As millions of their constituents mourned and raged at the loss of women’s right to reproductive autonomy on Friday, most Democratic leaders didn’t seem to have much to say.
It wasn’t because they were surprised: The overturning of Roe was in the cards the moment Donald Trump became president more than five years ago; Roe had been functionally dead since the Supreme Court allowed the Texas vigilante ban to stand last September; and a draft of Samuel Alito’s decision had leaked to the public nearly two months ago.
But even with a yearslong runway to create a response to imminent forced breeding, the best House Speaker Nancy Pelosi could do is read aloud a poem about Israel that she’d also read after the Capitol assault on Jan. 6, 2021. When asked whether Joe Biden planned to do any kind of listening tour for young people and women who are now grappling with the knowledge that they could be forced to sacrifice their own lives for a fetus that will not survive outside their bodies for the first time in almost half a century in this country, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said the administration did not yet have “a strategic strategy” around the decision that it was ready to share.
In a pre-planned event meant to commemorate the historic gun control legislation that passed final congressional approval on the same day the Supreme Court overturned Roe, dozens of congressional Democrats sang along to “God Bless America” on the Capitol steps. One block away, demonstrators protested a decision by six unelected justices that will impose a religious fundamentalist vision of patriarchal control on half the country. Invoking “God” in such a moment was the wrong choice, especially as most of the Democrats’ constituents would be more inclined to agree with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright than with a sappy unity song.
Perhaps the most infuriating response from elected Democrats was the idea that all people had to do now was … continue to elect Democrats. Kamala Harris, for example, lamented the demise of “the right for each person to make intimate decisions about heart and home” (what?) and then offered: “You have the power to elect leaders who will defend and protect your rights,” Harris said in her speech. “And as the president said earlier today, with your vote, you can act, and you have the final word.”
The problem is that right now, so many Americans do not feel like they have the final word, or any word, when it comes to the Supreme Court. The U.S. government is not structured by majority rule, and that is part of what has gotten us to this place, where justices who were seated by presidents who won elections from minorities are stripping away rights. And very few Democrats seem equipped, prepared, or willing to say directly what is going on, nevermind offer solutions to the problem.
If you were looking for some catharsis, it was celebrities who had the most to offer. Olivia Rodrigo’s deliberate naming of each justice who voted to overturn Roe, a reminder that there is blame to be dealt, felt more direct than what most elected officials had to say:
So did Danny DeVito’s elegant rejoinder, “Supreme Court my ass”—a nod to the illegitimacy of a partisan court, populated by one ideologue in a stolen seat and two accused sex criminals.
Megan Rapinoe identified the decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization as a turning point in our democracy, worthy of wielding power in defense of those whose lives hang in the balance “by whatever means necessary.”
And Kendrick Lamar, performing at the same festival as Rodrigo, made his statement about the ruling in the blood-soaked ending of his show.
Why are celebrities doing a better job of understanding the stark horror of this moment than the people elected to do just that? The answer to that might have less to do with celebrities’ competence in this moment—people are full of emotion, and artists know how to express that—and more with the incompetence of a party that sat back and waited until we got here.
Hannah Docter-Loeb contributed reporting.