DeShanna Neal’s 7-year-old son stopped standing for the Pledge of Allegiance to the U.S. flag in school, questioning whether the United States of America really stood for, as the pledge says, “liberty and justice for all.”
“He said, ‘I will only stand when Black lives matter,’” said Delaware native Neal, 40, a Black, queer mother of two transgender girls and a son she describes as gender non-conforming. Neal is also a candidate for a seat in the state House of Representatives. As much of the nation takes a day off for backyard barbecues, Main Street parades, and fireworks displays, some Americans see democracy in peril and others see it as ascendant.
Another American interviewed ahead of the holiday marking the adoption of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, was in a more celebratory mood. “The quote-unquote conservative side has been on the losing side for a very long time,” said CJ Grisham, a founder of the gun-rights group Open Carry Texas. “Does it suck to lose? Yeah, it does. But I look at things also from an originalist point of view. So obviously I’m mostly happy.” Conservatives are relishing a series of victories at the U.S. Supreme Court, landmark rulings that ended a constitutional right to abortion, expanded gun rights, and curtailed government authority to regulate power plant emissions.
At the same time, congressional hearings are offering testimony about how close former President Donald Trump and a violent mob that supported him may have come on Jan. 6, 2021, to overturn the November 2020 election that put Joe Biden in the White House. Jodie Patterson, 52, of Brooklyn, a Black mother with a transgender child, sees a dominant culture of straight, white, wealthy men too easily overlooking the rest of America. She is on the board of the Human Rights Campaign’s foundation, which supports lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans at a time when legislation in states across the country would block access to healthcare to help young people transition and restrict transgender athletes’ participation in sports.
“I’m not turning my back on America,” Patterson said. “This country is as much mine and my family’s, and for people who look like me, as it is anyone else’s.” Only white men signed the Declaration of Independence, and most, like its main author Thomas Jefferson, owned Black slaves. Slave-owners also were among the white men who in 1787 signed the Constitution, when convincing slave states to join the union was prioritized over liberty for Blacks. It took Civil War, constitutional amendments, and Supreme Court rulings to extend rights to minorities and women.
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Today, some conservatives see liberal critiques that extremists are threatening democracy as overblown, noting that Democrats control the White House and both houses of Congress. “Stop blaming it on these boogie men,” said Chuck Warren, a Republican strategist from Arizona. “I don’t think the Supreme Court justices are just sitting around saying, ‘We have to protect the white man.’ I don’t believe that’s happening at all.” Concerns were so great that Biden established a commission to study reforming the Supreme Court.
Laurence Tribe, a Harvard law professor, was among those on the commission, and he advocates expanding the court to counter the current conservative bent. “The odds that we will really go down, the way other democracies have, are frighteningly real,” Tribe said.
Charles Fried, a Harvard law colleague who once argued cases before the Supreme Court on behalf of the administration of Republican President Ronald Reagan, favors a different change: term limits that would convert the lifetime Supreme Court appointment to 18 years. “There are people around, and I’m afraid some of them are on this Supreme Court, who want to repeal the 20th century,” Fried said.