WASHINGTON – Legalizing abortion, integrating schools and extending voting rights were among the great struggles for the United States in the second half of the 20th century. Each victory was a watershed.
When women won the right to control their bodies, and blacks won the right to attend schools with whites and vote without restriction, reformers celebrated. They thought that the country had left behind an ugly history.
Now we learn that wasn’t necessarily so. Now the past is not past. Now women’s rights, voting rights and civil rights are under a new threat.
Georgia, Ohio, Iowa, Kentucky, Mississippi and Missouri have now limited access to abortion. Alabama has outlawed it. Wasn’t this settled by the Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade in 1973?
Ignoring law and judicial precedent is becoming a new normal. The view among rejectionists is if you don’t like it, challenge it, and hope a different court will overturn it.
Voting rights, ostensibly protected by the Voting Rights Act of 1965, are also under threat. The obstacles to casting a ballot were once poll taxes and literacy tests (intended to prevent blacks from voting). Now states routinely purge names from voters’ lists, demand unreasonable identification at the polls and gerrymander districts to favour one party over another.
Lastly, there is the threat to integrated schools, guaranteed by the Supreme Court in 1954 in the landmark ruling of Brown v. Board of Education. Astonishingly, some 20 of Donald Trump’s lower court judicial nominees – awaiting Senate confirmation – refuse to endorse its principles.
Ignoring law and judicial precedent is becoming a new normal. The view among rejectionists is if you don’t like it, challenge it, and hope a different court will overturn it. That this could happen to Roe v. Wade reflects the advancing conservatism here, which is playing out in the presidency, Congress and the courts. More and more, it seems that progressives lose more than they win.
For the last half-century, Republicans have dominated the White House. They have won close, contested elections, which have undermined the legitimacy of the process.
Richard Nixon won election in 1968 by just 300,000 votes. During the campaign, we have recently learned, he sabotaged the Vietnam peace talks in Paris to ensure that there was no settlement, which would have helped his challenger, Hubert Humphrey. It was treason.
Nixon was re-elected in 1972 using dirty tricks. He was forced out by scandal in 1974.
After Jimmy Carter’s failed one-term presidency, for 12 years Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush embraced small government, deregulation and lower taxes. Conservative doctrine became the mantra of a generation.
Progressives won with Bill Clinton’s election in 1992 and 1996, but he was less progressive than his predecessors were conservative. And the Republicans brazenly impeached him.
In 2000, George W. Bush won with 500,000 fewer votes than Al Gore. In 2018, Donald Trump won with three million fewer votes than Hillary Clinton. Both benefited from the Electoral College, an 18th-century anachronism.
In between, Barack Obama was twice elected, yes, but conservatives took back Congress (as well as most state legislatures) and began remaking the courts. Their most egregious misuse of power was with Merrick Garland, whom Obama nominated for the Supreme Court but whom Republicans refused to consider.
Power, power, power. The Republicans are now close to controlling the Supreme Court, with Trump’s pair of conservative appointees. It may well reverse or dilute abortion rights.
And how did the court get that way? The Senate confirmed Clarence Thomas despite allegations of sexual misconduct, and did the same with Brett Kavanaugh . Both times, their (women) accusers were ignored.
Now Donald Trump is trying to undo Obama’s legacy. Trump rejects Obamacare, although the high court has upheld it. Trump reversed smart commitments on Iran and climate change, and rescinded environmental regulations. He pardons conservative sycophants who flatter him, such as Dinesh D’Souza and Conrad Black .
You see, when you have power, you do and undo things; nothing is really settled anymore. And conservatives have found a way to use that power better than liberals.
It means that a president Joe Biden and a Democratic House and Senate could pass laws in 2021 only to see them declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. That would invite Democrats to try to enlarge the Supreme Court, as Franklin Roosevelt attempted to do in 1937.
Welcome to America’s Conservative Hour. It could last years.
Andrew Cohen is a journalist, professor and author of Two Days in June: John F. Kennedy and the 48 Hours That Made History.
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