Americans live in the past, when they were young. For most Americans, but not all, life peaked in their senior year in high school. It’s been all downhill since then. That keeps Facebook in business, but there’s a small cohort of Americans who graduated from high school in 1965 and went off to college that year. For them it’s the Summer of Love and the Revolution and Woodstock and the White Album, those four years ending with the election of Richard Nixon. That’s when life peaked, but that’s only a slight temporal shift. They’re nostalgic too. Those were vital times, when it was good to be alive. And then everything turned to ashes.
That frightens people. That leads to nostalgia wars. That led to the Tea Party. In the summer of 2010 they’d had just about enough of Obama – that black man with what seemed to them to be “sixties” values. They hated Obamacare, but that was only part of it. The “takers” were grabbing stuff from the “makers” – the good people, the Real Americans – but that wasn’t it either. Those Tea Party folks said they wanted their country back, which seemed to have something to do with Ozzie and Harriet and poodle skirts, and wholesome movies and blacks knowing their place, and gay folks hidden away, and Hispanics and Asians being Ricky Ricardo and Charlie Chan – harmless and amusing – and back-alley coat-hanger abortions only, and Jesus everywhere too. This was a nostalgia war. And although the Tea Party fizzled, that war continues.
On the other side there’s Todd Gitlin – the professor of journalism and sociology and chair of the PhD program in communications at Columbia University – Obama’s undergraduate school – the seminal sixties activist who wrote The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage – the other side of the story. Ozzie and Harriet and poodle skirts and back-alley coat-hanger abortions – those were awful times. Look at the sixties. Those were vital times, when it was good to be alive.
But that too can turn to ashes. Now Gitlin offers this:
The left has known demoralizing, mind-bending, gut-wrenching times more than once in my lifetime. Within the space of two months in 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were murdered, and with them the wild hope, or the impossible dream, that equality could, without much interruption, continue its onward march through the institutions of American life. Within two weeks in the spring of 1970, President Richard M. Nixon announced an invasion of Cambodia; then, when millions took to the streets, National Guardsmen killed four protesters at Kent State University. Ten days later, police opened fire on a dormitory at Jackson State College, killing two students.
History didn’t end, though in 1969, Attorney General John Mitchell did tell a reporter: “This country is going so far to the right you won’t recognize it.” Watergate postponed that agenda. The left could count the postponement as a victory.
Anyone looking for comfort today can note with satisfaction that those grievous days passed.
But that wasn’t a victory, and things did turn ash:
Mitchell’s prophecy was deferred. Backlashes against civil rights, feminism and gay rights did not set us back to square one. But they were crushing – an emotional fact, if nothing else. If you were paying attention, you felt that all bets were off. Anything horrible was possible. Living in such a time takes a toll. Despair was my demon then, and I was not alone in the feeling.
And now Gitlin feels the same despair:
One has to go back almost half a century to find a month like the past one, so devastating to the left and its values. Consider that immigrant children taken from their parents at the border are still penned up. (On Tuesday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions joked that many critics of this policy live in gated communities and would want intruders arrested and “separated” from their children.) Consider the Supreme Court’s ruling that guts public sector unions. Consider the court’s decisions to uphold gerrymandering and voting rights restrictions, to permit “crisis pregnancy centers” to stand mute about the option of abortion, and to allow whole populations to be banned from our shores. Consider the White House trial balloon that suggested the government could consolidate safety net programs to make them easier to slash.
Then consider the coming replacement of Justice Anthony Kennedy with a more reliably right-wing justice, possibly putting the legal right to an abortion in jeopardy, among other things. Perhaps now the aspiring autocrat in the White House will have a Supreme Court majority to help insulate him from Robert Mueller’s investigation.
This leaves “progressives” questioning the point of it all:
The souls of Democrats, particularly older ones, have been tried before. The left has long since known to question any assurance that – in the words of the abolitionist Theodore Parker, as amplified by Martin Luther King Jr. – the arc of the moral universe, however long, bends toward justice. The Depression years were full of stretches when the arc bent the other way, not least during the onslaughts of Hitler, Mussolini and Franco and the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939. But if you came of age after the Cold War, if you had faith in “change we can believe in,” how confident will you be now in the destination of that arc?
And then, of course, this sixties activist and organizer realizes that his side has been out-organized:
Republicans have shown what can be accomplished at the grass roots by quests for power, however tedious, however incremental, however banal. Since 1980, they’ve had their eyes on Washington while legions of ’60s radicals were marching on the English department. Even today, campus activists are thin on the ground in swing election districts. During the 2010 midterms and the elections of 2016, the right reaped enormous rewards from decades of local work. With the benefit of lavish campaign spending by plutocratic front groups, they won statewide power over the decades. Deploying redistricting and voting rights restrictions, they turned that power into an Electoral College advantage over the popular-vote majority. Two of the last three presidents, both Republicans, were first elected without winning the popular vote. Their power is structural.
And that depresses him:
Perhaps the evidence that national politics is rigged for the right reinforces the view that America was foredoomed from the days of the slave trade; that racism and nativism are unwavering, foundational, even insuperable; that Barack Obama’s kind of change cannot, in the end, be believed in; that efforts to win over the moderate are silly; that confrontational moves are the only ones that feel authentic. In an emergency, they will say, incrementalism and politics as usual are irrelevant. Be blunt and direct. Denounce the secretary of homeland security at a Mexican restaurant. Ask Sarah Huckabee Sanders to leave. (Predictably, she tweeted about the indignity to win martyrdom points.)
With passions so high, theatrical gestures can feel like shortcuts for reaching and mobilizing the unconvinced.
Theatrical gestures are, however, bullshit, but this isn’t:
The words of the radical labor organizer Joe Hill, about to be executed in 1915 by the state of Utah for murders he did not commit, frequently come to mind: “Don’t waste any time in mourning. Organize.” Hill’s imperative may look, to a skeptic, like Pablum and happy talk. And it’s true. The time is past when optimism can be justified by naive faith. The left once felt – often foolishly – that it owned the future. Now it struggles to own a chunk of the present.
There’s only one answer for that. Organize. And sing along with Paul Robeson of course.
There’s a lot of nostalgia in all that, and Jonathan Chait counters that with the structural facts of current American politics:
Over the last generation, the Republican Party has moved rapidly rightward, while the center of public opinion has not. It is almost impossible to find a substantive basis in public opinion for Republican government. On health care, taxes, immigration, guns, the GOP has left America behind in its race to the far right. But the Supreme Court underscores its ability to counteract the undertow of its deepening, unpopular extremism by marshaling countermajoritiarian power.
That means that Anthony Kennedy’s replacement increases that power, part of a process that being going on for years:
In December 2000 George W. Bush had a tenuous hold on the Electoral College, despite having half a million fewer votes nationwide. But his edge depended on a narrow margin in Florida, which was attributable to the fact that voting machines in Democratic counties failed to register a higher percentage of votes than machines in Republican counties. A recount would threaten that outcome (and in fact, a hand count that included every kind of missed vote, including ballots that both wrote and checked in the name “Al Gore,” would have given Democrats the presidency). But Bush’s brother controlled the state’s government, and it doggedly refused to allow the recount to which the trailing candidate was entitled. In the end, five Republican Supreme Court justices narrowly ended the recount and gave Bush the presidency.
Now add this:
It was during the Bush era that conservatives began spreading visual representations of the country-level vote. Flattened out, they displayed a sea of red, punctuated by small blue dots in which most of the population lives. The maps, one of which Trump is known to display, create the illusion of popular support. The trick of course is that the Republican red represents acreage rather than people.
Now add this:
The House has a massive Republican tilt, requiring Democrats to win the national vote by six or seven points in order to secure a likely majority. The Senate has an even more pronounced tilt, over-representing residents of small states, which tend to be white and rural. George W. Bush in 2000 and Trump in 2016 each won 30 states while losing the national vote. Since each of these states has equal representation in the Senate, the chamber gives Republicans an innate advantage.
Now add this:
The Electoral College reflects the same overall bias. By reducing the power of voters who live in states that vote heavily for one candidate or the other, and magnifying the power of voters who live in closely balanced states, it gives disproportionate influence to white voters.
Now add this:
The Republicans have consciously leveraged their minority power. In state after state after state, Republican governments have made voting more cumbersome, in order to winnow out the disproportionately poor and minority voters who such restrictions would discourage from the hassle. The conservative judicial agenda has increasingly focused on reading conservative policy preferences into the law. To be fair, for a generation starting with the Warren Court, liberal judges did the same, using judicial rulings to enshrine policies they could not enact through Congress. Now the Court is reverting to its historical role as a bastion of conservatism, frustrating the public’s demands for progressive action.
Don’t waste any time in mourning? Organize? Why? There’s the Supreme Court:
Even if Democrats gain an enduring advantage in elected office, large enough to overcome all the white and rural biases in the system, an activist conservative majority might strike down large segments of whatever they enact.
This is structural, and hopeless:
The central drama of the Trump era is a struggle to defend American democracy against an authoritarian leader. The Republican Party’s comfort with the crude authoritarianism of its president, though, did not spring out of nowhere. It is the culmination of a party increasingly comfortable with, and reliant on, countermajoritiarian power.
Dana Milbank isn’t sure that things are all that hopeless:
Now we have a Supreme Court nomination – the second in as many years – from an unpopular president who lost the popular vote by 2.8 million. The nominee will be forced through by also-unpopular Senate Republicans, who, like House Republicans, did not win a majority of the vote in 2016.
Compounding the outrage, each of the prospective nominees is all but certain, after joining the court, to support the eventual overturning of Roe v. Wade, which has held the nation together in a tenuous compromise on abortion for 45 years and is supported by two-thirds of Americans. For good measure, the new justice may well join the other four conservative justices in revoking same-sex marriage, which also has the support of two-thirds of Americans. And this comes after the Republicans essentially stole a Supreme Court seat by refusing to consider President Barack Obama’s nominee, Merrick Garland.
That is dismal, but Milbank sees an explosion coming:
Control of the judiciary, and the resulting protection of minority rule, has been the prize for Republicans who tolerated President Trump’s starting a trade war, losing allies while getting cozy with Kim Jong-Un and Vladimir Putin, flirting with white supremacists, paying off a porn star and attacking the justice system while his former advisers are indicted and convicted.
Now Republicans will seize their solid fifth vote on the court without pause or compunction. But how long do they think they can sustain this? What happens when Roe is overturned?
The backlash is coming. It is the deserved consequence of minority-rule government protecting the rich over everybody else, corporations over workers, and whites over nonwhites, and despots over democracies. It will explode, God willing, at the ballot box and not in the streets.
You can only ignore the will of the people for so long and get away with it.
That, however, may be nostalgia too, for how things used to work, if they ever worked that way. The will of the people has always been ambiguous. Which people? Where? When?
Still, something is wrong here, and Lili Loofbourow wallows in it:
Because countries are not people, it’s tricky to translate whatever “loving one’s country” means – it’s quite abstract – into the language of heartbreak. It sounds melodramatic. What can heartbreak mean as a civic matter? And yet it is what I feel.
A corrupt but weak president – this has been my comfort, his weakness – has been given a gift that will make him strong. After upholding the travel ban, weakening labor unions, and allowing crisis pregnancy centers to misrepresent themselves to women seeking help, Justice Anthony Kennedy announced he was retiring before the midterm elections. That decision empowers a reality-television star who lost the popular vote by millions to reform the Supreme Court for at least a generation – a court that rather than rebut his claim to power has affirmed it. In his own branch, he asked James Comey for a loyalty oath and lamented not getting one from Jeff Sessions, whom he has repeatedly condemned for recusing himself in the Russia investigation, saying he never would have hired him as attorney general had he known. There is every reason to think he will do the same for a Supreme Court nominee. When Neil Gorsuch – who took the seat Mitch McConnell withheld from Merrick Garland – seemed to distance himself from the man who offered him the robes, Donald Trump reportedly considered pulling the nomination. Trump has said he will pardon himself if he needs to, a controversial stance that would likely need approval from the high court. Now he has been given a way to assure it. He holds the power over the person who can rubber-stamp him into invulnerability.
The capitulation of two branches of government to a terrifying third, elected by a minority, is not how our government was envisioned.
In fact, this is how our government ends:
Trump, a man who has repeatedly said that he only responds to consequences, has faced none. His lies meet with no institutional resistance. Quite the contrary. His decision to say outrageous, incorrect, inflammatory things has paid off handsomely: His supporters believe them, and those in power will not acknowledge that he has said anything at all. The combined effect has rendered him immune to every standard we, as a country, once shared.
This is frightening enough to make denial attractive.
But it is important now to deny nothing, and to instead reiterate that he did say these things, even if the court has plugged its ears. It falls to us to state what the Supreme Court of the United States would not: His intent was to discriminate on the basis of religion – he campaigned on a “Muslim ban.” That is not equivocal. It is clear. There’s even a tweet from a before-times Mike Pence saying, “Calls to ban Muslims from the U.S. are offensive and unconstitutional.” It is necessary to point out what’s true, because (and this is the painful lesson of this week) our institutions won’t. Trump’s call for a “Muslim ban” happened – it’s not our imagination! That the court ignored this neatly proves that the organs of democracy intended to prevent presidential abuse are the ones in denial, and show no sign of waking up.
This is the sadness I’m feeling. It is deep because it is clear. There is no longer doubt.
But it’s more than that:
I am sad, above all, because the damage being done now no longer feels like it can be stemmed – let alone reversed – with a single election. This will last decades. The downturns my generation has already weathered – the 2008 crisis that hinged on obscure derivatives traded by a privileged few, robbing wealth from millions – were only the beginning. Education is now a luxury. Pensions barely exist. Health care is under threat. Retirement is, to those my age, a cruel joke. We’ve been waiting. For recovery, for relief, for some semblance of an American dream we can access.
It is clear, now, that there was nothing to wait for. In the time we’ve been waiting, the rich have only gotten richer and angrier and whiter, but it will never be enough for them. The good-faith ideological battle some thought right and left were waging turned out to be no such thing: Modern conservatism was never about small government or personal liberty – for women and people of color, anyway. It wasn’t about fiscal responsibility: The GOP passed a tax plan that has blown up our national debt, which is projected to reach 78 percent of America’s GDP by the end of this year, the highest it’s been since 1950. And Republicans are still not happy. They will pretend that this crisis they created will require “sacrifices,” gutting services poor Americans desperately need, like health care. The poor and disadvantaged will die.
Loofbourow sees only this:
The country I believed in, which aspired to true equality of opportunity, and welcomed immigrants, and strove to make the American dream available to everyone, failed often. The ideal was never the reality, but at least there was an agreed-upon goal, one worth working toward in common. Even that is gone. The most vital trust that our government, as a whole, will protect the interests of the people has been violated.
So, yes: Today, I am sad. But there is power in calling things what they are.
There used to be an agreed-upon goal, one worth working toward in common. Those were vital times, when it was good to be alive. And then everything turned to ashes. But were those times the conservative but rather nasty fifties, or were they the wild and open sixties, with that odd mixture of heroic idealism and absurd nonsense? Americans do live in the past, two pasts, and they’ll fight about that forever. Nostalgia wars never end.