I have these distinct memories of moments that have crystallized into what I consider a political worldview. Walking across campus in the late fall of 2000, months away from being a college graduate, incensed that the Supreme Court decided the first presidential election I voted in. The passage of the Patriot Act. The Iraq War, which streamed at me nearly every waking moment in the newsrooms where I worked at the time. The midterms where Bush became one of the few post-war presidents whose party gained seats in congress, due in no small part to the political maneuvering of the war and exploitation of people’s lingering fears. The horrorific response to Hurricane Katrina, where I spent weeks reporting on the ground in the aftermath. The election of the first Black president as a seeming repudiation of what felt like the overwhelming corruption of government I’d known for my entire life and then the revaunchist reactionism and Mitch McConnell’s gleeful arsonry that followed.
Through all of that, and moving from a naïve libertarian to unapologetic progressive, I still believed in the core strengths of the foundational institutions. I’ve spent much of my career as a journalist and still hold on to the idea of a fourth estate as a vital, if deeply flawed, institution. At my core I want to believe the same of all of the various machines we’ve created to govern ourselves, and recognize that being man made they are inherently flawed.
Alex Parene has been writing about how our institutions have failed us for years — his piece on the dysfunction of the senate from 2010 felt anarchaic at the time with a parenthetical suggestion of abolishing the upper house of Congress, which has since become a basic assumption among the American left.
Now that five Supreme Court justices, four of whom were appointed by illegitimate presidents, have apparently decided to begin their assault on a century of American progress, Parene once again reminds us that the institutions as they exist are the problem:
One of the more consequential contradictions of the Democratic Party is that the vast majority of its staffers, consultants, electeds, and media avatars, along with a substantial portion of its electoral base, are institutionalists. They believe, broadly, in The System. The System worked for them, and if The System’s outputs are bad, it is because we need more of the right sort of people to join or be elected to enter The System. But when the party does manage to win majorities, it depends on support from a substantial number of anti-system people. Barack Obama defeated the Clintons with this sacred knowledge, before he started reading David Brooks.
Institutionalists, in my experience, have trouble reaching an anti-system person, because they think being against The System is an inherently adolescent and silly mindset. But believing in things like “the integrity of the Supreme Court” has proven to be, I think, much sillier, and much more childish.
It’s absolutely true that our political institutions are failing because of decades of willful bad faith and obstruction entirely from the Republican Party. Only the savviest of take-havers will even bother to refute this basic fact of contemporary American life. As Parene has been pointing out for years, they are only able to succeed because this is how the institutions are designed and if we want to live up to the goals we strived for when we built those supposed edifices, we might need to tear them down.