Overview:

We can't take our rights for granted. When liberals grow complacent or withhold their vote out of spite, hard-won gains can be rolled back.

Reading Time: 5 minutes

[Previous: If we don’t own ourselves, we own nothing]

There’s no way to sugarcoat it: we liberals have a bad habit of complacency.

When a candidate inspires us, promising hope and change, we show up in droves. When our rights are threatened, we storm the streets to protest. It’s the rest of politics that we’re not so good at.

It’s not the exciting national races, not the big glorious causes, but the small-scale, unglamorous, yet vital work: party primaries, state and city legislatures, local judicial races, school boards, ballot propositions. We need dependable foot soldiers who show up every time, for every election—not fair-weather allies who vote only when they feel like it.

It happened in 2010. Barack Obama inspired a generation, and swept into office with a historic Congressional majority. But just two years later, progressive voters tuned out. A conservative counterrevolution took power, and promptly established a pattern of obstruction and stonewalling that hampered the rest of his presidency.

It happened in 2016. We can debate why Hillary Clinton lost—toxic sexism, neoliberal moderation, bitterness over Bernie Sanders, or chronic media both-sidesism. But whatever the causes, although she easily won the popular vote, the turnout in a few swing states fell just barely short. If she had won, it’s very likely that Trumpism would have been discarded as an electoral loser. Instead, we got four years of spreading fascism, wild incompetence, flagrant corruption and abuse of power.

We’re living with the consequences of that. The Republican party has embraced anti-democratic norms which may define American politics for the foreseeable future. The Supreme Court is stacked with ultraconservatives, appointed by popular-vote losers, who are granting extreme privileges to Christianity and are poised to gut abortion rights. Marriage equality and even birth control could be next on the chopping block.

An escalator, not a ratchet

This is a lesson that liberals have to heed. It would be nice if human rights, once they’re won, were secure for all time. But they aren’t.

No society is permanently bound by the wishes of its ancestors. Every generation has to decide all over again how it wants to be governed, what to keep and what to change. That’s as it should be. It’s necessary for moral progress. It means that we can learn and do better, that the mistakes of the past won’t hamper us forever.

However, it also means that progressive changes once won can be lost again. Although history has a general “upward” trend—an escalator of more rights for more people—it’s not a ratchet that turns in only one direction. Just because the world has been getting better, it’s not a certainty that this will continue.

It would be nice if human rights, once they’re won, were secure for all time. But they aren’t.

Even today, in the 21st century, there are deplorables who want to rewind the tape of progress. There are white supremacists who want to make the U.S. a white ethnostate, consigning all minorities to subordinate status or worse. There are libertarians who want to abolish all taxes and regulation and return us to serfdom in the service of the super-rich. There are Christian dominionists who want to make their fundamentalist faith the official creed of the state and silence all competing belief systems.

To be sure, these people are a minority. They’re dwindling, dying relics of a less enlightened age. However, a minority can still win, if people of conscience don’t oppose them. And this is especially likely to happen if we don’t value our rights.

Human beings suffer from normalcy bias: the tendency to take whatever we have for granted. We tend to believe that the way the world is, is the way it will always be. That contributes to passivity and unconcern in the face of a looming threat. It’s all too easy to rationalize it away: “Oh, there’s nothing to worry about. Those people are just crazies. No one really believes that. That will never happen.”

This attitude is like a sentry who dozes off at his post. Sometimes it won’t matter; the enemy doesn’t attack every day, after all. But if and when the attack does come, the sleeping guard will be caught unprepared at a fatal instant. Just the same way, if we don’t remain vigilant in protecting our rights, if we don’t show up and speak out and vote, if we’re apathetic about coming to their defense when they’re under attack… we might lose them.

What is a right, anyway?

One reason why liberals might be complacent is the mistaken belief that rights are discovered the same way scientific knowledge is discovered. No matter the shifting political winds, it’s unlikely that our society will forget Newton’s second law or how to make penicillin. Some people might believe that rights work the same way: once they’re added to the repository of our knowledge, they’re there for all time.

However, an “is” is different from an “ought”. Human rights aren’t inherent in the fabric of the cosmos. Facts can’t be denied—at least, if you try to build an airplane engine while rejecting F=ma, you’re in for a bad time—but rights can be. No bolt of lightning will strike you down if you violate them (as welcome as that would be in some cases…)

A right is an agreement among people to raise a particular value to the highest tier of protection.

If a human right isn’t a universal normative force, then what is it? Simply this: a right is an agreement among people to raise a particular value to the highest tier of protection. There’s no deep metaphysical reason why we should have, for example, freedom of the press. It’s just that a society which has that freedom is better than a society which lacks it.

(Better for who? For everyone, following a Rawlsian veil-of-ignorance argument. It may inconvenience me when other people exercise their rights, but on the whole, we all benefit when that freedom is available to everybody.)

This is why it’s so dangerous to take our rights for granted. They’re not a fundamental truth of the universe, but a contract made among groups of people. What happens if a substantial portion of society no longer believes that contract should be honored?

The courts won’t save us

In theory, this is the job of the courts, to protect human rights even if people vote to violate them. But courts aren’t neutral machines immune to political pressure. They’re made up of people, who rule in accordance with their own ideologies and biases. If one side concocts a belief system which advocates the overthrow of an established right, and stacks the courts with people who believe this—and if the other side musters no response—then the outcome is certain. Simply put, we can’t expect the courts to uphold our rights for us if we don’t defend them ourselves.

This is why it’s so vital for progressives to show up every time, even if they don’t feel enthusiastic about it. Too many left-wingers hold the mindset of, “Well, what have Democrats done for me lately?”—and withhold their vote out of spite if elected officials don’t deliver on their promises.

Even if Democrats only represent the status quo, we can do worse than the status quo.

Believe me, I share that frustration. Politics is slow and frustrating at the best of times, and the American system is designed specifically to thwart change. However, withholding your vote doesn’t make things any better. It only gives more power and more freedom of action to the people who want to pull us backwards.

Even if Democrats only represent the status quo, we can do worse than the status quo. The likely repeal of Roe is a blazing bonfire of an example. In the name of preserving the hard-won rights we have, we have to show up. You may not think your vote will make things better, but the least you can do is vote for them not to get worse.

DAYLIGHT ATHEISM Adam Lee is an atheist author and speaker from New York City. His previously published books include "Daylight Atheism," "Meta: On God, the Big Questions, and the Just City," and most...