Talk Me Down Here: Can This Country Be Saved?

Talk Me Down Here: Can This Country Be Saved?

Talk Me Down Here: Can This Country Be Saved?

A backward, oligarchal, misogynist minority is trampling the rights and will of the majority—and it’s only getting worse.

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May was an awful month. From the leak of the draft Supreme Court ruling striking down abortion rights in the United States on May 3, to the massacre of 10 Black people in Buffalo, N.Y., by a white supremacist May 14, to the slaughter of 19 children and two teachers in Uvalde, Tex., just last week, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that we are, increasingly, two nations, where the minority is trampling the rights of the majority, and is literally willing to kill some of us to establish its rule.

Most Americans want to keep abortion legal, with some restrictions, and support sensible gun safety reform. But we will get neither. Our entire system of government, from the Electoral College to the Senate, from the filibuster rules to the Republican-packed Supreme Court, privileges the views of the minority over the majority.

The triple punch of Roe, Buffalo, and Uvalde made me think apocalyptically about whether we ultimately wind up two countries. Maybe we already are. The oligarchical, misogynistic right wing wants a world where abortions don’t happen and guns are everywhere, which means more Americans—and without abortion rights, many more women—will die. Contrary to Barack Obama’s famous formulation at the 2004 Democratic convention, there is a Red America and a Blue America, and the leaders of Red America, and most of the Republican Party, hate the country we’ve become.

Ironically, it was in 2004, after George W. Bush narrowly defeated John Kerry—in the popular vote this time, not merely thanks to the Supreme Court and the Electoral College—that I first remember looking at the map of Bush v. Kerry and seeing how much Bush’s win relied on the former Confederacy (as well as, to be fair, every state between the Mississippi River and the West Coast). I remember a friend talking about how the blue states should secede this time—we subsidize those backward red states with our tax dollars, remember—and I dismissed the idea immediately.

How would we do it? We are certainly not a contiguous Blue America—vast swaths of Red America divide New England and the mid-Atlantic states from their Blue allies on the West Coast. Now we have Colorado and New Mexico, and normally Nevada, and potentially Arizona turning blue. I don’t know how we jump over the Carolinas to get to Georgia when Stacey Abrams and Senator Raphael Warnock do the same thing.

Plus, I’ve also always felt it was unfair to leave our allies behind: residents of blue cities outnumbered in red states, Black voters, Asians and Latinos, LGBTQ people. But lately, I find myself at least willing to think about it. Or let’s put it this way: I’m directly confronting, despite my innate optimism, whether we’re already irrevocably split, and the conflict is only going to get more intense, and more violent. We had a bloody insurrection by armed, right-wing maniacs, tens of thousands of whom stormed the Capitol to overthrow an election and reinstate the disgraced Donald Trump, a year and a half ago, and I expect next time—there will almost certainly be a next time—could be worse.

But let’s leave the land of the violent insurrectionists and turn to the judicial and political realm (although there are some anti-democracy insurrectionists there, too). The Supreme Court is prepared to strike down everything Blue America believes in. It has already decimated the 1965 Voting Rights Act. It’s weakened the ability of blue states and cities to impose gun safety reform (and may do away with that capacity completely, very soon). Red states are already sending their guns to blue states. The court has weakened abortion rights, and may soon do away with them, ostensibly sending the issue back to the states. Soon red states will be sending bounty hunters for women who seek abortions in blue states, and maybe even trying to criminalize providers there. Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, who acts like an institutionalist but plots like an anti-democracy insurrectionist, has already promised to consider legislation abolishing abortion nationwide.

I know nothing can or should be compared to American slavery, but the red-state laws that would prevent residents from traveling to blue states for abortion care do make me think of the Fugitive Slave Acts—which forced law enforcement even in anti-slavery states to capture enslaved people who had escaped and send them back to their owners—and the anti-slavery states’ inability to prevent such laws from being enforced. (Also, it must be said, such abortion laws are likely to disproportionately hurt Black women.) Principled but naive abolitionists thought they could create their own anti-slavery sanctuaries state by state in the North, and welcome enslaved people who were fleeing there. But they were wrong. It took the bloody Civil War to abolish slavery in every state. Even then the South fought back with Jim Crow and vicious cruelty to the newly “free” Black people trapped there.

It is true that between the 1940s and the 1960s, through patient organizing, massive protest, enfranchising new voters and mobilizing them, cajoling and threatening Congress, we won change and new rights for many people—women, Black people, the LGBTQ community (the notable exception was union rights). But starting in the 1970s, an angry, threatened right wing began to push us back, to a patriarchal, racist society ruled by the richest but catering to the insecurities and grievances of the common (white) folk.

It’s a world where marriage is between a man and a woman, the man is king, LGBTQ people have no rights, and women few. Where abortion is criminalized and the social safety net shredded—so that the women forced to bear children must lean on men, or live in desperate poverty. Where guns are everywhere (parents and teachers should be armed to protect kids!), schools are private, medical care returns to private charities, and only the right (mainly white) kind of people vote. It’s an atomized world, where we rely on male-headed nuclear families, churches, the occasional self-interested generosity of oligarchs, and maybe local, homogenous mutual-aid societies—if we so choose.

It’s the dystopian opposite of the world most Americans want: a world where women, LGBTQ people, and non-white Americans enjoy full citizenship, the right to privacy, autonomy, and the pursuit of happiness. Here, the Second Amendment is respected, but the right to carry lethal weapons is restricted in myriad sensible ways. Everyone who’s eligible can vote here, and everyone over 18 is eligible. And yes, there are churches, synagogues, mosques, and vibrant community-based organizations, but the most effective mutual aid resides in democratically elected governments, local, state, and federal, that guarantee health, safety, education, and economic security for everyone.

We’ve never lived in that world, of course, but we were moving there, in fits and starts, throughout our history. I don’t see us making even incremental progress right now. Yes, we evicted Trump from the White House, though he left kicking and screaming and fomenting insurrection. Joe Biden has accomplished a lot, but the rest of his agenda is blocked by McConnell and his loyal Republicans, plus two “Democrats,” Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, who might not actually want to live in a Blue America. Awash in corporate dollars, they join in blocking reform to filibuster rules that again privilege the minority over the majority, requiring 60 votes for virtually all Senate business, and right now keeping a Democratic majority from getting anything done.

Can we change that in the midterm elections, or in 2024? I hope so, but I doubt it. The map is skewed against Democrats in 2022; the president’s party nearly always loses seats. Plus, I woke up to this alarming story by the excellent Heidi Przybyla of Politico, revealing Republican plans for a national “army”—there’s that word of war again—of Republican poll workers and election officials designed “to target and potentially overturn votes in Democratic precincts.”

She goes on: “The plan, as outlined by a Republican National Committee staffer in Michigan, includes utilizing rules designed to provide political balance among poll workers to install party-trained volunteers prepared to challenge voters at Democratic-majority polling places, developing a website to connect those workers to local lawyers and establishing a network of party-friendly district attorneys who could intervene to block vote counts at certain precincts.”

Is it all talk? Some of it probably is. But in Michigan, where the effort is most intense, the effort has already recruited 5,600 Republicans who want to be poll workers; the local leader of the effort submitted an initial list of more than 850 names to election officials in Detroit. You hear that dog whistle, right? In 2020, Trump was screaming about nonexistent “election fraud” in the swing states of Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Georgia, all of which he won in 2016, with an obsessive focus on Detroit, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, and Atlanta, cities where Black voters are powerful.

Meanwhile, our side is squabbling about whether Biden should have said he thinks the dastardly McConnell is willing to make a gun safety reform deal in the wake of the Uvalde massacre (he isn’t), if the president should forgive at least $50,000 in student debt (he should), and whether Biden’s failures on those and other fronts mean people shouldn’t vote for him if he runs in 2024 (oh, hell no). Can we just establish voting as a baseline of civic duty here? The other side is recruiting zealots to be election officials to subvert democracy, and we can’t even convince people to vote? We are going to lose this war for sure if that happens.

I get people’s frustration, though. Most of my own, to be honest, is also with Democratic leaders, including Biden, who don’t seem to understand what they’re up against: a fanatical, well-funded, potentially violent plot to impose a dark, anti-democratic vision of America. Maybe they get it—it’s pretty damn obvious, and they lived through the January 6 insurrection—but if so, they don’t seem to be rising to meet the challenge.

There are of course exceptions: Representatives Jamie Raskin, Pramila Jayapal, and Katie Porter (and many more in the House); Senators Sherrod Brown, Raphael Warnock, Elizabeth Warren, and Bernie Sanders (but not enough more) in the Senate. They don’t run much of anything in the Democratic Party, though. If they did, the party would be more aggressive about blaming Republicans for our stalemate, not courting them; challenging corporate America; protecting voting rights; getting to the bottom of what happened on January 6; forgiving student loans; recruiting and backing progressive candidates who can win: The list goes on. Would it work to force progress? I don’t know, but I’d love to find out.

Some of you will say I’m being dramatic here (or worse). And some of you will say I’m late to these gloomy realizations. Say what you will, but pay attention. Our side has the people, but their side has the money, the will to power, an animating hatred of the country we’re trying to become, and also the guns. Of course, our side won’t secede, but their side looks like it’s planning a civil war anyway. It’s getting bad out there, and if we don’t figure out how bad, it will keep getting worse.

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Onwards,

Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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