I’m not sure when the whole U.S. of A. became the Hotel California, but as somebody who just tried to check out for 10 days, let me assure you that you can never leave — at least not in what gradually became the long, hot summer of 2021. In a hyperconnected 21st century, it’s impossible to turn on your phone to map the nearest sandy beach without the latest push alert from The Apocalypse breaking onto your screen.
I’m not sure what mental image will be harder to delete from the crazy last weeks of this season from hell: the pale green night-vision glow of the last U.S. soldier leaving Kabul after a war that wasted $2.2 trillion and far too many lives, the familiar sickly orange hue of another western wildfire on the edge of South Lake Tahoe, the right-wing talk radio hosts gasping for their last oxygen after preaching the evils of modern science, or the attempted comic relief of a backflip into the 15-foot-deep canal that the Vine Street Expressway became for a couple of days. But then the pictures may not be as harrowing as the sounds of silence, especially when a runaway, renegade Supreme Court uses the tricks of its “shadow docket” to curb the rights of American women in the dead of night.
How did a season that began with the green shoots of hope — that the coronavirus was on the run after more than a year, that a new government in Washington was taking climate change seriously without a moment to lose, that 40 years of cruel trickle-down economics might finally give way to relief for middle-class families — shrivel and die on the vine so quickly?
Or, to put it another way, was the steady stream of unthinkably bad news these last two weeks all just a crazy coincidence of unfortunate events in a time of year that — from the guns of August 1914 to 9/11 some 20 years ago this Saturday — has seen far too many of them? Are they all — as a steady flow of right-wing commentators and Beltway Capitol Grille journalists eager for “objectivity cred” insist — the fault of the 46th president. Or are the cascading symptoms merely the last throes of an American disease that’s been festering for decades?
In a year that started with the horror of thugs fighting their way into the U.S. Capitol and interfering with the counting of the 2020 Electoral College votes, you don’t need a Ph.D. in brain surgery or even poli-sci to believe that it’s Option 3. And the sickness that seems to be causing these outbreaks is minority rule, exercised by an implacable band of billionaires and militarists who know how to leverage a unified if shrinking block of aggrieved voters.
The present crisis started around the 1970s and ‘80s when the capitalist class of oligarchs feeling threatened by liberal education and campus protest (read the Powell Memo) launched a strategy of so-called think tanks, massive donations under the banner of “free speech,” and extreme right-wing media that would become talk radio and then Fox News — anything to cling to power. Their plan worked better than anyone could have dreamed, even though it depended largely on the votes of a white working class that was rapidly shrinking.
One prong of their strategy is an unrelenting, vampire-squid-like search for the soft spots of our system of checks and balances. The ultraconservative project to control the judiciary and especially the Supreme Court reached its fruition last week with the court’s Texas abortion decision in which five right-wing judges — including all three named by Donald Trump — “opted to bury their heads in the sand” (the dissenting words of Justice Sonia Sotomayor) over a beyond-dubious back-door scheme to end a woman’s right to control her body. But even as Hurricane Ida knocked out power to one great American city (New Orleans) and buried two others (Philadelphia and New York) in floodwaters that killed dozens, the kleptocrats’ project for minority control of government also threatened to block most of President Biden’s ambitious climate agenda. Here, a Chamber of Commerce Democrat from coal-crazy West Virginia (Sen. Joe Manchin) is using the cover of the media’s Afghanistan blame game to threaten to join 50 Republicans in killing it.
But the relentless push by the GOP and its oligarchical backers still requires at least some voters to work, and the plate-spinning required to keep the party’s white base in a state of constant political agitation has been careening out of control as of late. The key ingredient — distrust of authority, whipped up by Fox News demagogues — has morphed into distrust of all science, with deadly consequences in the case of COVID-19. The latest bizarre mutation — the embrace of a drug best known as a horse dewormer to treat the coronavirus despite a lack of medical evidence — is driving the United States to pandemic lows not seen anywhere else in the developed world.
All this is happening even though strong majorities of Americans support aggressive action on climate change or vaccine mandates for public spaces, while most also oppose overturning the Supreme Court’s pro-abortion-rights precedent in Roe v. Wade, even as SCOTUS just effectively gutted the law in Texas and presumably elsewhere. And yet the sense conveyed by both right-wing pundits but also an increasingly timid mainstream media is that the raging fires of summer 2021 are not a crisis of a failing democracy (spoiler alert: It is) but a crisis of leadership by Biden. Already, the tempest-tossed base voters of the Republican Party are scouting around for another Jan. 6-type venue. Things here could spiral out of control real fast.
The majority of Americans who want forward progress in the 2020s can’t sit on the sidelines. They can’t assume that Biden and the ultra-slim majorities of Democrats have got this, because right now they don’t. With the same zeal that Trump was resisted in 2017, good citizens should be marching for real voting rights, for legislation to ban gerrymandering, and for climate action — and for their allies who hold office to think ruthlessly about political tactics like Republicans do, to end the filibuster at least for key issues and to work the rules on Capitol Hill to make majority rule happen, by any legal and peaceful means necessary.
Realistically, the existence of Manchin and Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema means progressive Democrats won’t get everything they want — at least not in 2021 or 2022. But it’s not too early to start ignoring the doom and gloom over Democratic prospects in the midterms by registering millions of new voters and motivating them to turn out. Women of color made this happen in Georgia and they’re working on it in Pennsylvania. Why not all 50 states?
I know that Democrats — especially Biden and POTUS 44, Barack Obama — make a big show of running on national unity, or “no red America” and “no blue America” or whatever, but it’s past time to move on. Just look at prior national tragedies like the early days of the Iran hostage crisis or the 1983 Beirut barracks bombing, when Americans and politicians of both parties rallied behind the president and the flag. Today, when a bomb attack killed U.S. troops at the Kabul airport, prominent Republicans on Capitol Hill called for Biden’s resignation or impeachment. The idea of unity has as much oxygen as that water on the Vine Street Expressway.
It seems like these are the two realistic options now. We can continue to let 35% to 45% of the electorate, and the billionaires who manipulate them, run the United States as they’re doing right now on climate, abortion, and too much of our COVID-19 response, or the 55% to 65% of Americans can stop cowering in fear from mean talk show hosts and a few shriveled Proud Boys and fight to make this a nation where the majority rules. It won’t be easy, but it doesn’t need to be violent, just determined. In the 1960s, presumably the last conservative City Council member in Berkeley was asked about an imminent revolution and said, “We’re already in a revolution — the question now is, Who’s gonna win?” The good guys had better win this time around, or it’s increasingly clear that America as we knew it is a goner.
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