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As if 2020 didn’t have a reputation for the dramatics, the United States finds itself at a uniquely special moment in our history. This American moment is one that stands to shape our politics and our lives for a generation or more – and whatever happens is likely happening soon; many of the major plot points are set to happen within the next six weeks.
The unexpected death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg – the plot twist that almost feels written in a Shonda Rhimes series – turns the tables in a fight that began (of sorts) in the last election cycle. The ramifications of filling Ginsburg seat with a Trump-appointed conservative justice is monumental in the history of this country. (That doesn’t consider the fact that if re-elected, some believe Trump could get 3-4 more appointments to the court.)
In America, where we view politics through the lens of conservative and progressive, especially in a moment like this, it’s important to not immediately jump past the real definitions of those monikers. I recently wrote a tweet thread that aimed to really breakdown the fundamental core of what it means to be on either end of the spectrum.
A simple dictionary.com search turns up the following useful explanations:
Conservative is defined as “disposed to preserve existing conditions, institutions, etc., or to restore traditional ones, and to limit change.”
Progressive is defined as “favoring or advocating progress, change, improvement, or reform, as opposed to wishing to maintain things as they are, especially in political matters.”
It’s the difference between “Make America (back into what it was) Great, Again” and “Make America Great For Everyone (like seriously, everybody though).”
This is at the core of why this moment is momentous.
The United States of America has grown increasingly progressive. Since we’re looking at a presidential election, we’ll use it as a barometer. If you look at every presidential election since 1992, the United States’ popular vote has gone to a Democrat six of the last seven times. Yes. Republicans have only won the popular vote one time, in 2004. Before that, it was in 1988 – both of those wins were for men first name George, last name Bush.
Similarly, data from CNBC in 2019 found that a growing majority of Americans tend to favor progressive values instead of conservative ones. Fifty four percent of those polled said they supported medicare for all; free tuition for state and public college is supported by 57%; raising the minimum wage, 60%: funding for childcare has the support of 75% of people and paid maternity leave has undeniable support with 84%. These are all Democratic values, platform positions, and talking points.
And Republicans know this. It’s at the core of why they’ve allowed Donald Trump to get away with just about everything – or at least it’s what they say. Getting to take a progressive Supreme Court Justice’s seat and flip it conservative gives Republicans additional control in the third and final branch of government: the Judicial. They already have control in the Executive Branch and half the power in the Legislative. Republicans will then have utilized Donald Trump to pack the Supreme Court and the lower courts with conservative judges that will rule in conservative’s favor more often than not – and they’ll do it for a decades because their appointments to those courts are lifelong.
It’s also important to remember that this is a Census year. The Trump administration had long before this year started meddling in the Census threatening to add a citizenship question – an issue that went to the Supreme Court, where it was blocked. And then COVID-19 increased the level of difficulty for collecting Census data for myriad reasons, one of the most of which is people not being able to go door to door to collect data from under-represented communities.
But, the Census data that’s being (under)collected in America this year will have ramifications for the drawing of our local districts, how we’re represented in Congress, and where money actually goes in each of those representative districts. In short, so many of us will be undercounted and see as not even really existing in the eyes of much the government for the next 10 years. (Don’t worry, the IRS still knows how to find you.)
The representation of congressional districts is impacted by the Census data. That means the federal dollars in your local area are determined by whether or not you are here, according to the Census.
And because Republicans have spent so much time, strategy and money on redrawing districts in their local state houses, they’ve been able to edge out the voters they don’t want and keep the ones they do. They’ve even done it smart enough to be able to lose their local elections in the popular vote and still hold on to local power anyway. Those gerrymandered districts also tend to make it more difficult to vote for Black and brown people, poor people, and others, often in removing polling places saying they aren’t necessary. And that’s by design.
Gerrymandering and voter suppression is another issue that’s come before the Supreme Court twice in recent years. Luckily, in one case, the court protected the rights of the people to not have their districts drawn in politically advantageous ways. The other decision was basically left up to the states, which was likely prove harmful when it comes time to re-district post-Census.
Republicans know that holding on to those local seats is key to being able to increase their power and make it increasingly difficult for Democrats to get it back for a very long time. Their goal is to essentially make the court far more conservative than the actual constituency of people it is supposed to serve.
The court would be more conservative than more than half of the country on many issues. A few examples:
On abortion: 79% of Americans believe that abortion should be legal in some capacity, according to Gallup. (Note: 50% said it should be available with restrictions, 29% said it should be available under any circumstances.) However, a Supreme Court with yet another Trump appointee would mean the conservative court’s seeming position would likely represent the beliefs of only 20% of Americans’ views.
On healthcare: Over the course of the last 20 years, more often than not, Americans believed that it is the responsibility of the federal government to make sure all Americans have healthcare coverage, according to Gallup. Most recently, in Nov. 2019, 54% of those polled said the government should ensure coverage. Appointing a conservative justice to the bench would mean that the court would likely be representing a minority (only 45%) of Americans’ views on the role of government in healthcare. This has direct implications for the affordable care act (Obamacare), which is especially handy in the middle of a pandemic going into flu season. Not to mention Trump is fighting to abolish healthcare while running that he wants to give it to people – you should go to his website and read his plan. (Spoiler alert: simply going to the Trump campaign website, you’ll find no such plan. Because there ain’t one.)
On executive powers: “Overall, 66% of those surveyed said it’s too risky to give presidents more power, down from 76% in 2018,” reported a Pew Research Poll in December of 2019, while sentiment was both very partisan. (Republicans were much more willing to give a Republican president more power, as were Democrats when a Democrat was in power.)
The examples of abortion, healthcare, and executive powers are intentional. Each of these issues is before the Supreme Court in the coming months, with rulings that will shape a woman’s right to choose, all of our rights to healthcare, and answer the question of whether or not a president (read: Trump) can defy a congressional subpoena and basically do whatever he wants because he’s president.
That doesn’t even consider the looming presidential election that will almost surely be hotly contested, potentially arriving at the steps of our highest court yet again, like just 20 years ago with Bush v. Gore.
The Supreme Court has more than two dozen cases to hear before the end of 2020. They are cases on issues questioning our everyday rights. The people on that court make decisions that will touch the lives of Americans all over this country, every single day.
And with the high likelihood that Republicans could fill the late RBG’s seat, all isn’t a total wash yet. There are rumblings of all kinds of things that Democrats could do to try to slow things down or stop Republicans.
Options such as reforming the filibuster; a new President Biden teaming up with a newly democratic senate to add more seats to the Supreme Court. There’s talk of whether Democrats could diversify the pool of representation by granting statehood to Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C.. But none of these could even be considered if Joe Biden and Kamala Harris don’t get the votes to decisively win in November and Democrats regain control in the Senate.
So, the simple answer to why this moment matters so much is this: Similar to Republicans not being able to win the popular vote but getting to govern nonetheless, putting a conservative in Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s seat would mold the court into the image of the Republican Party – which, the data shows, is an image that time and time again Americans have rejected, but may be subjected to because Republicans will have gamed the system and, effectively, gained the system.