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

AAmerican politics is about to take a summer break. The Supreme Court’s next term will not begin until October. Congress will be suspended in August. And the January 6 hearings will be suspended until September. Things will calm down for a while. Or so it will seem on the surface, at least.

This supposed respite follows what historians might call the long summer of 2022. It began in early May, when Judge Samuel Alito’s majority opinion draft in Dobbs v. Women’s Health Organization leaked – the decision that in June was overturned Roe v. Wade and abolished the right to abortion. It was not the beginning, but in itself a manifestation and apotheosis of a reactionary assault on the post-1960s civil rights era that originated in Republican-run states and was systematically and actively activated. advanced by the Supreme Court. Dobbs’ leak, which dominated political discourse for weeks, clearly signaled an escalation in right-wing attempts to roll back decades.

In early June, the House Select Committee on the January 6 bombing tried to grab the nation’s attention with the first of a series of televised hearings that, for better or worse, have been the center of the institutional defense of democracy. It all came to a head in the last days of June, when the central political conflict crystallized in the space of just over a week. On Thursday, June 23, the fifth commission hearing on January 6 focused on Donald Trump’s outrageous attempts to bribe the Justice Department. It’s usually not a good sign that such a bombshell revelation about how the former president tried to overturn a Democratic election could only dominate the news cycle for about 12 hours.

The next day, the Supreme Court made public its decision to abolish the right to abortion. It occurred against the backdrop of a remarkably aggressive attack not only on democracy and civil rights, but also on the ability of the state to meet the challenges of a modern, pluralistic society. In one week, the court has undermined the separation of church and state, weakened the ability of liberal states to regulate guns, made it clear that it will tolerate even the most brazen racial gerrymandering, and undermine the attempts by the administrative state to tackle environmental problems.

In the midst of all these decisions which leave no doubt about the intention of the judicial majority to help the conservatives impose their will on the whole country, Cassidy Hutchinson, former assistant to the chief of staff of the White House Mark Meadows, has testified at the commission’s sixth hearing on June 28. 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 live in a state of urgency, whiplash and constant exhaustion.

Yet even in those turbulent days of late June, and certainly throughout the long summer of 2022, the experience of most Americans, even those who have followed the debates in Washington closely, has been shaped not only by the upheavals politics, but by the normal challenges of everyday life. Shops stayed open, people had to go to work, they suffered or partied with their favorite sports teams.

It would be unfair to denounce them as mere illusions of normality. In many ways, things are truly “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. You have to function, you compartmentalize, you experience a strange mix of normality and urgency that can sometimes seem almost disorienting. Franz Kafka noted in his diary on Sunday August 2, 1914: “Germany has declared war on Russia. Swimming lessons in the afternoon. Kafka had just witnessed the start of what quickly degenerated into the First World War. His remark captures the tension between the global and the personal, the extraordinary and the routine, the historical and the everyday, the outrageous and the mundane.

There is always a temptation to resolve this tension by ignoring the urgency and focusing on the ordinary of it all – because things can be bad, the sky never falls. This, however, is a privilege not afforded to women caring for the cruel consequences of the denial of their bodily autonomy or of the traditionally marginalized and vulnerable groups who are the targets of the reactionary offensive. Such a focus on markers of normalcy is misleading and politically dangerous. It is difficult for contemporaries to discern the exact nature and extent of the crisis they are going through. We can’t necessarily see democratic backsliding just by looking out the window — certainly not until it’s too late — but that doesn’t mean there isn’t an ongoing crisis underneath.

“Crisis”, of course, might be the term most used in public discourse. And in its colloquial sense, in which it loosely refers to any kind of difficult situation, it certainly doesn’t have much analytical or explanatory value. But taken seriously, the notion of “crisis” delimits a highly unstable situation in which established strategies, tactics and behaviors no longer work, a constellation in which the accepted modes of making sense of the world around us turn out to be 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 deep crisis. The Supreme Court, one of the essential institutions of constitutional government, is not only complicit in the all-out assault on democracy, civil rights and the ability of the state to adequately address pressing issues of public policy, it is its spearhead. In this situation, simply clinging to the established idea that the public confidence in institutions must not be compromised will not suffice.

And it is true that, in a vacuum, it is very problematic for the authorities to prosecute the main political opponent of a sitting president. But we are not in a vacuum. We are in a situation where the former president was the central figure in a multi-layered, months-long scheme that amounted to an actual coup attempt. Failure to hold him accountable would seriously 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 is precisely where we find ourselves.

After Roe’s overthrow, the overwhelming message from all corners of the right was: We’re not done yet – or, as First Things, the religious right’s preeminent intellectual platform, put it: Dobbs was only “the end of the beginning” and a “resounding first step”. Nothing more. There is no appeasement of those behind the reactionary crusade, no deal or truce to be made. The refusal to compromise with the vision of multiracial pluralism, with anyone who deviates from their idea of ​​the natural and/or divine order, is at the heart of their political project.They do not seek a consolation prize, partial victories or an exit ramp. They’ll keep going – until they’re stopped.

The current situation necessarily marks a turning point. This is a real crisis because it will have to be resolved, one way or another. Either America will overcome this reactionary counter-mobilization and make the leap to multiracial, pluralistic democracy – or the country will regress and let democracy perish before it is fully realized on this earth.

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

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