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Preparing for the Worst
A few years ago I was talking to an Israeli historian then teaching at a prestigious American university. She told me she was returning to Israel. Knowing her activism against the occupation, I asked if she saw any prospect for ending her country’s descent into even deeper injustice. She said she saw none. She said she felt like an abolitionist in 1820. And yet she returned. This July 4th, that’s how I feel about the United States.
But first a word about this Friday’s Zoom call. We’ll be joined by Basel Adra, an activist and journalist from Masafer Yatta, the cluster of communities in the South Hebron hills that the Israeli government is threatening to demolish. We’ll talk about his life and struggle in the shadow of the bulldozers. As always, paid subscribers will get the Zoom link this Wednesday and the video next week.
Back to our own horrors here in the US. For people who care about American freedom, American safety and the survival of the human species, the last two weeks have been among the worst in modern memory. The Supreme Court has undone the right to abortion, prevented states from taking even modest steps to limit gun violence, and prevented the federal government from enacting regulations aimed at saving the planet. And the ugly truth is this: In the months and years to come, things will almost certainly get worse.
For starters, Republicans will probably take Congress this fall. The political forecast site FiveThirtyEight gives the GOP an 87 percent chance of winning the House and a 55 percent chance of winning the Senate. Even if Democrats hold onto the latter, Joe Biden’s chances of passing progressive legislation over the next two years will decline to almost zero.
While Congress descends into even deeper and nastier gridlock, the Supreme Court will continue its assault on the liberties and institutions Americans have taken for granted for the last half century. Already, the Court has accepted a case for the upcoming term that could make it easier for Republican state legislatures to interfere with vote-counting in presidential elections, as Donald Trump pressured them to do in 2020. And the court is likely to remain radically right-wing for quite some time. The eldest of the six conservative justices, Clarence Thomas, is 74. The second oldest, Samuel Alito, is 72. The average age at which justices leave the court is almost 79. If that pattern holds, Democrats would need to hold the White House for seven more years—until 2029—to have a decent shot of flipping two conservative seats and ushering in a liberal majority that begins to reverse the damage this Supreme Court will do. And that assumes a Republican-controlled Senate would confirm a justice a Democratic president nominated. Imagine the GOP takes the Senate this fall and then Thomas retires or dies sometime in the next two years. Would Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell hold a vote on Biden’s nominee to replace him? Given McConnell’s refusal to hold a vote on Merrick Garland after Antonin Scalia’s death in February 2016, it’s far from guaranteed.
And, for Democrats, even holding the presidency in 2024—let alone 2024 and 2028—will be difficult. That’s partly because of the electoral college, which now tilts so heavily in the GOP’s direction that even a Democrat who wins the popular vote by three percentage points isn’t guaranteed victory. And even if a Democrat wins the popular vote by a margin large enough to win the electoral college, their victory still isn’t certain because Trump—or another Republican copying his playbook— is better positioned now than they were in 2020 to steal the election. So far this year, according to the Washington Post, Republicans have nominated more than one hundred candidates who have endorsed Trump’s lies about 2020. As the Post notes, “Many will hold positions with the power to interfere in the outcomes of future contests — to block the certification of election results, to change the rules around the awarding of their states’ electoral votes, or to acquiesce to litigation attempting to set aside the popular vote.”
Are these nightmare scenarios guaranteed? No. We must work to prevent them. But it’s more than plausible—it’s likely—that we are headed into an era of greater authoritarianism, greater repression, and greater suffering. The progress America has made over the last half-century toward offering legal protections and democratic participation to people who aren’t white, Christian, straight, wealthy, and male has already begun to recede—and will probably recede further. Late last month, Nikole Hannah-Jones, founder of the 1619 Project, tweeted that “We are headed to another Great Nadir.” The term refers to the period after Reconstruction, when Confederates regained control in the post-Civil War South and “America witnessed the resurgence and bloody normalization of White Power politics.” As Hannah-Jones pointed out, a second Great Nadir doesn’t mean conditions will be as bad as they were in the late nineteenth century. But it does mean that, compared to the post-civil rights era—our 20th century version of Reconstruction—America is likely entering “a period marked by successful eroding of democracy, constriction of civil rights, racial violence.”
I wish I could offer a detailed strategy for how Americans who believe in equality under the law should respond. I can’t. Other writers—Jamelle Bouie, for instance—have thought more deeply about this than I have. But it seems pretty clear that America’s key institutions—the Supreme Court, the Senate (or at least the filibuster), the electoral college, the gerrymander, campaign finance law—must be democratized. It’s also clear that these institutions themselves, which Republicans are exploiting to entrench white, male, Christian power, pose an enormous obstacle to the change America needs. It’s hard to imagine them being remade anytime soon.
So American progressives will need to study the early abolitionists and other forebearers who labored for equality and freedom in periods when the horizon looked bleak. Such eras require fortitude and a principled refusal to accept the morally constricted terms of mainstream debate. In the 1820s, the leaders of no major political party believed in racial equality. Today, the leaders of no major political party—not Donald Trump and not Joe Biden—support the democratic transformation America needs.
In 1954, in another moment of progressive despair, with the American left crushed by Joe McCarthy and the red scare, Irving Howe and Lewis Coser wrote that “there is no significant socialist movement [in the United States] and that, in all likelihood, no such movement will appear in the immediate future.” They wrote those words in the opening statement of their new socialist journal, Dissent. That’s the spirit we need now—the ability to imagine radically better futures as realities around us grow radically worse.
As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, I was recently in Berlin, where I participated in a groundbreaking conference on the way right-wing forces in Israel and elsewhere weaponize antisemitism to oppose human rights. Here’s my session from that conference, where I talked with European parliamentarian and former student leader Daniel Cohn-Bendit. You can watch many of the other sessions here.
I was interviewed last week on Pod Save the World about Joe Biden’s upcoming trip to the Middle East.
I participated virtually in a panel discussion in The Netherlands about the silencing of voices critical of Israel.
I made a mistake in last week’s newsletter. I wrote that “all but one of the justices who voted to overturn Roe versus Wade were appointed by presidents who lost the popular vote.” That’s not quite right. Five justices voted to overturn Roe. (A sixth, Chief Justice John Roberts, voted with the majority in the Dobbs case but authored a concurrence opposing overturning Roe). Of those five, three—Brett Kavanaugh, Neil Gorsuch and Amy Coney Barrett—were nominated by Trump, who lost the popular vote. A fourth, Samuel Alito, was nominated by George W. Bush. Bush lost the popular vote in 2000 but won it in 2004, the year before he nominated Alito. So describing Alito as a justice appointed by a president who lost the popular vote is inaccurate. My apologies.
When watching this video from the Republican gubernatorial debate in Arizona, and this clip from the Republican nominee for secretary of state in Michigan discussing “demonic possession,” I suggest laughing so you don’t cry.
See you on Friday,