There’s absolutely no doubt about it, America is exceptional. It’s exceptional in that as other developed nations are moving forward, so-called conservative forces are dragging America back. As the rest of the world is advancing toward an era in which they recognize the value of all people, embrace the role of government in moderating the inherent conflict between individual rights and societal benefits, and understand the importance of protecting what remains of the natural environment, the United States is—suddenly and unexpectedly—doing the exact opposite.
The United States is currently engaged in a project under which the number of people valued by society is being sharply curtailed. It’s engaged in a project to destroy the whole concept of a “general good.” It’s determined to ignore consequences of environmental damage, of racism, and of gun violence even as those consequences are visible in fire and blood.
The extraordinary Supreme Court action this week, ending five decades of protection under Roe v. Wade, is a ghastly example of something that has more general implications—how the United States is become a dreaded and hated pariah. How the right wing has set out to undo the whole idea of “the American experiment.” And how the “shining city on the hill” is being replaced with a new, improved Jonestown.
As Daily Beast columnist David Rothkopf puts it, America is experiencing a “concerted campaign” by the right wing, often with the assistance of those who claim to be “centrists” in both parties, whose goal is not simply to arrest progress, but to roll back the enormous gains that have been made since before World War II.
The gains made by women that have opened up more opportunities for individuals and infinitely enriched society aren’t just under assault, they are crumbling. The gains made by Black Americans have been massively undercut on every front from voting, to educational opportunities, to home ownership, to health care. The ability of the government to take any action that safeguards people in poverty, protects the aged, or defends those accused of a crime has all been sharply curtailed. More power has been awarded to the powerful. More obstacles have been erected to ensure that social mobility is next to impossible.
Just this week, the Supreme Court issued a ruling in which protections created in 1966 in Miranda v. Arizona were sharply curtailed. That ruling barely got any notice, because it was followed only minutes later by the ruling that eliminated the ability of states to regulate the carrying of weapons outside the home. Then that decision was Trumped (sick pun intended) by the Supreme Court acting, for the first time ever, to remove a right that had existed for five decades. Expect this to be followed next week by rulings that, among many other things, prevent the Environmental Protection Agency from taking any action to protect the environment … crippling most of the federal government in the process.
The impact of the Supreme Court’s killing of Roe goes beyond just the incredible misery that will be generated and the deaths that will result. As Rothkamp notes, Roe was a signpost. It was “a symbol to several generations that our system worked.”
It was the embodiment of the kind of change Martin Luther King, Jr. was talking about when he said that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Roe happened only as the result of decades of dedicated efforts by politicians, scientists, doctors, attorneys, and most of all by women activists who many times put their lives on the line to secure rights for coming generations. Row was proof that change may take a long time. Education and improvement may only come over generations. But eventually the social situation improves; it moves closer to justice.
The end of Roe is a signal that this is no longer true. And in fact, has not have been true for some time.
Republicans have spent decades eroding social progress at the state level. As those Republicans have gained control county-by-county, state-by-state, in areas that were once home to “yellow dog Democrats,” they’ve become the testing ground for more and more radical examples of regressive policy. Coordinated through Republican organizations that have authored legislation expressly designed to test federal law for weak points, they’ve conducted a broad assault on the power of the government to uphold rights or seek justice.
At the same time, Mitch McConnell’s obsession with stuffing the federal courts with conservative extremists under multiple Republican presidents wasn’t just some hobby. McConnell’s efforts have ensured that a party which has won just a single popular election in 34 years has had an extremely lopsided effect on the Court at every level. Policies and laws that would have been dismissed out of hand by any reasonable jurist have been upheld by Republican-appointed judges whose sole qualification is that they signed onto the scheme.
Republican governors, attorneys general, and legislatures regularly push up orders and laws that are far, far more regressive than anything that would have been acceptable four decades ago, and find they have courts friendly enough to their efforts to place the federal government constantly in the role of playing defense. Progressives, and even moderates, have rarely been able to think about moving that arc forward. They’re too busy fighting off attacks on long-held positions.
Funneling money to religious schools and destroying public education. Eliminating rules to protect against discriminations on race or gender. Destroying the role of public health officials to protect the populace in emergencies, and empowering governors and attorneys general to force workers to subject themselves to danger. Individual companies being persecuting for daring to speak out in support of their employee’s rights. The reckless expansion of guns even as children’s blood is running through the halls of schools. Banning books. Allowing officials to literally look up the skirts of teenage girls to inspect their genitals.
Deliberate, intensive, vicious efforts to not just destroy the rights, but the lives of immigrants, Black Americans, trans Americans, every American who dares stand up against a marching tide of ignorance and hate. All of these things are the result of a multi-decade effort, but now that the last firewall has been burned away, the collapse is coming rapidly.
Like a long-running game of Jenga, Republicans have been sliding blocks out of the nation’s social progress for decades. Now the tower isn’t just shaking, it’s falling.
Only five years ago, there was the promise that the good old arc of justice was going to keep right on arcing toward a better United States. The arguments weren’t about whether the U.S. would achieve better rights for LGBTQ citizens, or would improve the process of immigration, or would find some means to address the rising tide of gun violence. The arguments were all about how fast these things would get addressed and over which solutions were most effective. Anyone who even suggested that Roe was in danger was derided as a fantasist.
Call it the Great Regression. Or Jim Crow 2.0. Call it whatever you want. But it’s turning America into an a pariah state; one that represents ignorance, repression, and hate. One that is becoming an object of loathing around the world. One that has enemies drooling over what they can snatch in a post-America world, and has allies planning for the day when they have to sever that gangrened limb.
Sometimes the arc bends toward justice. But if that arc has to bend for too long, it can just snap. Repairing what’s happened won’t come in a moment. But it better start quickly, or it will never happen at all.