The Time Is Now for a People-Powered Backlash
A reasonable reaction to the week's Supreme Court rulings, which culminated in Thursday's gutting of the Clean Air Act, would be: we are so screwed.
But there's another way to look at it: we can turn the right-wing's wet dream into a nightmare for them if we fight back. If we seize it, we have the best opportunity in many years for reconfiguring American politics
The key thing to understand about these Supreme Court decisions is that they're fantastically unpopular. On guns, on choice, and on climate the Court has taken us places Americans badly do not want to go. By majorities of two-thirds or more Americans detest these opinions; those are majorities large enough to win elections and to shape policy, even in our corroded democracy. The right, after decades of slow and careful and patient nibbling away at rights and norms is suddenly rushing full-tilt. That's dangerous for us, but also for them. The force of that charge can, jiu jitsu-like, be turned against them.
To understand the possibilities, consider the Clean Air Act itself. It was signed into law in 1970 by Richard Nixon—a few months after the first Earth Day brought 20 million Americans into the streets, energy that carried over into the midterm elections. The Earth Day organizers targeted a 'dirty dozen' congressmen—and beat seven of them. Their political clout established, they were able to force Richard Nixon to sign all the most important environmental legislation in American history, even though Nixon cared not at all about the natural world. (Environmentalists were people "who wanted to go live like a bunch of damned animals," he explained to the chairman of the Ford Motor company in an Oval Office meeting that he helpfully taped).
That first Earth Day was an organizable moment because the Cuyahoga River was on fire. Now the whole world is on fire. But, as David Wallace-Wells recently pointed out, we've been a little lulled and confused by the endless greenwashing and promises of our various corporate and government masters—the Larry Finks of the world.
The Court has done us a supreme favor by ripping away the veil. It is entirely clear that if we want to defend the planet (or a woman's right to choose, or the right to a world where everyone isn't packing a pistol), we're going to have to fight. Their naked grab for power is succeeding—but it could still backfire if we set our minds to it.
What would that look like? In the short political term, a promise from every Democrat that they would overturn the filibuster and expand the Court if elected. We can't get rid of every archaic part of our governmental structure, but the Constitution doesn't get in the way of these changes. And they would liberate majorities to actually write policy and not see it struck down by the partisans that currently inhabit the bench,
As I suggested last week that it would be easiest if this fight was led by Joe Biden, perhaps on a train. Biden did, yesterday, say that he favored a "filibuster carve-out" to codify Roe into law, but saying it is not the same as campaigning for it. (Also, could he maybe figure out a less convoluted way of saying it). I confess: I suspect that Biden lacks the fire to lead this fight. He has done a creditable job of restoring some kind of normalcy to America after Ketchup Boy's reign, but that's a different task than really leading a crusade.
So we have to do it ourselves. The political commentator Josh Marshall has been using his website to try and get Senate candidates on the record about the filibuster; people should join that and similar efforts (July 4th recess is coming up, and with it town halls for politicians) and when candidates speak straightforwardly, we should rally behind them. The polling data shows a significant shift away from the GOP in the wake of the Roe ruling; our job is to make sure that continues, instead of fading away as we focus once more on inflation. Because the conventional wisdom a week ago was that the Democrats were going to get routed in the fall. If that doesn't happen—and if the reason is that the GOP badly overreached—then there's actually some chance of the Republicans recalibrating a tad and the Democrats finding a soul. Obviously it won't be easy—all of the structural problems of our democracy are in the way. We have to fight for our lives while Wyoming and California each have two Senate seats and Citizens United is the law of the land. But it's not impossible: our majorities on these issues are large enough to overwhelm even these archaic structures. Seventy percent is enough.
And if we somehow do get 52 seats in the Senate and hold the House? Then we need to make sure they actually do what we need them to. That time when Sunrise staged a sit-in at Nancy Pelosi's office? That was a good idea; Democratic leaders seem constantly sleepy, in need of a loud buzzer going off at intervals to wake them from their stupor. As Naomi Klein wrote of the Democrats yesterday, "if they decide to run with it, everybody on this planet wins. If they refuse, they deserve every loss coming their way."
But the backlash can't just be aimed at Washington. It has to go at Wall Street too. It's the billionaires and the Chamber of Commerce and the banks and the oil companies that have funded this endless right-wing tilt, coming together time after time to support the end of regulations. As I wrote in the New Yorker after the decision, gutting the EPA was the logical endpoint of the campaign that Lewis Powell launched with his famous memo in 1971, shortly after the agency was proposed. (That's why we're taking on banks.)
Fury—nonviolently exercised, but with the force of a firehose—can change the political dynamic that has been sending us in a slow drift towards some variety of right-wing theocratic fascism. But we may not get more chances. This right now is the opening.
If you're under 30, join the Sunrise Movement. If you're over 60 throw in with us at Third Act. If you're in between, find some people to fight alongside. These right-wingers have gotten giddy with success and dropped their guard. Make them pay.
This article was originally published on Bill McKibben's substack.
Bill McKibben is the Schumann Distinguished Scholar at Middlebury College and co-founder of 350.org and ThirdAct.org. His most recent book is "Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?." He also authored "The End of Nature," "Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet," and "Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future."
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