We’re just about there, this moment in the 233-year-old American experiment at which the nation shifts, or doesn’t, from the world’s longest enduring liberal democracy to the rigid embrace of age-old authoritarianism – a quick sashay from vibrant republican (small “r” intentional) governance to reactionary, if not authoritarian, rule.
America lost a treasure with the passing of U.S. Supreme Court Justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a heroine in America’s pantheon of greats…talk about someone fighting above their weight.
President Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell rushed announcements within hours of her death that they plan to push through Ginsburg’s replacement before the next President takes office. It is remarkably telling and remarkably concerning.
First, let’s establish that it has been the position of the leadership of both political parties (including, of course, McConnell himself) that a Supreme Court vacancy that occurs in the final months of one Administration should not be filled until the new Administration is elected and in place.
McConnell, referring to President Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland, said in 2016, “it was just too close to the election,” That was eleven months before an election. Even Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman, Republican Lindsay Graham, agreed. Listen to him, during the 2016 Presidential primaries, “I will tell you this: If an opening comes (on the Supreme Court) in the last year of President Trump’s term, we will wait to the next election.”
Ah, yes, but that was then, and this is now. Why the unseemly rush? Here’s why. Trump and McConnell and Graham do not think Trump is likely to win. If they were reasonably confident of victory next month, they would, well, do what they said they would do.
The people are a few weeks away from voting for the next President of The United States. Supreme Court appointments have always been a high priority for voters in America. After all, Supreme Court Justices can affect America long after any particular President has come and gone. While there is nothing in the constitution that precludes a President from making a Supreme Court appointment at the end of his or her term, it makes sense to accord deference to the next Administration, and in effect, the American electorate.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s influence on American life has been seismic, especially regarding how we perceive the role and the rights of women in America. Few today, disagree with the equal-rights-for-women principles for which she argued and won before the Court — few other than those who, deep down inside, still harbor the notion that women are best kept barefoot and pregnant.
Trump, just hours after Justice Ginsburg passed away, rushed to tweet that Republicans must fill the seat without delay. “We were put in this position of power and the importance to make decisions for the people who so proudly elected us, the most important of which has long been considered to be the selection of United States Supreme Court Justices. We have this obligation without delay.” (sic)
Presidential opponent, Joe Biden, had a somewhat different take, “Let me be clear that the voters should pick the President and the President should pick the justice for the Senate to consider. This was the position the Republican Senate took in 2016 when there were almost ten months to go before the election. That’s the position the United States Senate must take today when the election is only 46 days off.”
Ruth Bader Ginsburg, herself, also weighed in just before her death. “My most fervent wish is that I will not be replaced until a new president is installed,” she told her granddaughter during her last moments. Why, one might ask, would that be Justice Ginsburg’s dying wish? She was not terribly partisan. Her best friend was Republican conservative Anton Scalia. That was her wish, I believe, because she knew American democracy was at stake. She seemed to be hanging on by her fingernails, holding out until a new President might be elected.
For those who wonder whether America is drifting toward authoritarianism, wonder no more.
We are. When we are led, or misled, by a President who will try to ram through a Supreme Court nomination in the very waning days before an election —
or, who requires that vital public-health guidance to the people during a deadly pandemic be cleansed for political correctness —
or, who defines truth as being whatever he says, even when what he says is demonstrably and breathtakingly false —
or, when he slanders former public servants and war heroes because they oppose or disagree with him —
or, when in Orwellian fashion, he defines news that is not laudatory as fake news —
or, when he describes critical news media or political opponents and their political parties as “the enemy of the people” —
or, when he lies about the virus ravaging the nation and tells the people that everything is under control, and to go about their business as though there’s no danger when he fully understands the deadly threat —
or, who says, and probably believes, that he knows more about our enemies than the military leaders who lead our armed services —
or, who uses brute force to clear peaceful demonstrators so that he can strut through a public park and pose with a bible for a photo-op before a historic church —
or, who stages political rallies for the sole purpose of slandering political opponents and opposing parties —
or, who uses the White House, the National Gallery of Art, the Washington Monument, and other government property to stage garish expressions of self-aggrandizement worthy of a Heidi Riefenstahl extravaganza of another era and another place.
The V-Dem or Varieties of Democracy Project, coordinated in The United States by the Kellogg Institute for International Studies at Notre Dame University’s Keough School of Global Affairs, studies the health of democracies around the world. Its team includes a dozen researchers at eleven universities in the United States, Europe, and Latin America, and 31 regional managers and consults with over 2000 experts throughout the world. It finds that the United States is undergoing “substantial autocratization” — defined as the loss of democratic traits that has accelerated precipitously under President Trump. This is particularly alarming in light of what the group’s historical data shows: only 1 in 5 democracies that start down this path are able to reverse the damage before succumbing to full-blown autocracy.
“Executive branch respect for the Constitution is now at the lowest level since 1865,” said Michael Coppedge, a Notre Dame political scientist and one of the project’s chief investigators.
Brendan Nyhan, Professor of Government at Dartmouth College and co-director of Bright Line Watch, a group that routinely surveys hundreds of political scientists, and issues periodic assessments of the health of democracy in the United States, notes that democracy is in trouble when a President warns, “The only way we’re going to lose this election is if the election is rigged.”
“Democracy depends on both sides accepting the results of free and fair elections and willingly turning over power to the other side if they lose. “We’ve never had a president attack our electoral system in this way,” Professor Nyhan says.
Staffan Lindberg, a political scientist at the University of Gothenburg in Stockholm, Sweden, who also works on the V-Dem Project refers to presidential attacks on the pillars of democracy as “dictator drift,” and says it’s a common feature of authoritarian leaders around the world.
“That’s Erdogan in Turkey,” Lindberg said. “That’s Lukashenko in Belarus. That’s Orban in Hungary. That’s a slew of African dictators.”
Is it time to panic in America? No. It is time to be concerned. Yes, be very concerned.