It has been clear for a few years that our national politics have become deeply polarized. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell threw down the gauntlet when, on behalf of his party, he refused to hold a hearing on President Barack Obama’s nominee to replace deceased Supreme Court Justice, Antonin Scalia, eleven months before the 2016 presidential election.
That polarization deepened over the years, highlighted by the presidency of Donald Trump. The existence of the bipartisan coalition that had passed crime and welfare legislation during the Clinton presidency had disappeared.
The cultural schism between the Republican and Democratic parties had reached a level not seen since the 1850s. Hence, polls showed at one point that 70% of Republicans refused to believe that Joe Biden legitimately won the 2020 election, notwithstanding his 7 million vote plurality.
Now, the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision overturning the Roe v. Wade decision of nearly 50 years ago, which allowed women in America to choose to end their pregnancy, has deepened that schism further. Not only does the court’s action profoundly curtail the rights of women to shape their own lives, it also reflects — and deepens — the racial and economic disparities in American society.
Who will suffer most from this denial of women’s right to control their own reproductive lives? Working-class Black and Latina women! Those who can least afford to have another mouth to feed are precisely those who will bear the brunt of the Supreme Court’s decision ending women’s right to abort a pregnancy.
Despite the depth of this cultural polarization between Republicans and Democrats, it is unlikely that we will descend into another military Civil War. But what happens to our goal of becoming a true United States?
Already we’ve seen a growing disparity between rich and poor, with the middle class also becoming more divided by income. Despite the political gains of the civil rights movement economic gains of minority groups have failed to keep pace, with Black people and other minorities dominating those classified as poor. Now, this Supreme Court decision exacerbates the likelihood that minority women will suffer most, with their economic aspirations sharply curtailed. Hence, we are at a critical turning point.
This Supreme Court, now dominated by younger, conservative judges appointed by Donald Trump, is likely to continue issuing decisions that curtail the political and economic rights of minorities in our country. How can we move forward to becoming a real society of equal opportunity when Black people and other minorities are unable to remove the obstacles that impede their pathway to economic opportunity?
There may be some signs of hope. The bipartisan coalition of 20 U.S. senators who came together to fashion a new gun control bill — however modest it may be — is one sign of a counter-movement against polarization in our national politics.
But unless we sustain this new bipartisan conversation, both in Congress and in our national discourse, our nation could easily fall into a disastrous polarization from which there will be no recovery.
Today, we confront a political crisis parallel to that which nearly destroyed us 170 years ago. If we do not come to grips with this cultural and political polarization, how can we claim to be a leader of the free world and a United States of America?
William Chafe is the Alice Mary Baldwin Professor of History, emeritus, at Duke University, He’s a former president of the Organization of American Historians, and the author of 14 books on women’s history and civil rights history.