In his opinion for the majority in the case Obergefell v. Hodges, Anthony Kennedy wrote of those seeking the right to marry: “They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.” One word stands out to me about this opinion: “dignity.”
It’s no secret that the famously moderate Kennedy tends to place a lot of emphasis on dignity in his rulings, so his mention of it in the Obergefell decision is unsurprising. What might surprise some, however, is my belief that this term, “dignity,” might be the key to the future of the Democratic Party.
As the Trump era has unfolded–leading to ever-greater indignities, both large and small, the demolition of norms and institutions, and the general degrading of the office of the Presidency–it seems to me that there is one sure way that we Democrats can sell a vision to the American people. If Trump traded on easy solutions, finger-pointing, and xenophobia, it is up to us to show the American people that there is another way to conduct policy and, just as importantly, another way to comport ourselves as a republic and as a body politic.
The beauty of a stress on dignity is that it provides a way of addressing, meaningfully, in my view, the concerns of those who have in recent months suggested that the focus of the national party on “social issues” poses a danger to Democrats in traditionally conservative or moderate districts. Leaving aside the arbitrary and misleading distinction between economic and social issues (a subject for a later rant, I’m sure), it seems to me that it would be more effective and moral for Democrats in those areas to stress that their stances on LGBT+, racial, and gender issues are, essentially, about dignity. I would proffer that the majority of Americans, whether they fall to the right or the left of the political center, can at least agree on the fundamental right to dignity before the law.
Of course, this will require Democratic politicians to actually assert leadership, rather than simply acquiescing to the wishes and desires–no matter how destructive and backward they are–of their core constituents. There is a certain tendency among Democrats, particularly those who are vulnerable in states that Trump won, to think that any stance of theirs that is opposite to their conservative majority constituency will jeopardize their seat, and maybe they’re right. But it also occurs to me that people like Senator Joe Manchin (from my own home state of West Virginia) would do well to remember that there are many LGBT+ people in his state who crave the same dignity as their hetero kin. Their lives are just as important, their needs just as great, and their right to dignity as constitutional.
To some, this emphasis on dignity might come off as trite, or as respectability politics, and that’s true to an extent. However, if 2016 and its dreadful aftermath have taught us anything, it’s that we have a long, hard battle ahead of us, and we need to use all of the weapons in our arsenal. Maybe I’m naïve, but I like to think that the majority of Americans are decent folk, people who are willing to change and adapt. They’re not perfect, but with some notable exceptions they understand dignity and its importance, indeed its necessity, for emotional well-being.
Dignity, as a concept that (almost) everyone can sympathize with and embrace, may just give we Democrats a way out of the wilderness.