Foreword: The Degradation of American Democracy—and the Court
262 Pages Posted: 31 Aug 2020 Last revised: 23 Oct 2020
Date Written: August 5, 2020
This Foreword examines the recent degradation of American democracy, seeks explanations for it, and canvasses the Supreme Court’s contribution to it. Section IA examines the “autocrats’ playbook” to establish a baseline against which to evaluate recent American developments. Part IB considers President Trump’s authoritarian bent. Part IC describes the measures that Republicans have enacted in states to entrench themselves in power, including partisan gerrymandering, voter identification laws, purges of the voter rolls, measures to suppress the youth vote, circumvention of inconvenient voter initiatives, and even the delay and cancellation of elections. Part ID considers Republicans’ complicity with Trump, which has escalated over the course of his presidency, to the point that they mostly will not criticize him for obstructing the investigation into Russian interference with the 2016 presidential election, pressuring the president of Ukraine to dig up dirt on Joe Biden, politicizing law enforcement and intelligence, or catastrophically mishandling the federal government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Part II offers explanations for the nation’s current political predicament. Groups that fear becoming perpetual political losers may abandon their commitment to democracy, just as white southerners did in the antebellum period. Part IIA, “The Disappearing White Majority,” examines the role of demographic change, immigration, and increasing racial resentment in growing disaffection with democracy. Part IIB, “The Disappearing Christian Majority,” describes how the gradual collapse of the idea of the American “Christian nation” has contributed to such disaffection. Part IIC, “The Rise of the Neo-Ayn Randians,” considers how radical libertarians, never enthusiastic about democracy because of the threat it posed to property rights, gradually gained ideological and political influence since the 1960s and came to dominate the Republican Party. Part IID, “Economic Inequality,” explores how working-class Americans, whose economic position stopped improving about forty years ago, have become disaffected with a democratic political system that no longer works for them. Part IIE explains how these other developments, refracted through American political and media ecosystems, have produced a politics of asymmetric polarization, hardball, and negative partisanship, which created a Republican Party no longer strongly committed to democracy and prepared to defend at all costs a president with a strong authoritarian bent.
Part III examines the Supreme Court’s contributions to the degradation of American democracy. The Court’s conservatives abrogated the preclearance provision of the Voting Rights Act, enabling Republican governments in the South to enact voting restrictions enabling the party to maintain political power in rapidly diversifying states such as Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, and Texas. The Court’s Republican Justices have also upheld stringent voter-identification laws and purges of the voter rolls, both of which purport to address the largely non-existent problem of voter fraud, while disfranchising Democratic-leaning constituencies, such as persons of color, the poor, and the young. Most recently, the conservative Justices have declined to intervene against partisan gerrymandering, which has mostly benefitted Republicans in recent years.
The Court’s campaign finance decisions, dating back to 1976 but becoming increasingly extreme over the last decade, have created a political system dominated by money, which advantages Republicans who disproportionately benefit from the political spending of the most affluent Americans. In Bush v. Gore (2000), the Court helped to elect a Republican president, who appointed two conservative Justices, without whose participation none of the recent rulings undermining democracy would have been possible.
In 2019, the conservative Justices fell one vote short of enabling Republicans to entrench themselves in power for another decade by ensuring that persons of color would be undercounted in the 2020 census. Only a last-minute change of heart by the Chief Justice stymied that effort. The conservative justices have also abjured the Court’s traditional role in protecting vulnerable racial and religious minorities from discrimination by validating the Trump administration’s thinly veiled ban on Muslim travel to the United States. Part III concludes by discussing how constitutional interpretation works in general and why the Republican majority’s rulings on issues of democratic governance nearly always benefit the Republican Party.
Part IV briefly considers how to bolster American democracy. The best way to stem the degradation of democracy is to entrench democracy. Yet, this is an uphill battle, both because political actors who benefit from the status quo are incentivized to resist changes to it and because various structural features of the American political system advantage Republicans. To entrench democracy, Democrats would need to overcome simultaneously the disadvantages of partisan gerrymandering and geographic clustering in state legislatures and the House of Representatives, extreme malapportionment in the Senate, the vagaries and malapportionment of the electoral college, and the flood of unregulated political spending that the Court has unleashed. Even then, Republican Justices might invalidate democracy-entrenching measures. Moreover, some such measures, such as campaign-finance reform, may require a constitutional amendment, given the conservative Justices’ strained interpretations of the First Amendment.
The Court has a Republican majority today only because Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell stole a Supreme Court seat from Democrats in 2016, when he refused to permit President Obama to fill the vacancy left by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia. The entrenchment of democracy will probably require Democrats to undo that theft.
A brief Conclusion examines competing reasons to be pessimistic and optimistic regarding prospects for stemming the degradation of American democracy, and reflects on the deeply contingent nature of this story’s outcome.
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