I remember the political gut punches. They were moments that I could not believe were happening in America. They ran contrary to the idea of America that I had been raised with. But they also defied logic and reason.
While America had been rocked by riots and assassinations when I was a kid, the first big political development in America that shocked me was the election of Ronald Reagan. He was a boob, a Hollywood actor, not even a very good one. At the time, just out of college, I did not really understand the darker forces that were behind his election—the racism and greed, the anti-government ideology that was really just a formula to enable the richest among us to make more and the most racist states to chart their own course.
Reagan, of course, offered a benign face to these changes. When the GOP was taken over by the hard right in the 1990s by men like Newt Gingrich and Tom DeLay, and the “Contract with America” turned into a scorched-earth campaign that deliberately left Washington dysfunctional (because an inert government is the next best thing to no government at all), it was a shock all over again. The extremism of the GOP was getting worse and worse, the nation’s divisions growing deeper and deeper.
Even the administration in which I served, that of President Bill Clinton, had bought into policies that made inequality worse and offered up the coded racism of welfare reform, beefing up police forces and scolding Sister Souljah. We were Reagan Lite though we thought we were just doing smart political “triangulation” and that the goodness in our hearts would prevail. And then we undid Glass Steagall and passed a telecommunications act that laid the groundwork for the rise of monster tech, the behemoths that would, alongside Wall Street, come to dominate in a new age of robber barons in America.
When Al Gore won the popular vote but lost the election to George W. Bush thanks to a dubious, highly political call by the U.S. Supreme Court, that too was a gut punch.
When Bush and Cheney and company embraced torture and rendition and waged a “war of choice” that left hundreds of thousands of innocents dead and America’s reputation worldwide in tatters, that was another. We weren’t the country of the “greatest” generation. Vietnam had already begun to make that clear. But this was war crimes level stuff and somehow, they all got away with it.
Then came the election of Donald Trump, another one in which the person who got the most votes, one of the most highly qualified candidates in our history, was defeated.
It was Reagan times a thousand. Instead of a plastic face from Hollywood we got a corrupt sleazebag known to every New Yorker and to television audiences everywhere as one of the dregs of humanity. We saw him embrace the help of one of our greatest enemies to get elected. We heard him lie. And we watched in disbelief as he lost the popular vote but won in the electoral college.
The gut punches came more rapidly during the Trump years. There were the 30,000 lies, the Muslim ban, Charlottesville, the Russia cover-up, firing Comey, the Mueller report and the clear obstruction case against the president, the Barr cover-up of that, one impeachment, Ukraine and a second impeachment, and then the Big Lie and Jan. 6, along with hundreds of thousands dead from a needless public-health catastrophe. For the first time in our history, there was not a peaceful transfer of power following a U.S. presidential election.
This is not to say that America has ever been as advertised. But there was a sense that progress could be made. Deep divisions led to a Civil War but at least in the end slavery was ended. Progress was made for women and people of color and while that progress was agonizingly, appallingly slow, there was the Voting Rights Act, the steps forward won by the movements for civil rights and equal rights for women. Our system was fraught with problems, but you had a sense that many were being addressed, at least to some degree.
But the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision gave the check-writers more power over the bill writers in Washington, equated money with speech and made a corrupt system even more corrupt and resistant to reform and progress. The Shelby County decision undid many of the benefits of the Voting Rights Act, by prematurely declaring victory against racism in America.
The Senate refused to hold even an overtly corrupt, unpatriotic, dangerous president to account. Republicans in the House defended his corruption and his attacks on democracy and added their own vileness and racism to the mix. And the GOP effort to pack the Supreme Court has now turned it into an overtly political, totally untrustworthy body—an institution acting on behalf of a tiny American minority instead of the people it was created to serve.
Which brings us to the latest gut punch. Listening to the SCOTUS hearings on Mississippi’s efforts to effectively ban abortion, it was clear that decades of efforts by GOP extremists to pack the Supreme Court so as to advance a religious agenda opposed by the majority of Americans were about to bear fruit.
A fundamental right, guaranteed to American women for half a century, is about to be taken away. It is about to be taken away by justices who swore under oath that Roe v. Wade was “established law” but were lying so that they could undo that ruling.
They did not even have the grace to tread gently around the issue. From the first moment of the hearings, the case made by Mississippi’s Solicitor General and clearly supported by the conservative majority of the court, was that Roe “haunts” America and they wanted to do it in. Justice Samuel Alito, the most odious of the extremists on the court, sought to justify a reversal by comparing Roe to Plessy v. Ferguson, the decision that provided the foundation for institutionalizing racism in the American South.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the court’s conscience, asked, “Will this institution survive the stench that this creates in the public perception that the Constitution and its reading are just political acts? I don’t see how it is possible.”
It was, chillingly, the right question. The answer is clear. While the court will survive its coming decision overturning or profoundly narrowing Roe, its standing as an institution that is supposed to be above politics clearly will not.
What then? After punch upon punch upon punch, what can we expect? The Supreme Court has been compromised. In the decades ahead, Red state America will continue to be disproportionately empowered in the U.S. Senate. Were Republicans to win the House next year, we can expect more over-the-top, often dangerous behavior. Consider the gut punch of watching House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jim Jordan or Speaker Kevin McCarthy in action. The GOP agenda of cutting taxes for the rich (literally the only major legislative goal or accomplishment of the last Republican administration) will lead to further inequality.
Will abortion still be available in America? Yes, in blue states. Available to those who can afford to travel to access the medical care they seek. But not to the poor, not to those who have been increasingly victimized in this country for the past four decades as inequality has gotten worse and worse. With this Supreme Court, more and more decisions will be left to the states and the divide between red and blue America will grow ever greater.
There won’t be a civil war like there was in the 1860s. But people of color will increasingly be denied representation that reflects their views thanks to gerrymandering, our inability to pass voting rights reform, and Republican efforts to change election laws and procedures to give themselves an advantage. Despite the power of red state politicians, red state residents will increasingly be second-class citizens—denied not only the right to choose but, if the past few years are any indication, full medical insurance benefits or the protections that science-based policies might afford.
The mid-section of the U.S. will become a collection of anti-science, anti-history, anti-woman, anti-Black, anti-immigrant, anti-federal government theocracies, minority-ruled faux-democracies who will still depend on massive inflows of tax dollars from the blue states they’ll nonetheless loathe and resent.
It is hard to be optimistic about the future of such a divided America. We will be weakened. We will be diminished. Our divisions will become ever greater impediments to progress. And so will begin the precipitous decline of the United States. We will not be the shining city on the Hill anymore or the last best hope of the world. We will not even be able to stand up to the growing global threats that we face.
Following the turning point in our first Civil War, a conflict that reflected many of the same divides that exist to this day, President Lincoln concluded his Gettysburg Address with the following words:
It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
That we have failed in that assignment will be the ultimate gut punch. We will be neither who we were, nor who we hoped to be.
The only answer is, having endured the shocks of the past four decades, we recognize the potential cost of this cold civil war and choose another path—one that rejects the divisions sought by the American right, takes the steps necessary to undo the damage they are doing to our democracy and, as President Biden and Democrats have sought to do, attends to the business of lifting up and bringing together all Americans with a sense of common purpose and of aspiration that too many of us seem to have forgotten.