What Obama got wrong about the 'arc of the moral universe'
Disappointment. That’s what it is, the emotion casting a pall over my mind as I think about the United States Supreme Court and its readiness to strike down Roe, or gut it. Disappointment, of course, is tied to expectation. That expectation, in turn, is tied to my sense of political time. It moves forward. It progresses. It doesn’t turn back.
The idea of progress, of political time moving forward independent of human agency, has a complex history. But David Rothkofp captured it neatly over the weekend in a piece about “gut punches” to democracy.
“This is not to say that America has ever been as advertised,” he said:
But there was a sense that progress could be made. Deep divisions led to a Civil War but at least in the end slavery was ended. Progress was made for women and people of color and while that progress was agonizingly, appallingly slow, there was the Voting Rights Act, the steps forward won by the movements for civil rights and equal rights for women. Our system was fraught with problems, but you had a sense that many were being addressed, at least to some degree.
If David and I are honest with ourselves, however, these “gut punches,” or disappointments, are rooted less in philosophy than in propaganda. It felt good to believe Barack Obama’s victory was part of the arc of the moral universe bending toward liberty and justice for all. It felt good to believe “demographics is destiny,” as if America were getting more liberal. Ditto for Obergefell, which protected marriage equality. Ditto for all the big cases, like Roe v. Wade, going all the way back to Brown v. the Board of Education. It felt good to feel good. Naturally, partisans like Barack Obama used that feel-good rhetoric to their advantage.
Propaganda has a place in a democratic republic, but we should be careful. Well, I should be. I don’t think I realized how much Obama’s dulcet tones influenced my thinking until the Supreme Court heard a case over a state law restricting abortion to 15 weeks. Until last week, I had not thought about the unthinkable. Now I find myself thinking it. And I find myself doing something else, too. Adjusting my expectations.
In fairness to the former president, his propaganda was grounded in history and fact. Beginning prior to World War II, but accelerating afterward, the Republican-led Supreme Court expanded rights and liberties by interpreting law through the lens of constitutional equality. One by one, the high court “incorporated” the Bill of Rights so that states could no longer maintain two-tiered systems of law and justice.
Over time, successive rulings protecting individuals from the tyranny of state majorities became so frequent as to constitute what many of us saw as normal. Those expectations have, moreover, underscored Democratic propaganda since at least the Kennedy administration. As David Rothkopf said: “Our system was fraught with problems, but you had a sense that many were being addressed, at least to some degree.”
If Roe goes down, however, those decades of “progress” will, in a very real sense, begin a long process of reversal such that it’s now possible to imagine states outlawing such things as condoms, pornography or “sodomy,” private matters most thought would never be outlawed again. But it won’t end with private matters. Without federal protections, states will be free to regulate speech, religion, commerce and more. Post-Roe, the United States will become a post-democracy.
If you thought we were a divided country before Amy Coney Barrett was the third of three justices appointed by Donald Trump, you haven’t seen anything yet. Federal power is or can be divisive, but it nonetheless bound the states together as the law theoretically, and sometimes practically, treated all American citizens equally. Without that, it’s not hard to envision a union becoming even more unstable.
“There won’t be a civil war like there was in the 1860s,” Rothkopf wrote. “But people of color will increasingly be denied representation that reflects their views thanks to gerrymandering, our inability to pass voting rights reform, and Republican efforts to change election laws and procedures to give themselves an advantage.” He added: “The mid-section of the US will become a collection of anti-science, anti-history, anti-woman, anti-Black, anti-immigrant, anti-federal government theocracies, minority-ruled faux-democracies.”
No one likes disappointment. So let’s adjust our expectations. Instead of being a break from the past, the future is on track to returning to it. We ought therefore to think of the mid-20th century, during which rights and liberties were expanded, not as a norm that will inform our expectations of the future but instead as an exception to the rule of American history. The Republicans are not on “the wrong side of history,” as Obama just loved to say. They are in concert with it. Progress isn’t a consequence of history. It’s a consequence of politics.
Let’s act accordingly.