September 27, 2020

Garland, Barrett, and the Consequences of Elections

Barrett wearing a judicial robe

It shouldn't surprise anyone who has been following Republicans' efforts to fill the Supreme Court seat vacated by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg as quickly as possible that we are hearing cries of hypocrisy from the political left. Democrats are upset, and rightly so, because they remember what happened to Merrick Garland. I'm not going to argue with the claim that what Republicans are doing now is hypocritical; it strikes me as being fairly obvious that it is. What I will suggest is that what we are seeing may be somewhat simpler than hypocrisy.

The Republicans blocked Garland's nomination because they could. They put Brett Kavanaugh on the court, despite opposition from secular groups and others, because they could. They are preparing to push Trump's nominee, Amy Coney Barrett, through despite opposition by the same secular groups because they can. I see little reason to think they won't be successful. They control the Senate because elections have consequences. Ultimately, this comes down to an exercise of power.

But isn't what Republicans are doing with Barrett hypocritical after what they did to Garland? Absolutely. But why would we expect any different? How can we present to be shocked by this? Why would we expect one political party to play by the rules they set for the other party if they don't have to? The Republicans are using their power to accomplish their political agenda, and this is how modern politics works. If there was a time when voters' distaste for hypocrisy would have made this sort of thing untenable, that time is long over. Voters don't care about hypocrisy unless it is from the other side.

It now appears that the best hope for the Democrats, at least in the short-term, is that outrage among their base over the process, Barrett, or both is sufficient to drive the sort of voter turnout they'd need to retain the House, gain seats in the Senate, and/or defeat an incumbent president with an energized base. It won't be easy. This is a COVID-19 election where many of us probably won't vote because we do not feel it is safe to do so. And as if that wasn't enough of an obstacle to overcome, I suspect that the line between inspiring voters to show up via outrage and suppressing turnout due to demoralization and hopelessness is a fine one. Aim for the first one, but try not to overshoot and hit the second.

The mainstream news media places far too much focus on presidential elections relative to House, Senate, and state elections. They all matter, but we tend to devote far less energy to the down-ballot races. It matters who occupies the White House, but it also matters which political party controls Congress. And what happens at the state and local levels certainly matter too. There's nothing quite like an almost-sure-to-be-contested election on the horizon to remind us of that!

Photo by Rachel Malehorn - Direct link, CC BY 3.0, Link