Act Four • Opinion
The flaw in the cult of RBG
The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

RBG and the empty triumph of liberal pop culture

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has died at 87. She became the second woman on the high court in 1993 and was a legal pioneer for gender equality. (Video: The Washington Post)
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There’s no denying that Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a rock star. Maybe that was the problem.

The U.S. Supreme Court justice, who died Friday at 87, was worshiped, first for her brilliant advocacy for women’s rights as an attorney and later for holding the line against the backlash that resulted from her own groundbreaking work. Even her ideological opponents admired her for her intellectual prowess, soft-spoken civility and physical tenacity.

Ginsburg’s status as a pop-culture icon was solidified in 2018 with the release of two feature films celebrating her life and career. “On the Basis of Sex,” starring Felicity Jones, was a dutiful if somewhat drearily conventional biopic. But it was the documentary “RBG” that became a surprise hit that year, an intimate, adoring portrayal that morphed into a cinematic pilgrimage for mothers, daughters and granddaughters who turned out in droves to cheer on their heroine as she pumped iron and pummeled her conservative colleagues with her scorching dissents.

“RBG,” which replayed on CNN this weekend, only briefly addresses Ginsburg’s controversial decision not to retire during President Barack Obama’s tenure, which probably would have ensured that her seat would be filled by someone with similarly liberal views. Like so many others, she made certain assumptions, including that Hillary Clinton would win in 2016. And really, who could be immune to the poetic justice of Ginsburg’s replacement being named by the first female president? The optics were irresistible.

Then, when things didn’t go as planned, optics were all that some of us had. The Notorious RBG, a cancer survivor whose fragility belied a formidable will, became a meme of the Trump-era resistance, her star status cemented by a Kate McKinnon parody on “Saturday Night Live,” coffee mugs and collectible bobbleheads.

Thousands of tearful mourners gathered outside of the Supreme Court to pay homage to the life and legacy of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Sept. 19. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Amanda Andrade-Rhoades, Bloomberg/The Washington Post)

Over the weekend, her fans mourned her passing by gathering with candles and songs at the Supreme Court; presumably, others donned their “dissent collar” T-shirts or lit RBG prayer candles in memoriam. Meanwhile, President Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) were already getting to work. McConnell and his Republican colleagues had prevented Obama from nominating a replacement for the late Antonin Scalia in February 2016, insisting that the seat remain vacant until after the election. Days before she died, Ginsburg had shared her “most fervent wish . . . that I will not be replaced until a new president is installed.” But it’s unlikely that such niceties will be observed by a party and administration that has made the shredding of once-settled norms and sacred traditions just another day at the office.

Thus concludes another real-time lesson that liberals just can’t seem to learn: that while they’ve been congratulating themselves watching movies that co-sign their most closely held assumptions, elevate their most cherished shibboleths and flatter their most self-righteous vanity, the right wing has been systematically institutionalizing its agenda by way of an incrementalism strategy aimed at capturing governorships, statehouses and the courts, and radically reshaping the entire national legal infrastructure.

That agenda includes dismantling the Dream Act, abolishing Obamacare, loosening campaign finance restrictions, limiting voting rights and forcing women to bring pregnancies to term. Those are just some of the issues that have been addressed in fiction and nonfiction films in recent years, including such notable documentaries as “The Fight,” “Dark Money,” “Slay the Dragon,” “All In: The Fight for Democracy” and “Trapped.” Most of them have been attached to “impact campaigns” that seek to shift public opinion and, by extension, policy.

In many ways, that agenda has worked: Polls suggest that a majority of Americans support protections for young immigrants, want to preserve Roe v. Wade and favor the Affordable Care Act, campaign finance reform and making it easier to vote, not harder. But as largely liberal audiences were attending largely liberal movies in order for their largely liberal views to be largely endorsed, conservatives were playing another game entirely.

Using gerrymandering and voter suppression, as well as their own corporate and grass-roots media networks like Fox News, direct mail and Breitbart News, they’ve succeeded in taking over a majority of statehouses and governorships. And with the help of such conservative policy incubators as the American Legislative Exchange Council and Americans United for Life, they’ve passed prepackaged legislation that includes everything from voter I.D. bills and abortion restrictions to “stand your ground” laws. One of Trump’s proudest accomplishments is how he has packed the federal judiciary with dizzying speed.

Running parallel to these victories has been a disingenuous grievance campaign in which conservatives complain about being ignored by mainstream culture. Studios, film festivals and critics are routinely accused of ignoring movies by the likes of Stephen K. Bannon and Dinesh D’Souza while those filmmakers happily market their red-meat slabs of outrage porn straight to the base. (The last time I had this debate in person, it was with the filmmaker Michael Pack, who is now mounting a scorched-earth purge of supposed “spies” at Voice of America as the head of the U.S. Agency for Global Media.)

If you’ve seen Bannon’s and D’Souza’s films, you know that they’re often strident, ham-handed and luridly alarmist — easily dismissed not just for their hyperbolic content, but for their formal weaknesses. And the very snobbery of what I just wrote plays right into the long con. Earnest, handsomely produced statements such as “An Inconvenient Truth” and “The Post” might earn four-star reviews and win Oscars. But while Hollywood pats itself on the back for making yet another urgent call to action or plea for tolerance — and, admittedly, helping forge consensus in the process — it means next to nothing when the holders of minority views are so brilliantly solidifying control over levers of power that will endure for generations. They get 200 lifetime appointments to the bench and the rest of us get . . . “The Shape of Water.”

As Andrew Breitbart famously said: Politics is downstream from culture. The right has watched with alarm over the past generation as such liberal values as feminism, gay rights, anti-racism and cultural pluralism became normalized on screen. But they’ve also counted on liberals being too naive, complacent or arrogant to understand that culture, while important, isn’t nearly enough without the dogged, unglamorous work of realpolitik — a brick-by-brick approach that Ginsburg herself advocated when she called for equal-pay legislation in her Lilly Ledbetter dissent.

Now, here we are, lapsing into autocracy, in the midst of a potentially chaotic and assuredly contested election and on the cusp of what could be a constitutional crisis. There’s nothing at stake, really, unless you count the survival of civic cohesion, institutional integrity and an enduring, functioning democracy.

At least we have those bobbleheads.

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