DEMOCRACY CANNOT SURVIVE WHEN PEOPLE NO LONGER BELIEVE IN IT
On June 23 the expected announcement came that the US Supreme Court had overturned the 1972 ruling in Roe v Wade that permitted abortions nationally. This decision, reducing a basic human right after 50 years, is historic in that it’s never happened before, although previous decisions have extended rights. The announcement had been leaked (much to the consternation of Justice Clarence Thomas and others) a few weeks ago, so it was no surprise and responses were obviously ready to post. The Internet was full of chatter about this. People with longer memories were most alarmed that now abortions will again become illegal in all cases, no matter the motives, in half the states of the USA. That was a tragic era of desperate women going to desperate means with often lethal results. Furthermore, in a concurring opinion statement Justice Thomas advocated reconsideration of a list of other prior decisions regarding contraception, same-sex intercourse, and same-sex marriage. Thomas’s concurring opinion got just as much attention as the decision.
Further comment by informed observers clarified that there was widespread legal agreement that some of the cases on which human sexual rights had been affirmed were not stated precisely as might be necessary to stand up over the coming decades, although Roe v Wade has done so until now. Perhaps, reconsideration does not mean reversing those decisions, maybe. Possibly. In fact, all laws upholding the “Right to Privacy” principle based on the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution could now be challenged according to Thomas.
Think about what a nation would be like when there is no right to privacy in any way. It’s not impossible. China is employing technology to do that right now.
It is equally clear that the US Supreme Court now has the conservative edge needed to continue to pursue the GOP agenda, including eliminating same-sex marriages next. That is a high priority for them. This court, we remember, now contains a replacement member nominated by Trump and pushed by the US Senate led by Mitch McConnell after they had blocked a year-long attempt by Obama to nominate a replacement for Sandra Day O’Connor. In 4 years, Trump got three people onto the Supreme Court while Obama was blocked by conservative Republicans. It was McConnell who spearheaded the GOP blockade of everything that Obama proposed, essentially wiping out all new legislation. And then McConnell was the quarterback for Trump’s 4-year attack on all of Obama’s executive actions.
The effort is still on to install a neo-fascist white-supremacist nationalistic regime.
The politicization of abortion was instigated by Jerry Falwell. At the time he seized upon abortion as a signal and began to expand the definition of when life begins, all religious opinion was unconcerned about establishing an exact date on it after conception, but all religions supported the idea that the mother’s life was paramount if it came to a crisis choice between a fetus and the mother. Using expanded access to mass media, evangelical-conservative Christians picked up killing unborn babies as an emotional issue to draw a line in the sand dividing good people from evil people. Polarization began with this very issue. It now includes a few other issues that defy debate, including the right to own any guns one wants.
New issues come up and some gain traction at least for a while. Current battles are being waged over what rights people have to declare their gender (and where Trans people belong in social spaces), whether the USA is a Christian Nation and what that entails, and movements that advocate clarifying racial realities in US life such as “Black Lives Matter” and “Critical Race Theory.”
Now we come to the crux of the matter. It has come back to the way the government operates.
The representative democracy of the United States of America was founded on the fragile principle that it exists at the will of the people. It is not by divine right that the government derives its authority, not by military might that it has power, and not by personal whim of any leaders (however brilliant or charismatic) that a democracy makes decisions. There are three branches of government with checks on each other. The Executive with the President of the US in the White House oversees the execution of government processes, the Legislative with the US Congress in 2 houses debating and determining laws, and the Judicial with the Supreme Court of the US as the final authority in interpreting laws’ validity. None of the three branches can operate without the cooperation and consent of the other two. Nor can they continue without the will of the people.
Constitutional law and systematic accountability are matters of agreement by the people, without which democracy crumbles.
We have now come again to the treacherous brink. This is a season of peril for our democracy. Never, in the past 150 years have the branches of government been held in so little regard. Every single branch has lost respect. The Supreme Court has become the last to fall.
“The court has lost legitimacy. They have burned whatever legitimacy they may have had. They just took the last of it and set a torch to it with the Roe v. Wade opinion.” [Senator Elizabeth Warren on ABC News “This Week” Sunday, June 26 quoted in www.businessinsider.com later that day.]
Events surrounding the insurrection on January 6, 2021 have begun to make it clear how undermined the Executive branch is in the minds of people across the country and around the world. Decisions by the Executives-in-charge have eroded confidence for decades, but the actions culminating in January 6 have turned-off confidence that democracy is working for a large portion of US citizens, especially those under 50 years of age.
Two gauges measure how a democracy is faring. One is how much regard people have for the system of government. That, arguably, is now below the level where the democracy of the USA can be sustained. The other is how the actions of the government meet the expressed needs and hopes of the people. It is a two-way street. The people must support the government and the government must respond to the people. Then it works.
It is not working.
In issue after issue over the past few decades the government has failed to act in accordance with the expressed wishes of the people. There are so many cases in which this is obvious that it is beyond the scope of this essay to list them. The American people overwhelmingly support action for a sustainable environment, but the government has undertaken hardly any measures to stabilize the climate or develop alternative technologies to replace carbon exploitation. The people expect legislative measures to equalize justice and provide for essential welfare, but the legislature has refused to move against the “military-industrial complex” and international financial structures; and the legislature has even made it hard for people with any social, racial, economic, or medical deviation from some moveable “normal” to survive. Now we have this attack by the judicial hierarchy. Roe v. Wade was supported by 2/3 of the population, but overturned by 5 court justices.
What if the government loses the support of the people, as appears to have happened? What happens then?
When the majority refuse to be actively involved in readjusting processes that are destroying democracy, the minority have free reign. The minority in this case is inclined to consolidate power and take measures to prevent the majority from arising. There is a window for this to happen. The minority in this instance is made up of neo-fascist supremacists with a military mindset in an implied alliance with limited-agenda conservatives deadest on particular objectives (such as ending sexual excesses of some kind such as sodomy or abortion). This alliance operates without acknowledgement.
The majority have an array of disadvantages. The window of opportunity to reassert itself is not going to stay open for long. The majority includes many who are disillusioned and have resigned into the background. Leadership must emerge and inspire renewed hope that effective remedies are achievable without unbearable sacrifices. So, the costs must be specified, and that is hard to do. Civil war might fix things, but the cost is unthinkable. That is one of the reasons that the minority has an armed ultra-wing and the majority does not. That is, it does not unless it can once again attain the people’s allegiance to a political solution. The US Government has one of the largest military powers in history. Thankfully, it is steadfastly neutral in this.
As the month of our astonishment draws to a close, as we shake loose from the illusion that things will work out while we’re trying to stay cool and safe indoors. That’s where we are, on the brink hoping for no more earthquakes.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.