It shouldn’t have been such a shock. After all, many of those most painfully poleaxed by the news of Anthony Kennedy’s retirement on Wednesday were the same ones who’d always understood the stakes; we knew that this was the risk, we’ve been scared for a long time. We knew that if it hadn’t been Kennedy it would have been Ginsburg or Thomas, and that it may still be. Yet there we were. Panicking. Nauseated. Heads and hearts pounding. Reminded, once again, that this country, our purported representative democracy, is ruled by a powerful minority population.
This too has been clear for a long time: that protecting the influence of that ruling minority — white men — has been the national priority from the country’s very founding. But these days, it’s easy to feel it in a way that underlines why we say that power is in someone’s grip: because the sensation on Wednesday was of just that, a grip so tight and unyielding that all the breath was being squeezed out.
Democrats have won the popular vote in four of five of the elections held since 2000, yet have only occupied the White House for two terms. Meanwhile, Republicans, as Jonathan Chait wrote Wednesday, are “increasingly comfortable with, and reliant on, countermajoritarian power.” Of course, as Chait outlines in his column, the Electoral College was intentionally designed to empower a minority: those in less populous areas of the country who wanted to protect the institution of slavery. The documents that encoded the participatory democracy of which Americans tend to be so proud expressly barred the electoral, civic, and economic participation of the nonwhite and the non-male.
White men are at the center, our normative citizen, despite being only around a third of the nation’s population. Their outsize power is measurable by the fact that they still — nearly 140 years after the passage of the 15th Amendment, not quite 100 years after the passage of the 19th Amendment, and more than 50 years after the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts — hold roughly two-thirds of elected offices in federal, state, and local legislatures. We have had 92 presidents and vice-presidents. One-hundred percent of them have been men, and more than 99 percent white men.
But it’s not just in the numbers; it’s also in the quotidian realities of living in this country. The suffocating power of our minority rule is evidenced by the fact that we’re always busy worrying about the humanity — the comfort and the dignity — of white men, at the same time discouraging disruptive challenge to their authority.
Consider the #MeToo movement, in which so much public sympathy has redounded to powerful men who lost their jobs (though not their millions) after being accused of harassment, a phenomenon that philosophy professor Kate Manne has smartly dubbed “himpathy.” Sometimes this himpathy has stretched the bounds of credulity, as when the former television journalist Charlie Rose, accused of harassment and assault by more than 35 women, many of them his former employees, was described in a recent profile as “brilliant,” “broken,” and “lonely.” These days, we learned, when Rose goes to the swank Manhattan media eatery where he used to be a star, he finishes his dinner alone, in less than an hour.
The problem is, Rose’s superficial social banishment can be presented as a grave sentence without any acknowledgment of how his behavior was the kind that keeps many women from ever becoming denizens of media hotspots in the first place, that blocks their chances for professional success, not to mention impinges on their bodily integrity. This same blindness is on display every day in the political press.
We’ve spent the last week hearing mewlings of concern over interrupted dinners and movie nights of Trump administration officials out on the town. In the wake of DSA protesters heckling Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and presidential adviser Stephen Miller at Mexican eateries, and the decision of one restaurant owner in Virginia not to serve Trump’s spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the Washington Post editorialized that these White House power players should “be allowed to eat dinner in peace.” After all, the Post wondered, “how hard is it to imagine” how those on the left might feel if “people who strongly believe that abortion is murder” decided not to let them “live peaceably with their families”?
What remained unimaginable to the editorial writers was the reality that those who protect abortion rights — not to mention those who simply avail themselves of reproductive health-care services — face regular death threats, are screamed at while walking into clinics; reproductive health-care workers have been among the victims of clinic shootings and bombings and, of course, abortion doctors have been assassinated. In 2014 the Supreme Court enshrined the right to harass women entering clinics by ruling that buffer zones between protesters and patients weren’t required. In a brilliant New York Times column, Michelle Goldberg argued that the Post’s failure to acknowledge these forms of harassment was symptomatic of the “reflexive false balance” of the mainstream political media, but I think it’s more than that: The hold that the minority has on every realm of power — economic, social, sexual — is so pervasive and assumed that we don’t even notice when the few oppress the many. It’s invisible, and any show of defiance against that power is what stands out as aberrant and dangerous.
Just look at how freaked out the Democratic Party leadership got about California representative Maxine Waters. Last weekend, she urged supporters in California to “show up wherever we have to show up,” suggesting “if you see anybody from that Cabinet in a restaurant, in a department store, at a gasoline station, you get out and you create a crowd and you push back on them and you tell them they’re not welcome anymore, anywhere.” Waters was not advocating violence; she was calling for assembly and pushback, a refusal to normalize the abuses being enacted by an administration that has separated more than 3,000 migrant children from their parents, and is building detention centers in which to hold asylum-seeking families indefinitely.
Waters was not popping off, making some careless remark. She has a long history of respecting the fury of the politically, socially, and economically powerless, of understanding how feelings of hopelessness can heat to a boiling point. Back in 1992, after the acquittal of four white cops in the brutal beating of black taxi driver Rodney King provoked looting and fires in Los Angeles, many in the media and local politics were quick to label the events as riots, to throw around the term “thugs.” The original violence done to King by white male agents of the state — and the lack of consequences they faced — was practically forgotten, while black fury in response to the toleration of police brutality was framed as the only violence being done.
Waters was then in her first term as a congresswoman, representing part of the South Central Los Angeles neighborhood where the unrest was unfolding. “There are those who would like for me … to tell people to go inside, to be peaceful, that they have to accept the verdict,” Waters said at the time. “I accept the responsibility of asking people not to endanger their lives. I am not asking people not to be angry.” What Waters grasped was that the anger being expressed was a rational response to injustice. “I am angry and I have a right to that anger and the people out there have a right to that anger,” she declared. She’d later label the events not as a riot, but an “insurrection,” recognizing that the unleashed fury of an oppressed people is a form of political rebellion, one not so distant from the revolution that led to the creation of the United States.
But so electric was Waters’s take on insurrection, circa 2018, that leaders of her own party censured her. Senate Leader Chuck Schumer chastised Waters directly, noting that “no one should call for the harassment of political opponents” and describing such a suggestion as “not American.” (It is, in fact, deeply American; see again, the American Revolution.) House Leader Nancy Pelosi also chimed in, calling the “lack of civility” of protesters “predictable but unacceptable.” Neither Pelosi nor Schumer defended Waters against the implicit threat in a tweet sent by the president, in which he called Waters “an extraordinarily low IQ person” and accused her dishonestly of advocating “harm to [his] supporters,” concluding with the grim admonition “Be careful what you wish for Max!”
To publicly rebuke a black woman’s support for protest and not the powerful white patriarch’s thinly veiled call to violence against her is to play on the very same impulses that Trump himself plays on: racist and sexist anxiety about noncompliant women and nonwhites, and the drive to punish them. It’s one thing that Waters’s opponents on the right have casually referred to her as “unhinged” and that Fox News host Eric Bolling once told her to “step away from the crack pipe,” but that her own colleagues fall into casting her as too much, as too combative and fearsome, is a goddamn travesty.
And it’s not just mainstream Democrats who are getting their boxers in a knot. On Wednesday, Vermont Independent and left-wing hero Bernie Sanders came out on the side of civility, arguing that Trump officials had “a right to go into a restaurant and have dinner” without being harassed. That Sanders, a man who made his name by channeling the righteous rage of the 99 percent, a politician who was credited, along with Donald Trump, in 2016 for his ability to hear, respect, and channel the fury of the electorate — where Hillary Clinton could not — is now throwing water on another kind of righteous rage, is pretty rich.
These people had nice dinners in restaurants interrupted. They did not have their children pulled from their arms, perhaps forever; they were not refused refuge based on their country of origin or their religion or the color of their skin; they were not denied due process; nor were they denied a full range of health-care options, forced to carry a baby against their will, separated from their families via the criminal justice system, or shot in the back by police for the mere act of being young and black.
And yes, some of the upholders of minority power are themselves women — women working in service of a brutal white patriarch and the brutal white patriarchal party he leads. Similarly, a majority of white women voted for Trump, and always vote for his party, because they benefit from white supremacy even as they are subjugated by patriarchy. This same dynamic explains why higher percentages of men in every racial category voted for Trump and his party: They gain through the patriarchy even as they are oppressed by white supremacy. This is how minority rule persists.
Of course, the kind of fury that both the press and political Establishment in 2016 deemed so important, so American, was the fury of white men: angry at the diminishment of their status, angry at the ways in which the economy was not working for them as it once might have, but also angry at their fantasized sense of devaluation in a country that had elected one black president and was considering a woman for the job. And Sanders and Trump weren’t the only candidates who seemed to direct much of their messaging toward white men. Hillary Clinton picked a dull white man with a bad history on abortion rights as a running mate, in an effort to placate the white male voters everyone was so petrified of offending.
The handwringing over white men is what has kept newspapers publishing endless stories about Trump’s base and their unwavering devotion to him, all while ignoring the grassroots rage spreading through the majority: the young, often female, and often women of color candidates who’ve been streaming into American politics for the past year and a half, winning in special elections and Democratic primaries, sometimes — as on Tuesday, when Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez beat Joe Crowley in a New York City primary — toppling old, powerful favorites.
This inattention to — and, at worst, disregard for — the political exertions of a furious and often female left is what led many major news outlets, including the New York Times and MSNBC, to be caught by surprise at the upset win of the 28-year-old former bartender and organizer for Sanders’s 2016 primary campaign over ten-term incumbent Crowley. In its story about the upset, the Times reported that Ocasio-Cortez had not been covered by “national” publications, and only in places like “Elite Daily, Mic and Refinery29,” publications that were “popular among millennials and women.” The Times issued a correction, acknowledging that those publications, which are indeed aimed at young people and women, were also national, but the ease of the original locution was telling: Women are more than half the population (and millennials a quarter of it!) but news outlets that cater to them are not considered national, also a code word for “serious.”
This view was reinforced by CNN host Brian Stelter, who is based in New York City and covers the media, and who revealed on Twitter that he’d only heard of Ocasio-Cortez eight days before her victory, despite the fact that she had received lots of coverage: in the Cut, in Vogue, in The Village Voice, on WNYC, and at the Intercept, which has doggedly reported on her. Again, it wasn’t just individual white guys who were caught by surprise. MSNBC’s Joy Reid also conveyed the relative lack of notice given Ocasio-Cortez on cable news, tweeting that political reporters were “doing an Ocasio-Cortez crash course tonight, myself included.” Even though one of Ocasio-Cortez’s ads had gone viral, even though she was all over certain parts of social media, the electoral threat she posed had remained off the radar of the political media. As have the women who’ve been leading protests and engaging in unprecedented levels of political organizing around the country, who’ve been forming new progressive groups to change the face of power, who’ve have been winning upset elections from Virginia to Nebraska to the Bronx.
News media hasn’t taken these groups as seriously as they’ve taken Trump supporters because they don’t take people of color, they don’t take women — or the validity of their political anger — very seriously. Look no further than another tweet sent by Brian Stelter on Wednesday, chiding the liberal activist Amy Siskind for comparing border-crossing checkpoints to the dystopian authoritarian state of Margaret Atwood’s Gilead. “We are not ‘a few steps from The Handmaids Tale,’” Stelter tweeted dismissively. “I don’t think this kind of fear-mongering helps anybody.” The message was clear: Your fury at injustice is overdramatic, exaggerated, invalid. This was 24 hours before Anthony Kennedy resigned from the Supreme Court.
The outlawing of abortion, the curtailment of contraceptive access, the rollback of affirmative action, the further erosion of voting and collective bargaining rights, the strengthening of anti-immigration policy actually may not seem real to Stelter, who in the same conversation about border checkpoints asserted that he recalled “stopping at one of the checkpoints in CA last year. I didn’t find it to be a problem.” By a happy accident of birth, he’s a member of the group that has benefitted from this country’s long history of minority rule; for him and them, restrictions on bodily autonomy, disenfranchisement or peril based on race or ethnicity are not likely to be problematic.
But that’s also why he, along with liberal political leadership, should perhaps pay closer attention to the women who are staging electoral coups, to the rage that Maxine Waters is wisely attempting to harness, and to those Democratic lawmakers — including the House’s Pramila Jayapal, the Senate’s Kirsten Gillibrand, Mazie Hirono, Tammy Duckworth, and Elizabeth Warren — who joined 600 female activists in the Hart Senate office building on Thursday, wrapping themselves in the foil blankets used to cover children in detention centers and shouting “We care! We care! We care!” Perhaps the press and the politically powerful should consider more seriously the call to abolish ICE by candidates such as Ocasio-Cortez and Cynthia Nixon and already elected politicians like Jayapal and Gillibrand. They should listen hard to the women (and men) who are doing everything in their power to express their wholly righteous rage on behalf of Americans who’ve been crushed by minority rule.
One reason that the fury of women is regularly dismissed as theatrical and marginal and unserious is precisely because, on some level, the powerful must sense that it is the opposite of all of those things. That, in fact, it presents a very real threat. Not just to Charlie Rose’s seat at Michael’s or Joe Crowley’s seat in Congress or to the notion of “civility.” The reason the anger of a majority gets suppressed is because it has the power to imperil the rule of the minority.
Enjoy your dinners, guys.
*A version of this article appears in the July 9, 2018, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!