Watching Judge Samuel Alito breeze through his confirmation hearings last week was discouraging, to say the least. Then, on Saturday, The New York Times ran a story with bar graphs showing the heavy rightward tilt of the federal bench across the nation.
As the nation celebrated Martin Luther King's birthday, it looks like our next Supreme Court justice is on the record opposing the principle of one-person-one-vote.
And though he concedes that Brown v. Board of Education is now precedent with the power of settled law, he joins Bush's chief justice in his profound suspicion of the use of the interstate commerce clause to enforce desegregation.
There's no question that the civil rights movement's achievements in the courts during the 1960s, and the women's movement's achievement in Roe v. Wade, would never happen today. Progressive activists cannot look to the courts to defend individual rights against ingrained prejudice or intrusive government power.
There are those who argue that's just as well. A legislative drive to legalize abortion, for example, would have meant a lasting effort that kept pace with the culture and wasn't vulnerable to backlash against the "activist judiciary" that now threatens to undo Roe.
Whatever the case, we are now stuck with a federal government, including the courts, hostile not only to civil rights, women's rights, and worker protections, but dangerously inclined to support a super-powerful executive.
At the same time that the Bush Administration is leaving its lasting mark on the courts, and wreaking havoc with the balance of powers, however, it is also reaching a low ebb in the polls.
The endlessly recycled argument that 9/11 means we need to suspend judgment, due process, and any thought for individual rights is wearing thin.
The war in Iraq is going poorly, and Americans know it.
And there is new life in living-wage campaigns and other grassroots efforts at the state level, with polls showing that a majority of Americans continue to support universal health care, worker protections, pension security, and a host of other progressive programs this Administration is against.
And then there are the drives, led by Congressman John Conyers, to look into the disenfranchisement of mainly black Democratic voters in the last election, and to explore the plentiful grounds for impeachment of this President.
It's easy to be disheartened by the scale of the problem in Washington--from corruption, industry-controlled regulatory agencies and lobbyist-written legislation, to an Administration that does seem to have, despite Sandra Day O'Connor's ringing indictment, a blank check to violate the Constitutional rights of citizens in the name of the war on terror.
We have to look to progressive efforts, especially the grassroots, movement-building efforts, including things like the Progressive Legislative Action Network, which just received a major grant from the Open Society Institute to pursue progressive policy at the state level.
The civil rights movement did not emerge overnight, and the rightwing takeover of government cannot be beaten back instantly. But there are plenty of inspiring people who are doing their best, and their efforts are encouraging.