There is but one true thing to be said of a country whose highest court, from which there is no recourse and almost fully staffed by a fanatical majority appointed by two presidents who lost the popular vote, sweeps aside the hard-fought rights of half its residents in a day. There is one thing to be said of a country whose Congress permits the ongoing existence of the filibuster, a tool originally concocted to protect slave-owners that is now deployed daily to empower and continue the tyranny of the minority. There is one thing to say of a country whose Democratic Party leadership has become so ossified and bereft of ideas that all they can think to do after half that country lost their rights is to fundraise off the outrage.
The one true thing? That country is a living nightmare.
The defining image from Friday’s appalling Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, the epitaph for that vital law, will forever be House Speaker Nancy Pelosi standing before reporters, her body contracted into an elaborate shrug as she said, “What is going on here?” Nothing better captures the state of Democratic Party leadership. The Party professed for 50 years to be the defenders of Roe, but in that 50 years did nothing of substance to keep this grim moment at arm’s length. Now, we are here.
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“It didn’t take a weatherman to know Roe was in trouble,” I wrote back in May after the Alito draft dropped, “and yet the Democrats spent all these years staring at it like a deer pinned by oncoming headlights, relentlessly confident that five far right political hack Supreme Court justices wouldn’t finally do what the Republican Party has been vowing to do since the year after I was born.”
There is a revolting irony in this. Speaker Nancy Pelosi, along with President Joe Biden, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, former Secretary Hillary Clinton, former President Barack Obama and others — most certainly Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia — represent the institutionalist wing of the Democratic Party. In their passive, crouching, one-step-forward-nine-steps-back way, the institutionalists have spent every day since the rise of Ronald Reagan running scared, clinging to the scraps of “bipartisanship” even as the wolves gnaw their ankles. All they know how to do now is fundraise, and it must be said, they are quite good at it.
Thanks to the presidential campaigns of Bernie Sanders, however, a progressive faction within Congress has grown muscular. The Congressional Progressive Caucus enjoys nearly 100 members, and no legislation leaves the House without their support. Yet their most sought-for goals — real gun control, real effort at pushing back on the climate crisis, and now a real defense of Roe — have been thwarted by the filibuster championed by Joe Manchin with the blessing of the Democratic leadership.
Efforts to codify the rights protected by Roe with legislation are currently doomed because of the filibuster. “The filibuster is the only protection we have in democracy,” Manchin said, again, in defense of keeping that blood-soaked parliamentary bludgeon intact after Friday’s despicable ruling. Manchin will not budge, and the leadership has chosen not to try and move him, because they see the filibuster as part of the institution. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell — another institutionalist — agrees heartily … until the day comes when the filibuster inconveniences him, at which point he will sweep it aside with the wave of his hand if he can.
Through all this, the congressional progressives are demonized as being too grasping, too eager, for seeking too much too quickly, even as the bullets fly and the waters rise. Herein lives the irony: The institutionalists who are bereft of policy ideas beyond fundraising disdain the progressives, while those same progressives fight for the policies that first created and later sustained the institution to begin with.
Leading progressive Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has called for a massive congressional push to defend what is left of freedom in this country. Her plan includes expanding the Supreme Court, establishing women’s health care clinics on federal land where they would be free from state obstruction, and holding floor votes to support several existing cases the high court may soon choose to overthrow the way they did Roe.
“And if you are a lawmaker who, in the time between the leak & ruling, spent more manpower on a fundraising plan than a policy response, then I highly recommend rethinking your priorities,” she tweeted. “Our job right now is to protect people. Doing so will drive the vote more than browbeating.”
Rep. Ocasio-Cortez must be heeded, because this is far from over. Justice Clarence Thomas, one of the most radical judges ever to sit on that court, appears to have emerged from decades of near-silence to become the avatar for this new majority and its priorities. Thomas has already stated that he wants the court to review Griswold, the case protecting access to contraception which sits at the heart of the right to privacy. Thomas has also noted his desire to strip the media of its libel protections, and court observers expect the court to attack LGBTQ marriage rights with an assault on Obergefell.
Many voices will be raised to demand that people storm the voting booths in five months, and I do not gainsay them. The next two elections feel an awful lot like the endgame. If this heedless sprint toward minority radical Republican rule continues past the midterms and into the next presidential election, we risk becoming in full what Hunter S. Thompson said we were 50 years ago: “just a nation of two hundred million used car salesmen with all the money we need to buy guns and no qualms about killing anybody else in the world who tries to make us uncomfortable.”
However the 2022 elections turn out, the current leadership of the Democratic Party must be replaced from root to branch. This is not negotiable, because nothing will happen without it. The same goes for the filibuster, which deserves no better fate than to curl and burn on the ash heap of history.
Before — and probably after — those ballot actions, the time has come for the majority in this country to recognize the inflection point we have arrived at, lest we find ourselves utterly undone by our preference for pleasing arguments over mass action beyond the ballot. I am reminded of the words of Mario Savio, the poet laureate of the Berkeley Free Speech movement:
There is a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part. You can’t even passively take part! And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop! And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it — that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all!”
The country is a living nightmare. What will you do?