The Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade on Friday, exacerbating a national firestorm and deepening what I think it’s fair to call an existential societal rift.
Thanks to an unprecedented leak, the Court’s decision to do away with the right to abortion came as no surprise, but it nevertheless came as a shock. Last month, it wasn’t official, even if it was a foregone conclusion. Now, it’s real.
I’ll leave it to lawyers, legal scholars and SCOTUS reporters to deliver the kind of exhaustive coverage I couldn’t possibly hope to replicate, but what I do want to mention, however briefly, is the extent to which the Roe decision, and the dubious circumstances under which it was delivered, served to further undermine faith in America’s institutions at a time when public trust in government was already severely lacking.
In this discussion, it’s easy to lose perspective in the pursuit of it. The further one goes back in recent American history, the more examples there are of disastrous policy missteps and egregious breaches of the public trust by officials, elected, appointed and otherwise. Relatedly, framing the discussion by reference to neoliberalism (or any other –ism for that matter) or contextualizing it via the unintended consequences of globalization, risks blundering into the obtuse.
With that in mind, let’s not confuse the slow, cyclical decline of American empire and all its associated secular trends, -isms and structural explanations, with the fast-motion train wreck that began a half-dozen years ago.
In just six years, the threads that bound the polity together went from frayed to totally unraveled. Every last vestige of civic mindedness and community was overwhelmed and supplanted by identity politics, as an acrid, suffocating cloud of vitriol swept across the country, permeating every facet of daily life thanks to social media and a 24-hour propagandized news cycle. Facts became a relic. Efforts to reestablish the boundaries between reality and fiction failed.
From the consequential to the trivial, every issue is contextualized by the story of one man’s four-year foray into politics. Because that foray was itself couched almost exclusively in caustic identity politics, so too is the national discussion, where “discussion” is a polite euphemism for a decidedly impolite, wholly discordant, symphony of meme-fueled derision.
It’s against this backdrop that the House of Representatives includes lawmakers who openly espouse the wildest of conspiracy theories and traffic inarticulately in the basest of tactics as part of a cynical attempt to pander to the most vulnerable voters, for whom demagoguery is pure, unadulterated poison. In the Senate, perpetuating gridlock is a badge of honor, especially when it’s done at the behest of special interests. Senators have two overriding concerns: Staying in the Senate and preventing the opposing party from passing legislation. In both chambers can be found lawmakers who vocally supported an unprecedented plot to override the democratic process.
Meanwhile, the Supreme Court is now engaged in an overt effort to foist upon the public a vision of society and an interpretation of the country’s founding document that the majority of citizens simply don’t want. It’s not necessary to take sides. The year is 2022, not 1922 and certainly not 1822. Forgetting the individual cases, it’s not obvious that a modern society is one in which a small panel of robed judges, two of whom could easily be mistaken for clerics by someone who knew nothing about the Court other than the individual justices’s personal beliefs, has the final word on anything. Even less obvious is the idea that a modern society is one in which a small panel of robed judges rules from on high by reference to a 200-year-old, semi-religious document written in part by slaveowners who, in another document, unironically asserted the “self-evident” truth that all men are created equal. For many, the setup belongs in antiquity and to the extent the Court’s mystique was the only thing left of its legitimacy, the leak of the Roe decision stripped that away too. It certainly doesn’t help that one justice’s spouse was in contact with parties to an armed insurrection which, had it succeeded, would’ve been tantamount to ripping up the very document to which the Court’s originalists assert cleric-like allegiance.
At the Fed, the technocrats responsible for preserving the purchasing power of the nation’s currency are in damage control mode after presiding over a multi-trillion dollar expansion of what, to an impartial observer, would appear as an absurd circular funding scheme, wherein the central bank buys bonds issued by the Treasury through a network of intermediaries. Regular people didn’t trouble themselves with the mechanics until it became apparent that conjuring new money to buy bonds from ourselves might’ve contributed to the highest domestic inflation in modern history. That state of affairs, voters were assured, would prove “transitory.” But as it turns out, “transitory” means something different to the technocrats than it does to… well, to everyone else in the world, for lack of a more diplomatic way to put it. According to the dictionary, “transitory” usually means “of brief duration,” or “tending to pass away.” Instead of passing away, inflation stuck around and in fact kept rising, calling into question not just the Fed’s commitment to controlling it, but in fact their capacity to do so.
Finally, at the White House, an administration that’s self-evidently more competent than the objectively dysfunctional, avowedly unpredictable and unapologetically abrasive regime that preceded it, has somehow managed to squander hundreds of years of collective experience in government and policymaking on the way to what (and readers will forgive my candor) has so far been an innocently ineffectual, hapless first term. For most voters, the distinction between innocently ineffectual and purposefully ineffectual is irrelevant.
The bottom line: Every critical pillar of the US government, from the legislature to the high court to the executive to the people in charge of the money, is grappling with an existential credibility crisis. That state of affairs risks becoming self-fulfilling. A disaffected, divided public will be inclined to view every incremental misstep as additional evidence of ineptitude. And because the country is no longer capable of conceptualizing of itself as a body politic, united in a common purpose, blame for that perceived ineptitude will be apportioned according to the very same identity politics that left the public so riven in the first place.
Personally, I can’t take it seriously anymore. As I told a friend on Friday, after the Roe decision was handed down, this has descended into something like total farce. It’s not just the old cliché about the system being “broken.” And it’s not about the slow decline of empire. It’s about a real-time, ongoing dissolution of society amid a spiraling and, quite possibly, irreversible, crisis of confidence in the institutions that ordered it over what, in the historical context, was a very short lifespan as empires go.