Culture

Opinion | The Supreme Court may be setting the stage for the mother of all culture clashes

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Talk to progressive activists involved in just about any cause — abortion rights, racial equality, the environment, gun safety — and you will likely hear a sense of foreboding bordering on panic.

It is not merely the prospect of big Democratic losses in the midterms, although it certainly is a contributing factor; the focus is the increasingly Supreme Court, which has a six-seat phalanx ready to dismantle post-1960 America. It has the potential activist to set off conflict that will make the social turmoil of the last decade look tame.

For many right-wingers, the 1960s was when everything went downhill. Since then, the Supreme Court has issued rulings that they have opposed, such as its guarantee of a right to an attorney, its decision to allow race as one of many factors to correct historical inequities in higher education, and its crystallization of the right of privacy in everything from birth control to gay marriage.

At the same time, the country experienced social upheaval, including an expansion of women’s rights, a dramatic decline in religiosity and greater immigration from countries south of our border, all of which moved the United States away from the White, evangelical Christian society that the right prefers. That has fueled the right-wing freakout for decades, culminating in the MAGA movement. Today, tens of millions of people think White people are discriminated against, immigration is ruining the United States, prayer should be back in schools and the Bible should dictate the law on sexual mores and women’s autonomy.

As Ronald Brownstein recently wrote for CNN: “Most advocates for liberal causes are bracing for the GOP-appointed majority to enable the broad drive underway in red states to retrench an array of previously guaranteed civil rights and liberties (such as voting, abortion and LGBTQ) rights) while simultaneously constricting the federal government’s ability to act through regulation or executive orders.” Throw in gun rights, racial equity and immigration, and it’s easy to see how an unelected Supreme Court might rip up whole tracts of public policy.

Those desperate White, Christian Americans who fear that the America they knew is slipping from their grasp are right in the sense that demography is reducing the White vote and the country is becoming more secular. In the public square, they have lost the cultural debate on everything from racial equality to gay rights. (See the huge percentage of voters who know race is still an issue and don’t want to censor educators for fear of offending White people.)

But right-wingers do not intend to let democracy to stand in the way of their political and social dominance. They have used every device at their disposal to impose their minority rule on others, including the electoral college, the filibuster, lifetime Supreme Court appointees handpicked by presidents elected without a popular-vote majority, and the Senate itself. They openly flirt with violence and unabashedly embrace an amoral style of politics in which truth is an inconvenience and anything goes to hold power.

The right wing, it seems, thinks its moment has come. GOP legislatures have thrown up barriers to voting and are attempting to criminalize abortion, all with the expectation that the six right-wing justices will determine it to be legal. Republicans have been preparing the judicial ground for this anti-democratic offensive for decades. They have popularized “originalism” and other legal contortions to invariably come down on their side on every issue — from impairing union organizing to thwarting the right to vote. (If they were truly partisan -driven, one would think they would occasionally come down in ways that anger their right-wing patrons.)

So expect the current Supreme Court term to be tumultuous. The court is expected to tear out precedent by the fistful, striking down abortion rights, gating affirmative action and evaporating gun regulations. Some sage pundits think this will be no big deal; blue states will adapt to satisfy progressives and red states will do the same to mollify the MAGA crowd. Aside from the constitutional and moral abomination that geography should determine fundamental rights, this take misses a key point.

Millions of college-educated women, “none of the above” secularists, high-tech industries, non-Whites and even younger White evangelicals don’t buy into the “back to the future” vision of America to which right-wingers ascribe. They live in every state. Many of them have spent their entire adult lives, in many cases, in a country with gay marriage, integrated universities, wide acceptance of climate change and a much more diverse population.

Democrats might have an enthusiasm problem heading into November’s midterms, but they might consider that a whole lot of Americans — even many in red states — do not want to go back 60 years. They have no interest in a reactionary White movement run by Ivy League senators affecting a rural twang and inveighing get against elites.

Democrats must use this to contrast their party with Republicans: Forward vs. backward. Progress vs. chaos. Respect vs. bullying. Freedom vs. theocracy. Such a message would transcend race, especially among Americans with the most to lose. “Which America do people want to live in?” may be the defining question for the upcoming election and many to follow.

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