Aspects of American politics might change, but the critical dynamic remains the same. Republicans are abusing the rules of governance and destabilizing democracy, and they are dismantling every norm that makes bipartisan government possible.
Such is the case with the Supreme Court nomination of Ketanji Brown Jackson. On April 4, Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee refused to move Jackson’s nomination to the full Senate, thereby deadlocking the committee. This forced Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to file a discharge motion—highly unusual for Supreme Court nominations—just to bring the nomination to the Senate floor. Three Republican senators (Mitt Romney, Susan Collins, and Lisa Murkowski) voted for the discharge motion to advance the nomination.
That Jackson will win confirmation should not disguise the ramifications for future nominations. If Democrats did not control the Senate, the deadlock in the Judiciary Committee would have put Brown’s fate in the hands of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who would surely have scuttled the nomination. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham admitted as much, saying that Jackson would never have received a hearing if the GOP controlled the Senate.
This kind of hyper-obstructionism ratifies the hypocritical precedent set by Republicans in 2016 when they refused to consider President Barack Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court and then ramrodded Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination through the Senate just before Election Day 2020.
The new Republican Supreme Court standard guarantees that, unless Democrats control the Senate, no Democratic president will see their Court nominee considered by the chamber. This collapse of institutional norms renders the Court more nakedly partisan than it is.
Democrats would be suicidally foolish not to follow suit, given the Court’s control on public policy.
But Republicans also know that Democrats will have trouble being as craven, given the Republican structural advantage in the Senate. The Senate’s skew toward older, whiter, more rural electorates in small-population states means that the median Senate seat is now at least five points more Republican than the national median. The Senate is currently a 50-50 tie even though Democratic senators represent 43 million more Americans. A recent analysis by the political scientist David Shor suggests that Republicans could lose the popular presidential vote in 2024 and still end up with a filibuster-proof majority of 60 senators.
Democrats have won the popular vote in seven of the past eight presidential elections. But the GOP tilt of the Electoral College has twice put the loser of the popular vote in the White House in the previous 25 years. Combined with the blockade of Obama’s third nominee, this has resulted in the appointment of a conservative supermajority on the Supreme Court wildly out of touch with the political preferences of the majority of Americans.
A future in which partisan control of the Senate determines the appointment of Supreme Court justices heavily favors the Republican Party. By 2040, two-thirds of Americans will be represented by just 30 percent of the Senate. This is an intolerable imbalance of power for any republic, much less the world’s leading democracy.
Coalitions do change. It’s possible that the current rural-urban divide could shift if Democrats become, say, more conservative on social issues without alienating their younger, left-leaning base. But even if party allegiances shifted, it would still mean that the median preferences of a much smaller number of older white conservatives in states like Wyoming would overrule those of the much larger, younger, more diverse, and more prosperous cohort from states like California to a degree the Founders could not have imagined. Biden-voting blue counties in 2020 with 52 percent of the national popular vote represented more than 70 percent of the nation’s GDP. As James Fallows has noted, “when the U.S. Senate was created, there was a ‘mere’ 10-to-1 population difference between the most and least populous states (Virginia and Delaware). Now it’s roughly 70-to-1 (California and Wyoming).”
How long can an overwhelmingly larger segment of the population with far more significant economic productivity remain hostage to a more extremist and declining population wielding control of the unrepresentative Senate and a Supreme Court eager to give individual states license to curtail reproductive and voting rights?
This is a grim future: Republicans will hold anti-majoritarian power over a disgruntled and disempowered majority, with all the horrific crackdowns and propaganda such structures inevitably entail—or risk liberals being forced to implement radical reforms whenever a thermostatic electoral swing gives them the window to do so.
It is hard to imagine blue states representing more of the population and still more of the GDP, simply enduring the iron rule of a Senate and Supreme Court kicking against modernity and stymieing governance on everything from climate to health care.
The best-case scenario would be blue states, or blue cities in red states, simply nullifying federal laws much the way some cannabis or immigration laws are currently being enforced (or not), returning the country to a dysfunctional system like that under the Articles of Confederation.
It is up to the GOP to become a serious party that tries to win national majorities. Conservatives risk destabilization in pursuit of minority autocratic rule over a restive and diverse population of younger, more affluent Americans who despise them. Such efforts rarely end well.