to democracy is bigger than our minds can comprehend. With the stroke of a pen, the Supreme Court eliminated the right to safe and legal abortion. This far-reaching ruling may soon be used to attack marriage equality and re-criminalize LGBTQ people. Now SCOTUS is gearing up for an encore performance. For their part, Republicans are branding the right to vote as a liberal con job and waging war on people of color on a scale unseen in decades. 

The crisis is very real, but there are things progressive leaders can do to help lead us out of it—things they must do, in fact. Here are a few:

First, don’t assume Americans are unaware of the dangers we face. One NBC poll revealed the top issue on the minds of voters is “threats to democracy.” Not many people care about the difference between fascism and authoritarianism, but they do know what’s happening in our country doesn’t pass the smell test.

Second, help men understand that the fight for reproductive rights is way more than a “women’s issue.” It’s an assault on every American’s individual rights, including their own. It’s terrific when men speak out for the right to abortion and birth control—even better when they know it’s their fight, too.

Third, slogans don’t matter, but specifics do. Talk about reforms that would repair our democracy and enable millions more to take part in it. There are dozens of fixes that would do that, ranging from modernizing voter registration and expanding access to absentee ballots, to promoting ranked-choice voting and protecting voters from intimidation. Pick one and run with it.

Fourth, when someone says they’re doing their part to promote democracy, hold them accountable. Hold accountable corporations that are quietly violating their pledge not to fund the campaigns of House Republicans who tried to overturn the 2020 election.

Fifth, elections are about winning, and that means backing candidates who aren’t always on the same page as you. You may not like it, but there’s too much at stake to make the perfect the enemy of the good. 

Lastly, support unions. A strong labor movement always provides a crucial line of defense for democracies, and, thankfully, young people are rebuilding it in workplaces of every kind. Be their ally even if all you do is tell a barista at Starbucks that you’re on their side. I do this and it’s always appreciated (though I still haven’t gotten a free coffee out of it).

The dangers to democracy are immeasurable. Mobilizing pro-choice and other pro-democracy voters to cast their ballots in the upcoming election must take precedence over any specific cause, no matter how noble. We’re in the fight of our lives. It’s time to act like it.

U.S. democracy is at a dangerous inflection point—from the demise of abortion rights, to a lack of pay equity and parental leave, to skyrocketing maternal mortality, and attacks on trans health. Left unchecked, these crises will lead to wider gaps in political participation and representation. For 50 years, Ms. has been forging feminist journalism—reporting, rebelling and truth-telling from the front-lines, championing the Equal Rights Amendment, and centering the stories of those most impacted. With all that’s at stake for equality, we are redoubling our commitment for the next 50 years. In turn, we need your help, Support Ms. today with a donation—any amount that is meaningful to you. For as little as $5 each month, you’ll receive the print magazine along with our e-newsletters, action alerts, and invitations to Ms. Studios events and podcasts. We are grateful for your loyalty and ferocity.

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Jim Grossfeld is a writer living a Bethesda, Maryland. He previously covered the women bolstering Michigan's Democratic wins at The American Prospect.