Wednesday, December 22, 2021

Democracy Can Die in the Sunlight, Too

by Neil H. Buchanan
 
There are plenty of reasons for people to live in denial.  Indeed, some element of denial is required to allow us to function in even the most basic aspects of our lives.  
 
The thing that we call money, after all, is a convention based on (nearly) everyone's willingness to pretend that money has value and is not just worthless pieces of paper along with bits of data in cyberspace -- a belief that becomes self-fulfilling and thus valid only when enough people believe it.  As I put it almost nine years ago, pretending that money is not imaginary constitutes a "group delusion" that is absolutely essential for a modern economy to function.

Even more fundamentally, what would happen if people were no longer able to compartmentalize knowledge of their own mortality?  At some point growing up, we become aware of the inevitabilities of our universe, but in various ways we figure out how to proceed without spiraling into despair.  As people grow older, some become convinced that they need to be more active and productive while there is still time, while others seem able to convince themselves that they can somehow never even grow old, much less face death.

And all of that is a good!  The many ways in which we ignore horrible truths -- as a vegan, I am occasionally overwhelmed by the knowledge of the horrific lives and deaths that humans inflict upon billions of sentient beings every year, yet most of the time I am somehow able not to think about any of that -- are part of being healthy, productive, happy people.

Obviously, however, there have to be limits.  Various psychological disorders include as part of their pathologies extreme levels of denial about any number of realities.  And well short of that, people can doom themselves to miserable "golden years" by refusing to confront the need to save for retirement.  "I'll be fine, because I have x years left to save for retirement," as x approaches zero.

When it comes to the death of American constitutional democracy -- a death that is completely avoidable, because human biology puts no limits on the lifespan of our system -- far too many people have responded to the growing reasons for alarm by escaping further and further into denial.  And that denial turns the not-entirely-certain end of the rule of law into an inevitable tragedy, one that is all the more agonizing because it is indeed avoidable.

Today's specific example: the debate over expanding the Supreme Court.

I should clarify here that I will be focusing my ire on the non-Trump/Republican side of the American political establishment.  Like many observers, I often focus on that group of moderate conservatives and liberals, even though the true villains in the story are the White supremacists and their enablers on the right who have revealed with increasingly brazen glee that they simply do not care about the end of the American experiment.  Indeed, many are actively destroying it.

This is not at all a new observation, but we do often take for granted the evil on the right, because it has become old news.  Still, the examples are legion.  When one considers that Mitch McConnell could not single-handedly have stolen a Supreme Court seat -- he needed all of his caucus to fall in line and stand together against every historical norm, as well as against decency itself -- we know that this is not a small cabal at work.  It is the entire right's current version of normal.

Every one of the supposed "thoughtful" Republican senators who are wrongly described as moderates in the press has failed the nation again and again.  Mitt Romney deserves credit for voting to convict Donald Trump in both impeachment trials, but Romney is fully on board with everything else, from forcing Democrats to increase the debt ceiling with no Republican votes to filibustering every attempt to reverse voter suppression, gerrymandering, and so on.  Go down the list -- Ben Sasse, Lisa Murkowski, Rob Portman, Susan Collins (ugh), and anyone else you care to name who is supposedly reasonable and non-extreme -- and at best there is one momentary pleasant surprise or two.  Everything else is lockstep Trump/Republicanism.

In my newest Verdict column, I return to the Republicans' naked political play in 2017 to punish Blue states by limiting the federal deduction for state and local tax payments (the so-called SALT deduction).  That is a particularly galling example of Republicans' commitment to political dirty pool, because even the press's ultimate example of a "conservative with an independent streak," the late Senator John McCain, not only went along with the SALT limitation but with the entire tax giveaway to the rich -- even though the bill had not been presented under "regular order" only a few weeks after McCain had scolded his colleagues for violating regular order.
 
So the villains are not difficult to identify.  The problem is that there are far too many people who seem not to be villainous but who act as if they are blind to the villainy that surrounds them.  My Verdict column discusses people across the non-Trump spectrum, from habitually conservative NeverTrumpers to neoliberal centrists to honest-to-goodness progressives, who badly misunderstand the stakes in the SALT deduction debate.  The Republicans passed the SALT limitation to harm Blue states for being blue, and to make it more difficult for those states to fund anti-poverty programs (and schools, and everything else that we ought to care about), yet those non-Republicans take to their fainting couches at the very idea that a good policy response might also help some wealthier people in Chevy Chase or Scarsdale.
 
Most of the people that I am criticizing are not in fact powerful or important, at least individually.  Whenever I am worried that some of the favored media insiders have too much power, I remind myself that even Paul Krugman, who is undeniably important in the world of academic economics even as he continues his twenty-plus-year run as a New York Times columnist, seems to have no identifiable impact on the path of events.

And it is not only the people who write op-ed columns.  Former FBI Director James Comey will deservedly be condemned by historians for being as close to a but-for cause of Trump's presidency as we could find, but people often forget (and Comey barely bothers to justify) that he did Trump an enormous favor earlier in 2016 by holding a diva-like press conference announcing that he was not recommending criminal charges against Hillary Clinton.  That he violated the Department of Justice's longstanding protocols to do so made it even worse.

That earlier performance highlights a situation in which Comey, like all of the people I am criticizing here, could rightly tell himself that he was not doing something that would ultimately matter, so he could indulge his own biases and feed his ego.  At the time, Trump was still considered likely to drag the entire Republican Party into a historic sinkhole, so what was the harm in Comey proving his cleverness by saying: "See, I'm independent and fair, because I'm criticizing both sides"?

The common thread here is that too many non-villainous people who operate in the U.S. political ecosystem seem positively obsessed with maintaining their credibility by keeping up appearances.  They need to appear to be "not too" -- not too liberal, not too partisan, not too predictable, not too critical of conservatives.  And that leads them to deny that democracy is dying, because they want to be seen as not too pessimistic.  "It's fine.  American institutions are strong.  Democracy hasn't died yet, so it'll never die."

Easily the most annoying recent example of not-apparently-villainous people who are living in denial about the stakes in today's debates, however, is the response by some nominal centrists and liberals to proposals to expand the size of the Supreme Court.  It begins with their willing adoption of the term "court packing" (which I critiqued in a column late last year).  This immediately guarantees political defeat, and it gets much worse.

If one were to try to identify the purest example outside of the Democratic Party of "the liberal establishment," it would be difficult to do better than to turn our attention to the editorial board of The Washington Post.  When the idea of expanding the Supreme Court resurfaced this month, they immediately published a piece saying (in the headline) that "court packing is a terrible idea."

But that was not enough for the defenders of the "not too" faith.  When E.J. Dionne, one of The Post's liberal columnists, decided to write in favor of expanding the Court, the Deputy Editorial Page Editor (who works for the Department of Redundancy Department, apparently) decided that she simply had to create her version of balance, running what amounted to a rebuttal next to Dionne's column.
 
Based on some annoying personal experiences, I normally give writers a great deal of slack for the headlines that appear above their columns, but given the source in this case, we can attribute the headline to the writer: "Court-packing is not the answer to this problem."  Her attempt in the text to have it both ways -- referring to court-packing as "the more inflammatory term" -- is thus more than a bit hard to take.
 
But this is not merely about self-negating rhetoric.  The substance of the argument, if one can call it that, boils down to this:  Yes, what Republicans did is bad, but expanding the court is worse. Because, um, it’s bad. And the Court’s hyperconservatives might occasionally have a satisfying breakfast and decide not do their worst that day.  Admittedly, the piece is such pudding that it was not easy to tease that out, but that is what it amounts to.

The piece spends much of its time explaining just how bad the current situation is.  The Court has been hijacked by McConnell and the Republicans, and bad things are already happening.  So why not fix it, the writer asks?  No surprise, the answer is that the slope is slippery:
Why would expansion stop there? Almost certainly, it would not. Once a Republican president and Republican Congress are in power, the pattern would continue, with the party in charge tempted to further stack the court if its balance were not to the party’s liking or when the court issued decisions with which it disagreed. The court would grow to ever more unwieldy proportions — one estimate concluded that the court would likely increase to 23 over the next 50 years.
Talk about playing the long game!  Golly, the Court could end up being big (but still five seats smaller than the current 9th Circuit) a half century from now.  The horror.

And the other standard move is to say that this would undermine the Court's legitimacy.  But as Dionne's headline put it: "The alternative to Supreme Court enlargement is surrender."  The choice is between a "legitimate" Court that gained power illegitimately and is a willing partner in the Republicans' assault on the rule of law (and on women's control over their own bodies, to name just one of many examples), or an illegitimate Court that everyone understands is a political institution.  That truly is the choice, so why are we choosing the former and not the latter?

The Post's editor's answer?  "The majority — albeit without the newest justice — showed itself willing to stand up to some of the worst of President Donald Trump’s behavior and to resist invitations to meddle in the 2020 election."  That is a pretty big "albeit."  She then adds that, "as Scalia’s unexpected death demonstrated, anything can happen. A six-justice conservative majority is not necessarily a permanent condition. One of those six, Roberts, has demonstrated his willingness, at times, to show restraint."
 
This means that we must protect the supposed legitimacy of the Court because it might not issue terrible decisions all the time.  And what the heck, lightning might strike and save us ... at some unspecified time in the future.  Maybe.  More to the point, the headline to that nonsensical column asserted that expanding the Court "is not the answer to this problem."  Okay, so what is the answer?  Sitting tight and hoping for the best is not an answer.

To repeat, the opinion column that I am criticizing here is of a piece with the people who think that it is of surpassing importance to maintain credibility for being "not too" extreme.  But we are in an extreme situation, and people who make weak arguments to defend the indefensible are very much a part of the problem.
 
A few years ago, The Post adopted the slogan: "Democracy dies in darkness."  That is true, but secrecy is not the only thing that can kill democracy.  It turns out that democracy can also drown in self-regard, timidity, and mediocrity.