What If We Didn’t Treat This as a Crisis? (A Revision and Expansion)

Last week, I published a post about Anthony Kennedy’s retirement. In that post, I was trying to make two important points:

First, while many of my friends and colleagues are treating Kennedy’s retirement — and Trump’s second Supreme Court nomination — as a crisis, that changes very little for many Americans. To summarize a guest on Lovett or Leave It last week, the left has treated the courts as Alexa for civil rights. We’ve expected the courts to implement progressive policies. But that does not mean that most people have enjoyed the results of those policies. Those of us who are relatively privileged might experience this as an emergency, but for countless Americans this is simply the way things are.

Second, while the left needs to pay attention to and respond to crises like this, we also need to be developing institutions that will both help us craft and implement progressive policies and defend those policies once they’re in place. And we have to be vigilant in doing that, not only because we want to create and defend progressive policies, but because we need to reassert and defend basic small-d democratic norms.

Since I published that post, I’ve had a couple of conversations that have made it clear that I didn’t make that case very well. So I’m going to use this post to try to make that argument more clearly. As with everything on this blog, this is still preliminary, so I won’t make any guarantees that it will be perfectly clear.


As I said in that previous post, Kennedy’s retirement isn’t a crisis. It’s mundane. And I said that knowing that a more conservative supreme court will restrict reproductive rights, diminish LGBTQ rights, damage voting access rights, and do a host of other things that threaten both progressive goals and small-d democratic values. While many people who are like me — that is to say, relatively privileged — see these as absolute crises, for many Americans, that will change surprisingly little.

Abortion is a good example of this. Every woman in America enjoys a constitutional right to have an abortion. However, according to the Guttmacher Institute, many American women face substantial limits to this legal right. Simple physical access is a challenge: five states had only one abortion clinic in 2014, and more than 20 states had five or fewer. That makes it difficult for women who may have a travel a long way to get an abortion if they need or want one. In addition to the physical limitation, 19 states require a second physician to be involved in the procedure after a certain point, 19 states require that an abortion be performed in a hospital after a certain point, 43 states prohibit abortions after a certain point, 11 states restrict coverage of abortions by private insurers, 18 states require women to receive counseling or specific — and sometimes dubious — information, 27 states have waiting periods, and 37 states require minors to have parental involvement in their decision to have an abortion.

So, for example, Kansas has four abortion clinics. It requires a second physician to be involved after the viability of the fetus; prohibits abortions after 20 weeks except in the case of a threat to the woman’s health; bans ‘partial birth’ abortion; limits both public funding of abortion and the ability of private insurers to cover abortions; mandates that prospective patients be told about a link between abortion and breast cancer, fetal pain, and negative psychological effects; has a 24 hour waiting period; and requires parental consent for minors. So, while a woman in Kansas might have a constitutional right to abortion, she doesn’t really have a practical right to one.

And there are many other ways that states work to restrict abortion rights.

Of course, this isn’t just about abortion. It is already shockingly easy for states to restrict voting access (and ensure that the voting process entrenches right-wing power), for businesses to refuse to cater to same-sex couples, for employers to maintain unsafe working conditions, and so on. The world that my progressive friends and colleagues are afraid of is the world that exists for countless Americans.


Part of the reason that the world that many of us are afraid of is the world that exists for many Americans is that progressives have relied too much on the courts to institute policy. Abortion, same-sex marriage, and other rights are not in place because we passed laws protecting them. They are in place because courts have ruled. To return to something I said in the introduction, we’ve relied on an Alexa-get-me-gay-rights strategy to implement progressive policies. And we simply don’t have the power to change from a judicial to a legislative strategy right now. Every branch of the federal government is controlled by the right, as are 33 governor’s mansions and 32 state houses; and the right has worked hard to guarantee that it will maintain its power through voting restrictions, gerrymandering, and institution building. I suspect that it will take decades for the left to develop the power structures to guarantee civil liberties and small-d democratic reforms — and implement progressive policies — through legislative means.

That brings me to the importance of institution building. One thing that the right has been very good at is building institutions that spread its worldview and set people up to take power in civil society. There are ideologically right-wing think tanks (e.g. The Heritage Foundation), membership organizations (e.g. The Federalist Society), universities (e.g. Liberty University), media channels (e.g. Fox News), and so on. And these organizations enjoy influence on right-wing members of government. For example, Trump is selecting his Supreme Court nominee from a list that was created for him by the Federalist Society (and his commitment to choosing from that list was a way of proving his conservative bona fides). While the left obviously has similar organizations, none of them have this kind of influence on the culture or on left-leaning politicians.

One of the most famous and most powerful examples of institution-building on the right is the religious right. As early as the 1930s, the political right was actively courting right-wing religious figures like Rev. James Fifield Jr, the pastor of the wealthy First Congregational Church of Los Angeles and a founder of the right wing and pro-corporate Mobilization for Spiritual Ideas. Fifield praised capitalism, business, and free markets; and he denounced President Roosevelt and his New Deal. And, of course, the organization had radio programs, television programs, and a magazine. Fifield was not an evangelical, but a Congregationalist. In fact, he received his B.Div. and an honorary D.Div. from my alma mater, the now-very-progressive Chicago Theological Seminary.

It wasn’t until the 1970s that the modern religious right — now a coalition of evangelicals and Catholics — became a major force in American culture. Even in 1975 — two years after Roe v. Wade — an evangelical ethics textbook by Norman Geisler was pro-choice! But the rise of the modern religious right is the result of investment by the political right (and, to a degree, vice versa). The political right helped build the institutions of the Christian right. And that investment has paid off: in 2016, the Christian right was more than willing to overlook Donald Trump’s moral turpitude in hopes of seeing more conservative policies and court decisions that would restrict a host of civil rights for groups that they don’t like. And the holy grail, of course, would be additional Supreme Court Justices who would chip away at — if not outright overturn — Roe v. Wade.

To put it simply, the right has spent a few generations building and maintaining substantial institutions that have helped it gain political power. And a devoted member of the right can get a degree from a college that will reinforce that worldview, attend a church that will reinforce that worldview, watch and read news sources that reinforce that worldview, join clubs that reinforce that worldview, and so on. And those institutions will mobilize their members: they will work to make sure that their members attend rallies, write their representatives, show up at protests, and — most importantly — vote.

The left simply doesn’t have anything comparable. Part of the reason for that is that the right has been very successful in ‘playing the refs’ and making sure that moderate platforms — and even many liberal and progressive ones — include right-wing voices for fear that, if they don’t, they will be cast as biased. So, for example, the homophobic, Islamophobic, anti-Semitic, white supremacist Pat Buchanan was a respected commentator on MSNBC for almost a decade. Comparably leftist commentators don’t appear on most liberal platforms, let alone moderate or conservative ones.

And, of course, the right has been successful in using its political power to weaken left-leaning institutions. Unions are still a powerful force on the political left, but moves from the right have been diminishing unions for decades. And the most recent of those moves is the Supreme Court’s decision in Janus v. AFSCME.

I’m not going to suggest that the left build institutions that mirror the ones on the right. I don’t think that would reflect liberal or progressive values. My point is simply that while the left can win elections, it doesn’t have the institutional power to mount a sustained campaign to alter how our government works or to protect progressive policies over the long-term. The right is prepared to roll back progressive policies and enact conservative ones over the course of decades. I have little confidence that the left is prepared for the same kind of long-term work.


Instead of sustained institution-building and preparing to work over decades, the left has relied on mainstream small-d democratic institutions to implement progressive policies. That has now put us in a position where, as the right captures more of the levers of power in the government, we are seeing those same policies get rolled back. In a fair world, this would be deeply problematic, but not hopeless. We could work on winning the next set of elections and get back to implementing a progressive agenda. But, as I’ve already mentioned, the right has made serious investments in entrenching its own power. So Hillary Clinton could have 2.9 million more votes than Donald Trump and still lose the presidential election. And in Wisconsin, Republicans can control almost two-thirds of the state assembly seats despite winning barely more than half the votes in 2016 (and, in 2012, despite not winning even half the votes). Similar circumstances are at play in other elections.

What this means is that it is harder and harder for the left to gain formal political power. And that means that it is harder and harder for the left to implement or defend progressive policies. And that puts us in the situation that we’re in now: lurching from crisis to crisis, hoping to stem the tide of policies that range from the conservative to the fascist.

As I said in my original post, moving from crisis to crisis is exhausting. And it’s showing. The response to Trump’s original travel ban was massive protests at airports across the country. The response to the Supreme Court’s ratification of the most recent version of that ban was considerably more muted. I suspect that’s because we were more focused on the crisis du jour: the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance policy on the Mexican border. We are ill-prepared to mount the kinds of defenses of progressive policies and small-d democratic values that are needed right now.

Before I was a pastor, I was in the nonprofit sector, and one of the things that I learned about there was the multi-tier work of disaster relief. While we tend to focus on organizations that appear in the immediate aftermath of a disaster like a hurricane, there are also other organizations that show up later. The first organizations are devoted to crisis-response. The second set are devoted to rebuilding. And while the first set of organizations might be present for a few months before moving on to the next crisis, the second set of organizations can be at the site of a disaster for years, slowly and purposefully working to redevelop communities. So, for example, while some organizations showed up on the Mississippi Gulf Coast to help in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina (providing emergency shelter, restoring power, getting supplies to people, and so on), other organizations are still there rebuilding communities. Disaster recovery is both short-term and long-term work.

And so is political change. We need some people who will respond to crises. We also need some people who will do the long-term work of building institutions, regaining political power, defending small-d democratic values, and so on. And that is work that will need to be passed from generation to generation. Because even if we could implement a wish list of progressive policies — and restore the norms that our democracy depends on — we will always need to defend those policies against and protect those norms from those who would destroy them.

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