“Let us be enraged about injustice, but let us not be destroyed by it.” – Bayard Rustin
This Anthony Kennedy news.
Last week’s departure of America’s most important swing vote—perhaps the last foxhole against Trump’s most virulent attacks—read like a funeral dirge for liberal and moderate Americans.
It was affirmation that several decades of intractable progressive victories have never been more tentative, that liberals will pay mightily for their lead-footed, 2016 presidential campaign, that a cavalcade of disheartening decisions last week at the U.S. Supreme Court may signal the new status quo, and most importantly, that a man who’s unfit for the highest office in the country may ultimately pick the U.S. Supreme Court justice who shapes a generation on the high court.
Liberalism certainly did not begin with a conservative justice like Kennedy, and it won’t end with him either. But progressives are appropriately nauseated.
“Enough moping, this is a mope-free zone,” former President Obama exhorted progressives last week, somewhat artlessly, from a Beverly Hills mansion hosting a Democratic National Convention fundraiser.
Progressives, he argued, should use their anger in a meaningful way, to effect change at the local, state and federal levels, to reverse Democrats’ feckless electoral ways and temper an unsparing GOP machine that’s wielded power like a machete, particularly in moderate to conservative states like North Carolina.
The ex-president, who’d been preceded to the stage by the pop singer Christina Aguilera, reminded liberals that the movement doesn’t always have to be this glamorous.
“Sometimes you are just in a church basement making phone calls and eating cold pizza,” he concluded.
Now, Obama’s a master motivator—his sweeping victories in 2008 and 2012 proved him as much a conquering liberal hero as any—but it’s right to ask whether the left is listening this time. Is there any room for hope and change in the 2018 progressive, trapped once more in a state of frustrated, white-knuckled, hard-headed rage?
These days, you’re more likely to get a tomato in the face than a high five should you mention that elusive “arc of justice” one more time. And the communities who suffer the most under Republican rule—women, people of color, the LGBTQ community, our nation’s poor—are weary of turning the other cheek to find another indecency awaiting.
New Yorker and CNN legal pundit Jeffrey Toobin offered the chilling prediction last week that Roe v. Wade, the nation’s seminal case for abortion rights, is all but doomed with the addition of another likely conservative justice tapped by Trump. Toobin went so far as to write that, in 20 states, abortion will be illegal in 18 months.
Of course, all of this assumes that a legacy-minded institutionalist like Chief Justice John Roberts would help to overturn more than four decades of Roe v. Wade law—no sure thing but this stunning prospect is certainly more likely today than it was last week.
Roe v. Wade, after all, is the reason why droves of anti-choice evangelicals held their noses for Donald Trump, a man whose moral failings threaten to collapse in on themselves every day, fashioning some sort of depraved black hole.
Evangelicals seemed to know the stakes in 2016, even if moderate and left-thinking Americans—the majority of whom support abortion rights—are just now realizing the fight before them.
And while Trump, and his legally-besieged team, may not endure more than a few years in the presidency, his high court choices will, imperiling not only abortion rights but LGBTQ rights, bolstering hard-line immigration policies, further eroding voting protections, and strengthening an American criminal justice system that, time and again, has failed people of color.
Indeed, Trump’s legacy may ultimately be the destruction of the Supreme Court’s amorphous center, one that seemed to wax and wane with Kennedy’s fleeting bouts with fundamentalist conservatives.
It was Kennedy, a Reagan appointee, who delivered conservatives’ most stinging defeats, particularly when it comes to gay rights, a cause for which he seemed willing to eschew his trademark dispassion. Kennedy’s 2015 tribute to gay marriage in Obergefell v. Hodges may ultimately be one of the most quoted decisions of this generation, concluding with an aesthetically pleasing passage that’s as much an open palm as a clenched fist.
“No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.”
Liberals today can relate to the clenched fist, if not the open palm, after the GOP’s unprecedented grift of a Supreme Court seat two years ago, one that seems likely to tilt the high court right even as the country leans left.
And while this wouldn’t be the first time that the Supreme Court travels at a pedantic stroll while the nation races, or the other way around, Kennedy’s retirement was especially shattering to those who rightfully fear an unfettered Trump with no high court bulwark.
In that way, perhaps President Obama, when he addressed Democratic boosters last week, could sense the innate pessimism that’s replaced the unflinching optimism of his 2008 campaign. And perhaps more importantly, Obama spied how rudderless Democrats have become, searching for a standard-bearer who represents an increasingly diverse base.
If so, the former president’s on the money. The party’s uninspired choices in recent years were ripe for catastrophe. The country is ready for diverse new political leaders, the kind that, like 2008-era Obama, remind Americans of their similarities.
And if there’s any silver lining here—believe me, it’s damned hard to find—it’s that these failures may create leaders and movements and ideas that we never saw coming, those forged under intense pressure. In doing so, they may jettison leaders and movements and ideas that have had their day.
Case in point: Hundreds of thousands of protesters followed a handful of traumatized Florida teenagers this March in demanding gun reforms that the vast majority of Americans support.
Gun reform is not the only topic that unites the country. There’s reason to believe Americans are more tolerant, open-minded, and loving today than a decade ago, no matter the isolationism, bluster and boisterous calamity that enshrouds our noisy political climate and the Trump White House.
A recent poll found more than 60 percent of Americans support gay marriage, and it’s the majority opinion in all but six states, a radical shift that seemed unthinkable in the George W. Bush era.
And while a progressive may not feel today like they’re winning, they should ultimately feel like progressivism will endure this storm, even if liberals’ aging old guard may not.
It’s not overly optimistic to say that liberal ideas resonate with most Americans. That means the most basic of liberal ideas:
Everyone deserves to be heard and treated with dignity. Facts may be tortured or ignored, but they may never be forgotten. The law should be meted out fairly to all. Fair and equal pay should matter to both the rich and the poor, to men and to women. A diverse multiracial, multicultural society is a stronger one. Voting is an inalienable right that may not be tampered with for partisan gain. Our children deserve our level best to set them up for success. And women’s issues are issues for all North Carolinians and Americans.
The challenge for new progressive leaders is making these squishy liberal declarations more than trite bumper stickers. Make these things central planks of our policymaking, not disposable, focus group aphorisms designed to whip up a crowd. And give progressives, moderates and disenchanted conservatives, of which there are many, a reason to get off the sidelines.
Do that, and no one will have time for any moping.