Politics

This summer may be one of the most consequential in US democracy | Thomas Zimmer


American politics is about to take a summer break. The supreme court’s next term won’t start until October. Congress will be in recess in August. And the January 6 hearings will be on hiatus until September. Things will calm down for a little while. Or so it will seem on the surface, at least.

This supposed respite follows what historians might come to call the Long Summer of 2022. It began in early May, when Justice Samuel Alito’s draft majority opinion in Dobbs v Women’s Health Organization leaked – the decision that in June overturned Roe v Wade and abolished the right to abortion. This was not the start, but itself a manifestation and apotheosis of a reactionary assault on the post-1960s civil rights era that originated in Republican-led states and has been consistently enabled and actively advanced by the supreme court. The Dobbs leak, which dominated the political discourse for weeks, clearly indicated an escalation of rightwing attempts to turn the clock back by many decades.

In early June, the House select committee on the January 6 attack tried to capture the nation’s attention with the first in a series of televised hearings that, for better or worse, have formed the center of the institutional defense of democracy. It all came to a head in the final days of June, when the central political conflict crystallized in the span of just a little over a week. On Thursday, 23 June, the January 6 committee’s fifth hearing focused on Donald Trump’s outrageous attempts to corrupt the justice department. It is generally not a good sign that such an explosive revelation about how the former president tried to nullify a democratic election was able to dominate the news cycle for only about 12 hours.

The very next day, the supreme court published its decision to abolish the right to abortion. It came in the context of a remarkably aggressive assault not just on democracy and civil rights, but also on the state’s ability to handle the challenges of a modern, pluralistic society. Within a week, the court undermined the separation of church and state, weakened the ability of liberal states to regulate guns, basically made it clear that it would tolerate even the most brazen racial gerrymandering, and undercut the administrative state’s attempts to tackle environmental problems.

Amid all these decisions that left no doubt about the court majority’s intention to help conservatives impose their will on the entire country, Cassidy Hutchinson, former aide to White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, testified in the committee’s sixth hearing, on 28 June. She painted a clear picture of the former president’s deliberate efforts to summon a violent, armed mob. To care about American democracy, in those last days of June, was to exist in a state of constant emergency, whiplash, and exhaustion.

Yet even in those hectic days of late June, and certainly throughout the Long Summer of 2022, the experience of most Americans, even those who followed the proceedings in Washington closely, were shaped not just by the political upheavals, but by the normal challenges of everyday life. Stores remained open, people had to go to work, they suffered or celebrated with their favorite sports teams.

It would be unfair to denounce these as just illusions of normalcy. In a lot of ways, things really are “normal”, in the sense that most of us continue the routines that dominate our daily lives, even in the midst of a political crisis around us. We have to function, we compartmentalize, we experience a strange mixture of normalcy and emergency that can sometimes feel almost disorienting. Franz Kafka famously noted in his diary on Sunday, 2 August 1914: “Germany has declared war on Russia. Swimming lessons in the afternoon.” Kafka had just witnessed the beginning of what quickly escalated into the first world war. His remark captures the tension between the global and the personal, the extraordinary and the routine, history and everyday life, the outrageous and the mundane.

There is always a temptation to resolve that tension by ignoring the emergency and focusing on the ordinariness of it all – because how bad could things possibly be, the sky isn’t ever falling. This, however, is a privilege not available to the women who are dealing with the cruel consequences of their bodily autonomy being denied or the traditionally marginalized, vulnerable groups who are the targets of the reactionary offensive. Such a focus on the markers of normalcy is deceptive and politically dangerous. It is difficult for contemporaries to discern the exact nature and extent of the crisis through which they are living. We can’t necessarily see the democratic backsliding by simply looking out the window – certainly not until it may be too late – but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a continuing crisis underneath.

“Crisis”, of course, might be the most overused term in the public discourse. And in its colloquial meaning, in which it vaguely refers to any kind of difficult situation, it certainly doesn’t have much analytical or explanatory value. But if taken seriously, the notion of “crisis” delineates a highly unstable situation in which established strategies, tactics and patterns of behavior don’t work any more, a constellation in which accepted modes of making sense of the world around us prove inadequate and unable to generate viable solutions.

The summer of 2022 should have hammered home the fact that all of us who prefer democracy are experiencing such a profound crisis. The supreme court, one of the critical institutions of constitutional government, is not only complicit in the full-on assault on democracy, civil rights and the state’s ability to adequately tackle urgent public policy issues, it is its spearhead. In this situation, simply clinging to the established idea that the public trust in institutions must not be undermined will not be good enough.

And it’s true that, in a vacuum, it is highly problematic for authorities to prosecute the leading political opponent of a sitting president. But we are not in a vacuum. We are in a situation in which the former president was the central figure in a multi-layered, multi-month scheme that amounted to an actual coup attempt. Not holding him accountable would gravely endanger the future of constitutional government.

In medical terms, the word “crisis” refers to the turning point of a disease: the patient will either recover – or die. In this sense, a crisis is the opposite of a stable equilibrium. And that’s precisely where we find ourselves.

After the overturning of Roe, the overwhelming message from all corners of the right has been: We are not done yet – or, as First Things, the pre-eminent intellectual platform of the religious right, put it: Dobbs was just “the end of the beginning” and a “resounding first step”. Nothing more. There’s no appeasing those who are behind the reactionary crusade, no bargain or truce to be had. The refusal to compromise with the vision of multiracial pluralism, with anyone who deviates from their idea of the natural and/or divinely ordained order, is at the heart of their political project. They are not looking for a consolation prize, partial victories, or an exit ramp. They will keep going – until and unless they are stopped.

The current situation necessarily marks a turning point. It is a veritable crisis because it will have to be resolved, one way or the other. America will either overcome this reactionary counter-mobilization and make the leap to multiracial, pluralistic democracy – or the country will regress, and let democracy perish before it’s ever been fully achieved in this land.

  • Thomas Zimmer is a visiting professor at Georgetown University, focused on the history of democracy and its discontents in the United States, and a Guardian US contributing opinion writer





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