State of Disunion

Who Exactly Are “We the People”?

“All men are created equal” only holds for a specific value of “all” “men” and “equal”—and white cishet male Republicans appear to be the only ones who can define the terms.

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There is a choice to be made. Essential goods are painfully expensive for the benefit of private wealth; armed agents of the state suppress a disgruntled population with lethal force, killing children and then shooting again when people rightly gather in protest. Acts of civil disobedience must be carried out in secret, and at any moment, authorities can enter a home, rouse its inhabitants, and claim it for themselves. All attempts at negotiation have been rebuked; all alternatives to hostility have been foreclosed. There is only acquiescence or resistance now.

It is the run up to the American Revolution, and the colonists choose resistance. Rather than continue to work and live and die on behalf of a system that neither hears them nor represents them, the not-yet–United States determine that they will rebuke royal authority and claim the right of self-rule. Inspired by the principles of the Enlightenment, the colonies in rebellion declare that the king is illegitimate because “all men are created equal.”

It is 2023. There is a woman in Colorado. She is not from the state; she is just visiting to gain access to abortion. She can’t afford to be tied permanently to the partner who has choked and hit her, so she makes the 18-hour round trip by car. The day after she returns to Dallas, her abuser confronts her about the procedure—and puts a bullet in her head. Her three children are motherless. Her name was Gabriella Gonzalez.

Later this year, the same Supreme Court that allowed Texas to obliterate her access to abortion will decide whether the same state can do anything at all to prevent the purchase and use of firearms by people like the man who killed Gabriella Gonzalez. If the conservative majority continues its expansive (and ridiculous) interpretation of the Second Amendment, the court will likely affirm the unfettered gun rights of known abusers, further endangering millions of women like Gabriella. Because when the Founders were proclaiming who was “created equal,” they never intended it for the likes of her.

So we have a choice to make.

On one side of this election are the people who have dedicated themselves to a world of iniquity. They are the architects of the violence that stole Gabriella Gonzalez’s life in Texas, and proud of it. There is no shame because there is no cost. Only people can be mourned, and only some of us are people.

The Republican Party has placed itself as the inheritor of a legacy that has always used the narrowest possible reading of the most famous words in U.S. history. Like generations before them, they claim a “natural order” that usurps natural rights, insist upon classifying resistance from anyone other than white men as hysteria or mental illness, and when confronted with a Black man suing for his own personhood, declare it the immutable law of the land that he has no rights a white man is bound to respect. To them, “all men are created equal” only holds for a specific value of “all” “men” and “equal,” and they’re the only ones who can define the terms. The result is a jealous guarding of American masculinity—placing disqualifiers of “brutishness” or “savagery” on some men as an excuse to enslave or eradicate them, and saddling others with weakness, unfitness, or emotional lassitude to punish any attempts at assertiveness or authority. And then, there is what they do to women. 

With this week’s ruling from the Fifth Circuit that fathers have the right to deny daughters access to birth control, it’s clear that the Dobbs decision was just the beginning of the rollback of women’s rights. In Alabama, in vitro fertilization (IVF) has all but stopped, signaling a much larger scope fight about who counts as a person that would suborn all living humans capable of birth to every potential one they could carry. Bit by bit, frame by frame, every person with a uterus is being confined back to our sex. We are having our humanity—our natural rights of self-determination and bodily autonomy—stripped away until we are subjugated to our base form: a vessel.

If we let them, these men—and the women who help them—will take away everything that matters to a life worth living. People with uteruses won’t be able to have our own bank accounts or seek our own careers, or decide how, when, or even if we will get married or to whom. We will be mired in care work without any hope for expression or liberation, and chained to childbirth whether we want to be parents or not. Repressed from our best selves, we will live inferior lives because the state will have classified us as inferior people.

So we cannot let them.

Our proffered alternative to this dystopian abomination is a lukewarm appeal to the status quo ante. Where our opposition dominates, those of us left out of the narrow definition of equality—everyone not a cis-het white man—will continue to have our rights eroded and our lives abridged. Where Democrats hold sway, defenses will be fortified and our resources bolstered. But they will not fight, and they won’t try to win. We can simply keep whatever we manage to hold.

It is not enough. But it offers a slim opportunity to claim our rights for ourselves. The People have been the impetus for almost every major expansion of freedom in our history and we will be again. We can’t continue to wait for elected officials to present us with a remedy; we have to demand the solutions we seek. Electing Democrats at every level in every state on every ballot isn’t about co-signing their vision for the nation; it’s about hiring people who will listen to ours. Republicans know who they want to obey and what they want to do; there is no point in trying to move or influence them when they are doing the utmost to insulate themselves from popular sovereignty. The only answer is to remove them from the equation, so that we can bring pressure to bear on Democrats. And our first and most important ask, what we must secure this election to succeed in having any others, is our equal say in the rules that run us.

We hold these truths to be self-evident …

In his State of the Union address, President Biden said that we haven’t lived up to our ideals of equality, but we’d never given up on it either. Even a casual glance at history would prove him wrong—from the expansive and ongoing genocide of Native peoples to the tragic abandonment of Reconstruction—but his statement isn’t even true in the present. Our entire national apparatus is turned away from progress. Congress can, with a simple majority in both houses, acknowledge the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sex. With more effort, Congress can impose limits on the Supreme Court—what cases they can review, what ethical guidelines they have to adhere to, how many years they can rule from a particular court, and even the number of justices that sit on the bench. Rather than appeal to a mythic version of our past, we should embrace the power we have to shape this moment to make space for a fairer country.

That all people are created equal…

Republican opposition is relentless because to slow down even for a moment will allow us, the majority, to assert ourselves. It is not a coincidence that they have concentrated power in fewer and fewer hands, that they employ maneuvers that give one person the ability to stop the collective will of millions, that they make decisions that alter and upend our lives and hold our protests in contempt. As the edifices of democracy are whittled away, Republicans have rushed in to rebuild with the structures of monarchy. Already, they have picked a sovereign to operate with impunity. Already, they say we, the many, should serve them, the few, because we are unworthy of anything more. Already, the rules that bind us are insignificant to them. We are not their equals, and as long as they are in charge, we never will be.

Endowed by birth with certain unalienable rights …

But we know now as we have always known that there are no legitimate kings. No one is born to rule, and no one is born to serve. Rejecting that simple reality has caused us more than two centuries of agony, death, and destruction as we threw away lives in cotton fields and on reservations and through childbirth that could have given us unimaginable possibilities. Our national sin was not only that we claimed equality while holding people in bondage, but that we never even tried for everyone to be free.

That among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

In 2026, we will celebrate the 250th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. It will either be an affirmation of those principles or the manifestation of the hypocrisy we have generated in denying them. Right now, this election, we are deciding if the national birthday will see the United States returned to tyranny and the whims of kings, or governed by a liberated and equal people. The choice is ours to make.

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