History is everyday life in slow motion. What explains everyday life explains history, and vice versa, except that things play out in history over a much longer time period. So much longer, that folks with a short attention span or a poor memory miss out on the dynamics.
So when the Supreme Court cancelled Roe v. Wade on June 24, driving a stake into the heart of women’s rights and sanity itself, most of us responded as if this were a shocking gut punch. How could this have happened!?!?!
Well, gather ’round, kiddies, and I’ll tell you exactly how it happened.
Hopping into our Wayback Machine, we find that in the 1950s and ’60s and even ’70s people didn’t care much about abortion. Really! Sure, the Catholic Church was against it, but their opposition was mostly directed at Catholics themselves, as a matter of Church policy, not national policy. And, amazingly, both the Evangelicals and the Southern Baptists were officially pro-choice. Yeah, you read that right.
So what happened?
Read this from the June 24 New York Times:
For the better part of a decade after Roe, abortion was on the back burner for major figures in both political parties. But by the 1980s Ronald Reagan saw abortion as an opportunity. Reagan, who as governor of California had signed a law that made abortion accessible in some cases in the state, understood that white evangelical Protestants and some Catholics were increasingly anxious about the rise of the feminist movement, the early fight for gay rights and the spread of no-fault divorce. Abortion, Reagan thought, could put Republicans in power and keep them there. The anti-abortion movement, in turn, forged a partnership with the G.O.P. in the hope that Republicans would usher in a new era in constitutional law, one in which rights and personhood began at fertilization.
But amending the Constitution is hard, and when it came to a fetal-rights amendment, most Republicans had other priorities. By the mid-1980s, leading anti-abortion groups had a backup plan: Take control of the Supreme Court.
Let’s unpack this. Starting in the late ’60s, progressives started ringing up a string of political, social, and cultural victories almost unprecedented in American history. From rock n roll (including Elvis’s pelvis) through the Civil Rights Act through Women’s Lib, birth control, Roe v. Wade, gay rights, gay marriage, no-fault divorce, school busing, wide-spread acceptance of pot—all played out in popular movies and prime-time TV—progressives saw their dreams all slowly coming true.
With a thick frosting of being certain that they were in the right. (And I happen to agree with these issues myself, by the way.)
But guess what? A hunk of America—just as large, just as self-righteous—was going through this period feeling that it was all slipping away. Everything. But worse! Many of these people were on the losing end of things economically. While progressives—who tended to be better educated—were doing okay financially, the conservative middle-America middle- and working-class saw its jobs being shipped overseas and its cities turned into ghost towns. It’s an understatement to say that these people on the losing end of all things cultural, social, and economic were consumed with rage and resentment.
And (of course!) conservative politicians starting with Reagan capitalized on this big time. Including a sixty-year push—now successful—to own the Supreme Court.
And the book that explains why and how this happens, why this is inevitable, is our most recent book Why Couples Fight. Our book is about the power dynamics in relationships. We focused on the relationships between two people. But guess what? The very same dynamics exist between two groups of people. In this case, the left and the right in America.
Before the late ’60s, it was the progressives with all their causes who felt disempowered. It was a bad time to be black, gay, a woman, or pretty much anyone who wasn’t a square. But with marches, lawsuits, bitterly fought elections, and enormous help from the media, a slow but steady tidal wave of change pushed everything aside. The disempowered were re-empowering themselves and were, in fact, triumphing.
But here’s what we say in our book that explains everything:
if there are two sides—two individuals or two opposing groups in a nation—when A feels disempowered, then what A does to re-empower itself will feel like a power move to B, and B will then move to re-empower itself. And this is likely to keep going on forever
The June 24th Supreme Court decision to cancel Roe v. wade was an end-point of the right’s working to re-empower itself starting in the ’80s and a result of the left’s working to re-empower itself starting in the ’60s.
This endless dynamic isn’t some vague theory. This is as solid as any law of physics. It always happens this way.
So what’s going to happen next? The right’s going to take its Supreme Court majority as far as it can take it. Ideologues are insensitive to social cues. So they will take things too far. Whatever “too far” turns out to be, which depends on the laziness of the left and how much their privilege can let individual lefties avoid the personal cost of the insanity of a right-wing court.
But at some point the wheels of serious re-empowerment on the left will start churning—and believe me I’m not talking about performative marches—and the real meaningful fight to claw back our rights will begin. People who know about these things are pretty sure it will take at least a decade or more for the re-empowerment to begin to show effect. It took 50 years from the ’60s to the passage of gay marriage!
I’ll be dead by that time, and the young people of today will be old, and when our rights are finally restored and we have the machinery of government back in our hands, you can be sure, just as we outlined in Why Couples Fight, the other side will be working just as hard, just as wholeheartedly, just as self-righteously to re-empower itself.
The dynamics of this power struggle will NOT have changed. In fact, this power struggle maintains and deepens people’s allegiance to their positions and their commitment to struggle on.
The only thing that ever changes this dynamic is a change of heart. And power struggles never bring that about.
If you want a blueprint for what would work—theoretically—on the national level, yup, it’s there in Why Couples Fight. But it’ll only be possible if people get so sick of fighting and so scared of where the fighting can lead that they’re willing to sit down and work with one another.
But don’t hold your breath. Edward Pollard, the Richmond editor who coined the term “Lost Cause” wrote in 1866,
“The Confederates have gone out of this war with the proud, secret, dangerous consciousness that they are the BETTER MEN, and that there was nothing wanting but a change in a set of circumstances and a firmer resolve to make them victors.”
They still feel that way.
At least with a couple the battle can end with death or divorce, if reconciliation can’t happen. But this is a nation. We can’t die or divorce ourselves out of our conflict. So fasten your seatbelts. The endless cycles of disempowerment/re-empowered look like they’ll have us in their grip for decades and decades to come, and all victories will be but temporary. We know that it's wrong to say that might makes right. Power isn't the answer. But it's also not true the right makes might. Just being right doesn't guarantee victory. And gaining power can gain you only more struggle. Endlessly.
The dynamics that can destroy our country can destroy your marriage. But for you in your relationship in any case, it doesn’t have to be this way. While the dynamics we talk about in Why Couples Fight apply equally to nations and couples, the solutions we offer in our book work powerfully, like a hot knife through butter, to get you and your partner into a far better place together, and in harmony. So, yay! Thank goodness you’re not an entire country!!