Beyond Roe, Bork and Trump: Can Americans find a way to discuss hot moral issues?

I am old enough that I can -- if I focus my mind really hard -- remember what our public discourse was like before the Supreme Court became the only issue in American politics that really, ultimately, mattered.

How did America become a nation in which dialogue and compromise is impossible? Why is the U.S. Supreme Court always ground zero on all of this? What role is the mainstream press playing in this painful equation, especially when covering news linked to religious, moral and cultural clashes?

These kinds of questions are at the heart of this week's "Crossroads" podcast (click here to tune that in), which focuses on the painful state of political life in this age of Donald Trump, an age in which the status of the high court is even more controversial than ever, with Kennedy's retirement serving as another fuse on this bomb. 



But let's back up a minute, to when old folks like me were young. 

Yes, the 1960s were wild times, of course. The war in Vietnam was incredibly divisive and the nation was rocked by assassinations. Tragic divisions over race were real and could not be ignored. 

Still, everything changed for millions of Americans on Jan. 22, 1973. From that moment on the status of Roe v. Wade -- political wars over defending or overturning that decision -- loomed over every nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court and every presidential election, as well. 

Then came October 23, 1987 and the vote on the nomination of Judge Robert Bork to the high court. Bork was a former Yale Law School professor (former students included Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham) who embraced and taught originalism -- the legal theory that the U.S. Constitution should be interpreted as written by the founders.

If you want to catch the flavor of the debate over Bork, here is the famous statement by Sen. Ted Kennedy: 

Robert Bork's America is a land in which women would be forced into back-alley abortions, blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters, rogue police could break down citizens' doors in midnight raids, schoolchildren could not be taught about evolution, writers and artists would be censored at the whim of government. ...

Sounds a bit like life on Twitter over the past two or three days.

You see, President Ronald Reagan -- after Bork's defeat in a storm of bitter political warfare -- ended up (it's complicated) nominating a Republican judge named Anthony Kennedy to the Supreme Court and, well, that didn't turn out the way conservatives expected. Moral, cultural and political conservatives have been looking for payback ever since.

How did we turn into a nation in which court decisions serve as the only legislation that really matters, especially when we are talking about clashes over moral and cultural issues linked to the First Amendment? Are presidential executive orders the only way to get things done, in an age in which legislatures can no longer hold sane debates that produce compromise? We saw that with President Barack Obama and now with Trump.

How did we get to the point where we see headlines like this one?

Poll: Almost a third of US voters think a second civil war is coming soon

Yes, you read that right. And guess what? That sentiment really isn't new news, at all? That USA Today story notes:

A war may be brewing within the United States, almost a third of voters say in a poll released Wednesday
Amid widespread political polarization on issues like immigration and recent public confrontations of Trump administration officials, 31 percent of probable U.S. voters surveyed said they think "it's likely that the United States will experience a second civil war sometime in the next five years."

That's angry Republican radicals, right? Well, no.

Democrats at 37 percent were slightly more fearful of a second civil war than Republicans at 32 percent, the poll from Rasmussen Reports found. While more than half thought it was unlikely the USA would see a second civil war soon, 59 percent of voters were still concerned that opponents of President Donald Trump's policies would resort to violence.
During former President Barack Obama's second year in office, a similar 53% of voters thought those who did not support his policies would turn to violence, according to Rasmussen.
Wednesday's poll also found 53 percent of voters were worried that those critical of the news media's Trump coverage would become violent. 

You had to know that the state of American journalism would figure into all of this somehow. And I would stress that we are talking about journalism coverage of specific kinds of issues. While immigration is certainly a flash point right now, anyone who glances at Twitter knows that our political armies are as concerned as ever about abortion, LGBTQ issues and other cultural/moral/religious issues.

In that context, consider the following poll results, a series of warning sirens about the impact of America's preaching-to-the-choirs advocacy media on the left and the right. This is from Axios:

Nearly all Republicans and Republican-leaning independents (92%) say that traditional news outlets knowingly report false or misleading stories at least sometimes, according to a new Axios/SurveyMonkey poll. Democrats and non-leaning independents also feel this way, but not nearly to the same extent.
Why it matters: The data shows that trust in the media is heavily influenced by partisan politics, with Republicans more skeptical of mainstream media than their Democratic and Independent counterparts. Other studies from Gallup and Pew Research Center have drawn similar conclusions.

Now, I think that M.Z. "GetReligionista emerita" Hemingway, at The Federalist, is right to note that it was rather bizarre to lead with the GOP numbers in this poll, when the truly shocking stats are linked to the views of Americans on the left and the center -- which is supposed to be the world of CNN, NPR, The New York Times, etc. After all, liberals tend to trust mainstream newsrooms, while conservatives have BIG doubts about bias.

Here are some other bites of Axios material (.pdf here of poll specifics):

Across the board, trust in traditional news outlets continues to sink, with the overwhelming majority of Americans (70%) saying that "traditional major news sources report news they know to be fake, false, or purposely misleading." ...
Bad intentions: Among those that think traditional news outlets report false news, most think they do so intentionally.

So what are the basic stats here? Here was the wording of the actual question: 

How often do you think news sources report news they know to be fake, false or purposely misleading?

Yes, 92 percent of Republicans answered "A lot/Sometimes."

For independents, that number was 79 percent. Among Democrats, that answer was selected 53 percent of the time.

But here is the stunner: That made the average on that question a depressing 72 percent of all Americans.

That's great news if you are the Tweeter In Chief. It's terrible news if you are a journalist or someone who is concerned about the state of American public discourse.

So what happens if people on the left and the right, in postmodern America, continue consuming news from sources that totally affirm what they already believe, while consistently portraying citizens on the other side as evil? What happens to the First Amendment? What happens to efforts to legislate compromise on hot-button issues linked to religion, morality and culture? What happens to journalism?

 Enjoy the podcast, which was reported right after the news broke about Justice Kennedy's plans to retire.

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