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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.

Jayne: Do the ends justify the means?

By Greg Jayne, Columbian Opinion Page Editor
Published: May 8, 2022, 6:02am

Is it worth it? Is it defensible? Do the ends justify the means?

Those Machiavellian questions come to mind after the unsurprising revelation that the Supreme Court is poised to overturn Roe v. Wade. Because while questions about abortion rights and the rights of the unborn — however you wish to frame it — are important, so, too, are questions about how we decide these things in the United States.

So, too, are questions about the constraints we place on our righteous indignation.

So, too, are questions about the protections afforded democracy, even if those protections mean we have to consider somebody else’s point of view.

Because regardless of how one feels about legalized abortion, we must remember one of the moments that led us to this point of the Supreme Court reversing course and leaving the issue to the states. We must remember perhaps the most authoritarian, un-American, un-democratic (small d) moment of my lifetime.

In 2016, then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., declined to hold a hearing on a Supreme Court nomination made by Barack Obama. “The American people are about to weigh in on who is going to be the president. And that’s the person, whoever that may be, who ought to be making this appointment,” McConnell said.

That was 233 days before the election. Following Donald Trump’s inauguration, the Senate approved a Trump nominee for the seat.

In 2020, the next presidential election year, McConnell saw fit to hold hearings on a Supreme Court nominee made by the Republican president. Amy Coney Barrett was confirmed eight days before the election.

There’s no telling whether a Democratic-appointed justice would make a difference in this year’s abortion-rights case. There would still be five Republican-appointed justices on the Supreme Court.

And there’s no telling whether the draft opinion written by Justice Samuel Alito is a prudent one. At least I can’t tell; I’ll leave that to legal scholars.

But in McConnell’s rank hypocrisy, we can see a microcosm of all that ails American politics. We can see the vehement stridency that allows us to tear down norms and brutalize institutions and take a sledgehammer to the foundations of our democracy.

Mostly, we can see fear; not just a view that we know what is best for the country, but that the other side is a literal danger. In 2016, according to Pew Research Center, 55 percent of those who identified as Democrats said the Republican Party made them “afraid”; 49 percent of Republicans said the same about Democrats.

And that was before the reign of Trump. That was before “very fine people on both sides” and the press is “the enemy of the people” and racial conflict in the streets.

Trump did not create these divisions. He exacerbated and exploited them and pandered to our worst traits. But he did not create them, and he has not been alone in feeding them. The demonization of others and the oversized attention given to extremists is a trait of both parties.

Such divisions existed long before Trump, and they have increasingly grown into a gaping wound that threatens to paralyze our political body with sepsis. It is the type of wound, for example, that leads to an attempted coup.

It is not a stretch to suggest that the persistent enmity toward political rivals, the disparagement and the anger and the self-righteousness that has replaced political discourse, is what led to an attempt to overthrow the government on Jan. 6, 2021. It is not a stretch to say that if one party can literally steal a Supreme Court seat because the other party is a “threat” to our nation, then extremism is no vice.

All of which came to mind last week. In addition to questions about reproductive rights and the rights of the unborn, there are questions about whether we are willing to destroy democracy if we “know” we are on the “right” side.

Do the ends justify the means? Or is America more important than that?