The year in politics, for me at least, has been largely a year of breathlessness and angst. I cancelled my subscription to the Atlantic because I couldn’t read One More Article about Donald Trump. At some point the endless drumbeat of the damage that he’s causing to the environment, to civil rights, to our international standing (with the economy likely waiting in the wings if the tariff rampage continues), becomes just noise: superfluous at best, sustaining an undercurrent of unhealthy, perpetual anxiety at the worst.
I avoid articles on Congress if they’re likely to invoke the name of Mitch McConnell for similar reasons: his blatant hypocrisy, gleeful subversion of congressional norms and sheer delight in obstructing the work of governance is as predictable as it is maddening. (Republican legislators in Oregon have recently taken a page from this playbook, with their own charming militial spin, fleeing the state rather than acknowledging that they have lost the majority and governing from the minority in good faith.)
But there have been a few bright spots in this otherwise bleak season – as the presidential primaries begin, and from the Supreme Court – and for now at least I find myself feeling the initial fragile stirrings of some species of hope, for a while at least.
Democrats in Action
At first I thought the sheer number of Democrats seeking the presidential nomination was preposterous. But then the first debates rolled around – two of them, to accommodate the crowded field – and I was happier than I expected to see so many viewpoints on display.
It was heartening to hear that after the first round of debates a fact-checker cancelled his CNN television appearance because the participants were so scrupulously honest that there wasn’t much to say. That meant that there were ten political candidates all mostly striving to tell voters the truth – a striking contrast to the President, who has been documented as telling more than 10,000 falsehoods in less than three years.
The first debate was largely polite and policy-heavy, and if the second night involved more bickering, it still didn’t devolve into insults and name calling. Even in what was largely considered the standout moment of the night, California Senator Kamala Harris calling out Joe Biden on his opposition to desegregation busing in the 1970s, she gave him the space to say that he regretted the decision – he just didn’t take it.
There was derision about the field being so large and so dilute, but even after a single debate there were signs of the situation sorting itself out. I can recall names like Delaney and Swalwell, but I can’t remember anything about them other than Swalwell’s rather clever recitation of a younger Biden’s insistence that the older generation “pass the torch” going on a little too long for rhetorical effectiveness. And it seems to me that Beta O’Rourke occupies to his detriment the same “young white dude” space as Pete Buttigieg – except that Buttigieg also embodies the national tension of being gay and Christian, which makes him stand out more. And then there was Marianne Williamson talking about love which…nice sentiment, I guess? But not what I or probably much of anyone else wants out of a foreign policy leader. Kim Jong Un and Vladimir Putin aren’t going to care about love.
I liked that there were thoughts about how to improve the lot of the average American on display. Did I think they were practical? Not entirely. But while pundits like Washington Post columnist Max Boot may contemptuously refer to the party of no ideas versus the party of bad ideas, my personal preference is for someone whose idealism may meet a harsh reality over someone who insists that the electorate should wait for the largesse of Corporate America to trickle down to them, which it somehow never does. Or to accustom itself to inevitable worsening circumstances. Privatized Medicare instead of Medicare for All. Cuts to Social Security. Crippling student debt being normalized under the banner of “I had it hard when I was young.” Potentially catastrophic and irreversible climate change being met with a “Let’s wait and see because I don’t believe it” attitude.
I can’t wrap my head around the notion that my older generation is content to tell their children, “We don’t care about leaving things worse than we found them.” And so it was a relief to hear so many politicians saying, “That answer isn’t good enough.”
As with many women, Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination process was a gut punch for me. I was horrified when he was confirmed, and it was a week before I reestablished any kind of emotional equilibrium. In the turmoil’s wake Elena Kagan, Sonia Sotomayer and Chief Justice John Roberts all sought to reassure a dubious nation that the Supreme Court would continue to rise above partisanship, with Roberts stressing that the court was at its worst when it succumbed to political pressure, such as upholding the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.
I was skeptical. Politicians generally deploy cries of partisanship as something the other side should stop doing, and I expected Roberts to be no different. But so far I have been pleasantly surprised. The court has turned away a number of politically contentious cases, allowing lower court rulings to stand rather than enshrine precedent at the federal level, and these rulings have not been particularly prejudiced to one side of the ideological spectrum or the other. Not every ruling on cases heard in 2019 has been 5-4, and Kagan, Sotomayer, Roberts and even Gorsuch have crossed the ideological aisle on some of them (enough that more conservative circles have begun to question whether Roberts is some kind of crypto-liberal who isn’t in their corner at all).
Two rulings at the end of this term seem emblematic of the Roberts court. In Department of Commerce v. New York, Roberts sided with the liberals in criticizing the Trump administration’s justification for adding a citizenship question to the 2020 census, as evidence suggested the intent was to give conservatives a voting advantage by depressing participation among certain segments of the population. In keeping with his insistence that he intends his court to be non-partisan, he refused to allow the question.
In Rucho v. Common Cause, he voted with the conservatives in claiming that “federal courts have no role in determining whether congressional districts have been gerrymandered for political purposes, leaving states free to redraw maps as they see fit.” The liberal response to these rulings was about what one might expect: a Washington Post headline bifurcated the decisions neatly into “a victory for fairness” and “a blemish on democracy.”
But my own feelings on the gerrymander result in particular are more muddied. While Kagan’s dissent was stirring, consisting of such statements as, “The gerrymanders here — and others like them — violated the constitutional rights of many hundreds of thousands of American citizens,” I was also sympathetic to Roberts’ claim that while scrutinizing racial gerrymandering still fell well within the court’s purview, assessing political motivations was a more difficult and intrusive task. And as Charles Lane pointed out in an opinion piece, Bush v. Gore showed us what can happen when courts intervene in the political process. Resentment about that decision still lingers years later. Again aside from obvious racial biases, do we really want them involved in the politics of redistricting?
Furthermore, a 2018 FiveThirtyEight article attempting to measure the impact of gerrymandering on non-competitive elections and political extremism concluded that while it has some effect, voters themselves may bear a heavier weight of responsibility, as there has been a trend toward self-sorting into isolated political districts and preferring candidates with more extreme views. And with regard to Congressional gridlock, it suggests little need to look farther than the filibuster: state legislatures (with the recent exception of Oregon) are often equally polarized and still manage to pass bills.
And most compelling to me personally is the fact that angry voters in a number of states seem to be moving the needle on partisan redistricting themselves, with seventeen states having some sort of independent commission to oversee the process. So as long as progress is being made, do we really need judicial intervention? Or should that be saved for truly entrenched and intractable social ills where the broader populace refuses to budge, such as civil rights?
Politics was at the heart of both these rulings: specifically, the desire to dilute voter power. On the one hand, while census data is used to allocate seats in the House of Representatives, it also serves a number of non-voting-related functions, from informing planning decisions regarding community needs such as services for the elderly and the construction of roads and schools (and helping individual states with related endeavors) to collecting and archiving records of interest to genealogists and historians. Since, Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ claim to the contrary notwithstanding, a citizenship question on the census has not been the norm, it seems logical that a justice who wants to avoid the appearance of partisanship would strike it down.
Redistricting, however, is an essentially political process, and gerrymandering has been notorious since 1812, so in this case (once again, it can’t be stressed often enough, as opposed to racial bias in redistricting) the court would have been wading into a quagmire that has been festering for literally centuries. It should not be surprising that a man of Roberts’ stated principles would refuse to get involved.
The Glimmers of Hope
What I find so alarming about a man like Donald Trump is that he doesn’t seem to subscribe to any ideology beyond self-aggrandizement, self-promotion, and self-service. What is so infuriating about a legislator like Mitch McConnell is that whatever conservative ideology he might have believed in once upon a time seems to have been supplanted by such an exuberantly rabid desire to see his opponents fail at all costs that he’s willing to toss aside any norm to achieve it (consider his endless stalling of legislation, or his chuckling over the possibility of appointing a Supreme Court justice during an election year after denying Obama the same right).
So during the debates it was something of a balm listening to twenty intelligent, thoughtful people exploring issues of substance (well maybe nineteen, I’m not sure what was up with Marianne Williamson), even if their solutions had a whiff of the utopian about them. And though whoever wins the primary is going to be up against the word salad bombast of Trump, in the meantime I can have a bit of a respite from the political discourse never rising above the level of “Pocahontas” and “Sleepy Joe.”
It has been a more tentative relief observing the Supreme Court’s decisions during its first conservative majority term. As a liberal I of course haven’t been happy with all of them, or with the cases they chose to turn away, and the rightmost wing of the court seems too devoted to the erosion of LGBTQ, immigrant, and women’s rights for me to rest completely easy.
But at least for the Democratic candidates and Chief Justice Roberts I do believe there are ideologies in play. Some that I’m more sympathetic to than others, some that I think are downright harmful. A Slate article suggested that though Roberts would like to move the court farther to the right, “at moments of greatest political turmoil, when the court is in the crosshairs because governmental bad behavior or Trumpian bungling puts it there, Roberts will take public sentiment into account and modulate the uproar.”
But isn’t the willingness to take public sentiment into account precisely what distinguishes an individual with an ideology from an ideologue? Of course Roberts is going to try to move the court to the right: he espouses conservative beliefs. And if we had a liberal chief justice, they would be trying to shift the court leftward. But as long as he is willing to bend to the principled will of the voters I believe there is hope.
And therein lies the reason why protesting matters, why pressuring representatives matters, why voting matters. Because even if men like Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell don’t give a damn about the American people, there are others in positions of authority who may be listening.