A recent New York Times poll showed that only 44 percent of Americans approve of the United States Supreme Court’s performance, and less than one in eight believe the justices decide cases on purely legal grounds. This is a new phenomenon in our society.
Historically, no matter how dirty the politics got, the Supreme Court was considered a sort of hallowed ground, above the fray of ambition and greed that runs the rest of our government. It was this belief that allowed decisions such as Brown vs. Board Of Education and Roe vs. Wade to change the fundamental structures of our society.
But several decades of open politicization have largely shattered the wide respect once held for the top judicial unit in our nation. Americans watched confirmation hearings turned from debates about the fundamental legal tenants of our society into witch hunts and opportunities for political grandstanding.
We watched the justices invent legal justifications out of whole cloth for handing a presidential election to someone who had lost the popular vote—and subsequently have the nerve to claim it was merely happenstance that the White House keys were given to a man backed by the same powers that put them on the bench.
We watched them declare it right and just for government to take property from powerless people and give them to developers for more productive uses—shopping malls, for instance. And then we watched these supposed best legal minds in the nation declare theoretical business entities the same thing as a living person, making our objections to those entities’ attempts to buy government a violation of their free speech.
So now corporations can spend unlimited amounts of cash buying the elections, and the politicians—who know where their bread is buttered—have the power to take anything from us if their new masters command it.
We saw all these things, and we stopped believing.
The Supreme Court is merely the latest tower to fall in the crumbling fortress of 20th century societal structure. The president of the United States, once seen in the mainstream consciousness as a towering figure of authority and respect—the leader of the free world—must now contend with significant numbers of citizens who openly view them as traitors and criminals.
During the ‘90s, feverish militia types exchanged low-resolution flyers depicting Bill Clinton as a thieving murderer who clawed his way to power on a highway of blood and betrayal.
George W. Bush supposedly harbored secret ambitions of bringing back the draft to support his ill-advised military adventures. I personally knew plenty of people who gave that as their primary motivation for voting against the man in 2004.
However, for all his many faults, the chances of Bush instituting the draft were roughly equivalent to the possibility of Dick Cheney giving a public apology to Harry Whittington for that whole “shot in the face” unpleasantness. If there was a draft, everyone would have had an equal stake in the wars, and the uneasy public consent that kept the whole thing afloat would have evaporated instantly.
But people were ready to believe it, because they no longer believed the president was one of the good guys. Blame Nixon.
Now, our current Commander-In-Chief has to govern a nation containing a frightening number of people who view him as some sort of “killer Muslim robot” from Kenya, programmed by the Black Panthers to convert whitey to socialism. Or something like that.
It should be noted that conservative conspiracy theories seem to tend more towards the looney side than liberal ones.
The rot extends beyond mere government institutions. People have lost their faith in science to accurately report the conditions of our existence—as evidenced by the widespread skepticism towards the validity of climate change despite mountains of research-based evidence.
People have lost their faith in the media—drowned and battered under a tsunami of soundbite-driven sensationalism masquerading as “news”—to accurately inform them of what is happening around them. That is to say that nothing is actually helping them understand what is happening.
All this loss of faith may seem disheartening. But perhaps it could be viewed in a more positive light.
The Supreme Court has always existed in a grey area between politics and the law. Remember, Dred Scott came long before Brown vs. Board. The presidency has always required the people who hold that position to get their hands dirty. Even the presidents whose faces we have carved into mountainsides have their sins and corruptions.
There has never truly been a neutral, dispassionate media in this nation. Even Watergate, that shining example of journalistic triumph, has now been revealed as another example of people taking shortcuts and liberties with the truth to sell headlines and protect reputations.
The disillusionment we are experiencing as a nation may very well be heartbreaking, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s negative. Waking up can often be an uncomfortable experience.