the body politic

It Shouldn’t Have Come Down to Her

Some will try to blame Ruth Bader Ginsburg for not stepping down sooner. They are missing the point.

Photo: Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post/Getty Images
Photo: Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post/Getty Images

She died at the Jewish New Year, and my family is not religious. But I had been so happy, in this time of being far from our loved ones, to be eating a Friday-night dinner next to my father, until the news came and the food that had been delicious suddenly tasted like ashes. As we quietly finished the meal, our phones buzzing with grief and shock, my father showed me the messages he was already receiving from fellow liberals and leftists, describing in vivid terms how angry they were at her.

As many mourn, others are already raging. Their fury will be loud and resonant in these next few days and weeks, a mad howling as the nation absorbs what’s to come now. Ire at this 87-year-old woman, a Supreme Court justice who had repeatedly survived cancer but did not this time, will carry many Americans through their periods of shock and despair. Scared and livid, many will rail at her: for not retiring years ago, during the administration of a president they imagine (had he not been blocked by a racist and obstructionist Senate) would have replaced her with someone qualified and just, someone who would not be eager to slam the final nail in the coffin of civil liberties, reproductive health care, LGBTQ rights, labor, voting, the climate … all of it. They will blame her, and they will blame those who created a cult of admiration around this remarkable, imperfect woman, because they will want to have people to shake their fist at, because the world is shattered and chilling and is about to get even more difficult than it already is.

This rage toward a beloved, history-making woman who just died will feel — and will be — profane and grotesque. It will be more than a little sexist, because blaming every bad outcome on an old woman you deem selfish in her professional self-determination, and on the Resistance Moms who “Yas Queen” her, is an endlessly gratifying strain of liberal misogyny.

It will also, to some degree, be fair.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg made a choice that turned out wrong. She wanted to keep doing the work she loved and was good at and that mattered; she didn’t want to stop before she was ready. Like so many others, she believed Hillary Clinton would likely win in 2016. And like so many others, she was wrong about that. Now there is a good chance that her replacement will be chosen by Donald Trump, a president who came to power on malignant racism and sexism and who will gain, in her death, the ability to offer America’s right wing what they have worked toward for 60 years: nearly full power to roll back, via the court, the disruptive gains made by the social movements of the 20th century on behalf of marginalized people.

So I understand why people will be furious at Ruth Bader Ginsburg and why they will say so loudly, in raised tones that convey their own assurance that they would have made the right choice, had they been her. Though those who are mad will not want to hear it, their reaction is made of precisely the same stuff that led people to lionize her as an outsize savior: because in the absence of structural security it is far easier to home in on individuals — as both our heroes and our villains — than it is to reckon with the enormity of what’s wrong and what needs to be righted.

These past months could not have made this dynamic any clearer: the reflexive turn to blame individuals for how they choose to behave when left adrift in the sucking, soulless chasm created by large-scale institutional infirmity.

Among the grim ironies of Ginsburg’s death is that, as Irin Carmon wrote in her beautiful obituary, Ginsburg’s obsessions with process and order stemmed from “a general belief, shared by the postwar liberalism that shaped her, that functioning institutions could provide a neutral bulwark to the excesses of the past.”

But one of the reasons her death will be as explosive and consequential as it is sure to be is that so many of our institutions are failing us, and have been purposefully perverted or used to serve regressive purpose: a Senate that broke the nation’s rules by refusing to confirm the Supreme Court pick of a sitting Democratic president; an Electoral College that served its original purpose of overturning the will of an American majority to deliver the White House to a leader committed to white supremacy; a political system that doesn’t inspire its populace to vote in critical midterm elections; a Republican Party willing to spend decades doing whatever it took to reverse legal and legislative victories that redistributed a little bit of power out of the hands of white patriarchal capitalist-fueled corporations; and a Democratic Party that did not have the will or foresight to fight as fiercely or as cannily on behalf of rights, protections, and dignity as their obstructionist opposition fought against.

Where it landed us was with a nation looking to one octogenarian to make the exact right set of decisions to make everything turn out okay. You can feel the anguished search to fill the void created by structural collapse in the words of a lawyer who told the Washington Post on Friday night, as she paid tribute to Ginsburg by coming to the Supreme Court’s plaza, “The question that keeps popping up in my head is, ‘Who is going to take care of us?’”

It was an elocution that betrayed the hunger for protections we have not been getting from our government, but Ginsburg herself was never actually in a position to take care of us. After all, she came to be widely adulated only in the period in which she was in the Court’s minority; she was issuing dissents — brilliantly lacerating, yes, but still dissents — from decisions that imperiled and weakened us.

The Voting Rights Act has already been disemboweled, reproductive health care already made inaccessible to millions, all while Ruth Bader Ginsburg sat on the Court. This does not mean that those battles are lost — they cannot be; they will not be — but it was never going to be this one woman who won them for us. The notion that our survival depended on her survival was always flawed, and betrayed how ravenous many were for any thread of hope for quiet and functional institutional correction, rather than for the mass uprising and furious battle this moment calls for. Part of the fantasy was that if she could hang on we could get back to “normal,” but normal is long past broken.

It should never have come down to her, even in our collective imagination, and whether you are absolutely sure that that’s right it shouldn’t; she was selfish and stupid for not having retired or that that’s right it shouldn’t; she was a brilliant justice who had every right to keep her job and the pushback she received for it was terribly unfair … they actually come down to the same thing: The fate of American democracy and the planet should never have rested on this one woman’s small, old shoulders.

This is what happens when the government fails, when the safety nets that have been slashed for years are gone, when there is no oversight, no one in power with the drive or backbone to fight back or organize effectively or exert authority or offer real structural support or direction. In an absence of leadership, of functional guidance, we’re all left to imagine that the decisions of other individuals are what is going to save or damn us.

This has also been the story of these last six months, as local and state and federal leadership has offered weak to nonexistent economic and medical support or assurance. A nation of unmoored people has been left to run our own risk analyses — about masks, surfaces, schools; about personal and familial safety, civic responsibility, and economic security — all based on incomplete or often purposely misleading information. The choices we individuals have made have carried their own costs and benefits, have had their own surprising and sometimes lethal consequences, and in the vacuum created by the absence of structures that were supposed to protect and support us, we have turned on each other, becoming angry at those who chose differently, poorly, who made bad bets, rather than directing our outrage at the institutions that abandoned us.

This is what I will think of when I hear the coming fury toward Ginsburg. Because the fault here was not one person. More importantly: The fix here is not one person, and it never has been. It’s not one justice, though one justice — in concert with the other two Trump has appointed, with the hundreds of federal judges a McConnell-led Senate has confirmed to lifetime appointments — will matter. It’s not even one president, though that president — in concert with the Senate and the House and the state legislatures — will matter.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg matters, now as much as she ever has, but her survival alone couldn’t have saved us, any more than getting rid of Donald Trump will save us. We are facing something far larger: a desperate, life-or-death fight to rebuild, reimagine, reform (and in some cases raze) enormous apparatuses, including our criminal justice, electoral, health-care, and education systems, labor and capitalism, education, housing, the courts themselves, and, most urgently, the health of our planet. It will call on us to fight as fiercely and with as much determination as Ginsburg herself fought, through her life and career.

That’s daunting and hard. And for some, in the face of all this, it will undoubtedly feel good and perhaps even righteous to voice frustration at the decisions made by one woman — extraordinary, ordinary, important, and now sadly gone. But that’s not the work, and it’s not going to work to get us anywhere in the perilous days to come. Instead, we have to address what is really broken, which is not just our hearts and our spirits: It’s the frail systems in which Ruth Bader Ginsburg wanted so badly to believe. She’s gone and it is up to us to undertake the demanding revolutionary work of remaking them, this time stronger and more just.

It Shouldn’t Have Come Down to Her