The Supreme Court Is Trying to Turn Back the Clock 200 Years

·7 min read
Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Getty
Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Getty

History may look back at the period in which we are living and call it the Great Regression. It is a time in which on issue after issue, we are seeing decades and sometimes centuries of progress reversed.

If the term regression feels too academic, we may just as easily call it the Great Leap Backwards. If it continues at its current pace, it may end up being known as the American Dark Ages… or worse, to borrow from another historical saga, the Decline and Fall of the United States.

We have seldom seen anything like this before in our country’s history. One example might be that in the wake of the Civil War, Reconstruction saw efforts throughout what had been Confederate states to, wherever possible, restore the old order and to once again put down newly freed Blacks in the South.

More recently, thanks to a concerted campaign by America’s right wing, sometimes with the help of centrists from both U.S. political parties, we have watched as a long list of the signature milestones of American social advancement in the post WWII era have been reversed, undone or blunted.

The Supreme Court, now one of the most active, pernicious agents of this period of anti-progress, demonstrated this again on Friday by, for the first time in history, stripping away a right that had been granted to the people, the right of a woman to control her own body. In so doing, they imposed a new burden, one that by and large American women had been freed from for half a century—that of forced birth.

They even framed this giant step backwards in language that made clear that all their clocks stopped in the 17th, 18th or early 19th centuries, that they saw their twisted memories of that time as the only legitimate parameters for establishing our social standards. In the majority decision handed down on Friday for example, citations were made referencing abortion cases as far back as the 13th Century and relying on legal sources like 17th-century judge Sir Matthew Hale, a man who once presided over a witchcraft trial and who asserted a woman could never be raped by her husband because she had transferred control of her body to him.

People Fleeing Abortion-Ban States Are Desperate for Our Help

For many of us, Roe and recognizing a woman’s right to choose was a major milestone in our lives, a clear sign that activism plus education plus conscience and decency could drive America forward and make it a better place. Roe was a symbol to several generations that our system worked. It was also a transformational decision that increased the autonomy of women, playing a not insubstantial role in increasing women’s labor force participation from 43 percent in 1970 to nearly 57 percent today.

That is why they sought to tear it down. It was a shift in the power structure of America from the original white, Christian-dominated patriarchy to which much of America’s Republican Party has long yearned to return. But, make no mistake, right-wing-driven regression has been going on for years, even as they laid the groundwork in our courts and legislatures to dismantle Roe.

For example, the greatest step forward of the 1960s was the Voting Rights Act and our strides toward greater racial justice. This too has been targeted for pushback. In its Shelby County decision of 2013, the Roberts court perversely ruled that we had outgrown the need for such protections even as the sponsors of that court worked to limit and strip away voting rights, especially for people of color, throughout America. In its wake, new restrictions in red states have made it much harder for many, especially in communities of color, to cast their votes.

Progress toward social equity and equal opportunity sustained other blows. Since the 1980s, the “leave it to the markets” politics of Reaganomics (and the GOP and Dem center) have resulted in inequality skyrocketing in the U.S: social mobility has declined; the rich are richer; the rich have benefited from laws that reduce their share of the tax burden (capital gains taxes) and empower their companies to act without regulation.

The top economic tier of our society also gained political clout when the Supreme Court ruled in Citizens United that “money is speech,” thus giving those with more money more influence in choosing our leaders. They have used this power to increase the hold of the minority in America over the majority—and of course, that too reverses centuries of progress toward inclusion and fairness in American life.

The right has also pushed back on the full inclusion and protection of gay and trans people in our communities. In his concurrence to the majority opinion that undid Roe, Justice Clarence Thomas indicated that next on the agenda might be stripping away the right granted in the court’s Obergefell decision that allowed gay Americans to marry. Thomas even sought to revisit whether American women should have access to contraception, another way to diminish them and put them at the mercy of a patriarchy that, in a number of states now, says that a woman who is raped must turn over control of her body to her rapist by bearing his child.

You Know What’s Missing From the ‘Dobbs’ Opinion? Women.

It is worth noting that one decision that could be targeted by the current backward thinking of the court’s radical right majority was the 1967 Loving vs. Virginia decision permitting interracial marriage, which made Thomas’ own marriage to his notorious seditionist wife Ginni possible.

Do not call this band of reckless revisionists on the court conservatives, by the way. Nothing about what they are doing is “conservative,” nor should you call them “strict constructionalists” or “originalists,” as their decisions disregard legal precedent, the spirit of the Constitution, and often craft citations for their decisions from whole cloth. One recent example, last week’s decision ending New York’s restrictions on carrying a concealed handgun, offers a prime example of this. In it, Thomas cited the Second and 14th Amendments as guaranteeing Americans the right to carry a handgun. Go read them. They do nothing of the sort. Handguns are not mentioned in the Constitution. But then again, as many have pointed out, neither are women. And it seems unlikely Thomas would like to return to the original view of the Constitution that permitted his relatives to be held as slaves.

The hard right’s gun policies are also a big step backwards, returning us to the murderous free for all of the American West. It should also be noted that they are profoundly out of step with the opinion of Americans—as are many of this Supreme Court majority’s views (like those of their GOP sponsors.) Major majorities of Americans support sensible gun controls, the right of a woman to get an abortion, and even decisions like Roe itself.

Also last week, as I wrote in a recent column in The Daily Beast, the ourt took another major step backwards by gutting the separation of church and state, an idea that dates to the 18th century and is literally written into the Constitution. Another similar setback is likely in the week ahead as the court is expected to strip away the ability of the federal government to impose environmental regulations which have been an essential tool in the battle to combat climate change and to preserve our country’s natural bounty.

These are huge regressions for American society. No doubt there are many others not cited in this column. And the scariest part is that they are proof the right wing’s campaign to obliterate social progress over the past four decades has thus far been scarily successful. If they are not stopped at the polls, they may someday turn back the clock so far that we and the world wonder once again whether the United States is an idea that can long survive.

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