How did it come to this?
How did we get to a world in which Roe v. Wade could crumble like this?
“The fact that we knew long in advance the fate of Roe didn’t cushion the blow. Women’s fundamental rights are under threat across the country in a way that would have been difficult to imagine just a few years ago. It’s important to remember these laws are not “abortion bans” as such; they are not the “moderate, European-style compromise laws” we sometimes hear about: no, these new laws criminalize women’s reproductive health and direct the police power of the state against them in cruel and perverse ways. It is likely the states will also employ all the powers of surveillance and control made possible by modern technology, even chasing after those who try to get abortions in other states like some new Fugitive Slave Law. What we are witnessing is the creation of a new form of federalized tyranny, in some ways much more dire and ideologically-informed than the dangers and hypocrisies of pre-Roe America. Even if you have personal misgivings about abortion or favor trimester limitations, you must admit that these new laws women seriously imperil women’s ability to exist as free and equal members of our society. To quote the dissent, “it consigns women to second-class citizenship.”
We should be concerned for all of our liberties, now. In his concurrence, Justice Thomas writes, “…we should reconsider all of this Court’s substantive due process precedents, including Griswold, Lawrence, and Obergefell.” This is a threat to the entire architecture of what’s been called “the Rights Revolution,” the post-war process through which we acquired the civil rights many of us once took for granted. It once felt like an impossibility that these fortresses would fall, but now the Right is moving against all of them in rapid succession, dazzling and demoralizing their defenders with the swiftness and completeness of their advances. How could this be possible? The attackers were highly daring, opportunistic, and motivated while the defenders grew slack because they were such imposing edifices they never imagined they could be assaulted head on.
American liberalism and its vehicle the Democratic Party has been organized around the notion that its hegemony was contestable in detail, but not in its fundamental propositions: progress was a fait accompli and eventually, on all issues, conservatives would just have to adjust themselves to it, fight rear-guard actions or accept the pluralism of compromise. This attitude appeared to be confirmed by reality because of tactical and strategic compromises the Right had to adopt from to time, but the core idea was always to slowly drive a stake through the heart of the liberal consensus,—or “to break the clock of the New Deal, to repeal the 20th century,” to quote Murray Rothbard. …”
Look in the rearview mirror.
In the broad sweep of American history, the world that John Ganz describes here, which is now visibly crumbling, was a product of several key twists and turns in the 20th century:
The triumph of “progressive liberalism” in the Democratic Party – Modern American liberalism was born in the 1910s and 1920s and was swept into power in the Democratic Party in the 1930s. The party of the South and West and “white supremacy” was hijacked by Northern liberals who had traditionally been Republicans during the Great Depression. The tug of war went on inside the party until the triumph of the Civil Rights Movement in the JFK and LBJ years. Yes, the country was liberal before that in the sense that what is now conservative liberalism was the hegemonic ideology, but the old Victorian era liberalism was focused on free market economics and securing a limited set of political rights.
The triumph of modernism as an aesthetic sensibility in American culture – Modernism also arrived on American shores from Western Europe in the 1910s and 1920s. It swiftly became the dominant sensibility of American elites. This shift in sensibility and culture is now taken for granted. Its assumptions are like the water in which we swim. It is invisible to us. We take for granted that the Self is put up on a pedestal in our culture. We take for granted that an expanding laundry list of -isms and -phobias are synonymous with morality. The notion that “racism” and “sexism” are deeply immoral makes sense to us, but would have sounded strange to Americans in the 19th century. Just as the Victorian era as a distinct cultural epoch of American history came to an end around World War I, the Modern era too is also coming to an end. Once upon a time, progressive liberals saw themselves as repudiating the 19th century. They are unable to imagine a world in which they have similarly become stale and are repudiated in turn.
The triumph of the liberal “mainstream” – The earliest stirrings of the “mainstream” as we know it can be traced backed to the 1910s and 1920s when modern liberalism emerged, but it did not really become hegemonic until the 1940s and 1950s. It reached its peak in the 1960s and 1970s in the Walter Cronkite era and has been slowly dissolving ever since. Normal for progressive liberals is a handful of media corporations based in coastal metros dominating the country and commanding trust and respect. This, of course, now has been exposed as a passing phase. The “mainstream” has steadily receded back toward the coasts over the past thirty years where it now exists as a bubble.
New York’s metropolitan hegemony – In the early 20th century, New York emerged as America’s dominant metropole. It became the American equivalent of Paris in France. Previously, there hadn’t been a dominant national culture centered on one major city. Boston was sort of like the first among equals in the 19th century. In the 20th century, it became normal in the age of the mass media for a tiny handful of cultural elites based in New York and Los Angeles to create culture and beam out to flyover country where it was passively digested. New York’s cultural dominance is now over. Sure, Saturday Night Live continues to broadcast live from New York, but you know it doesn’t land like it used to.
The liberal consensus – In the 20th century, the Great Hushing lowered the temperature of American politics. Turnout used to be enormous in American elections. A series of reforms which began in the Progressive Era lowered voter turnout and professionalized American politics. Elections became dry and boring and removed from the masses. Normal American politics became elections like Clinton v. Dole in 1996. PMCs dominated both political parties. This is the way it was until Trump’s victory in 2016 which changed the demographic composition of the Republican Party. The professional class ceased to be dominant element in the GOP and its power eroded even further in the 2018 and 2020 elections.
Jewish Power – As everyone here knows, the old WASP elite which was the ruling class in the Victorian era lost power to the Jews in the early 20th century. White Nationalists are correct to emphasize the connection between Jewish control of the mass media and negative cultural changes as well as how Jewish billionaires finance and control both parties. There are a lot of reasons to be optimistic though that the power of The Synagogue is waning. The demise of Roe v. Wade is one indicator of this. The decline of the ADL under Jonathan Greenblatt is another. Jews who are used to getting their way are howling with outrage. Censorship is a last ditch effort to control our discourse.
The Great Depression and World War II – Close students of American history are aware of the fact that the country tends to drift toward reaction after short lived bursts of war induced egalitarianism. America retreated from liberalism through the Early Republic and Antebellum eras. Then came the War Between the States and Reconstruction. This was followed by the Redemption movement in the South and the Jim Crow era. This was punctuated by World War II and the Cold War. In the wake of the Cold War, which had the effect of preserving the liberal consensus by elevating foreign policy above domestic issues, the lid which had been kept on American politics was removed. The culture war exploded and has been gaining steam ever since. The war in Ukraine hasn’t even been a speed bump in slowing it down.
As the older generations whose lives were shaped by World War II and the Cold War and the Civil Rights Movement retire and die off, the country is reverting toward what has been its historical norm. The same thing happened when the Civil War generation died off around the turn of the 20th century. Reconstruction was buried and the country moved on.
Returning to our original question … how did this come to pass?
A large part of the answer is the sheer passage of time. If you look back through history, a theme you will notice is that we tend to go through phases. The Enlightenment, for example, was a phase. Then we had Romanticism in the 19th century in which emotion and sentiment, not reason, was exalted. This ended in the catastrophe of the World Wars. It was followed by the cynical, self-absorbed Modern era. Now, that era is giving up the ghost. The moral arc of history bends toward reaction. Each century tends to be an overreaction to the previous one. At some point, we should expect the pendulum to swing away from our culture of unbridled narcissism. Maybe that is where we are at?
The forces of nature and time destroy everything in this world. That’s the fate of American liberalism too. It is looking more than a little bit eroded these days.