Education is about passing along the lessons of the past to better prepare our students for the future. I believe we are seeing one of the most profound moments in our nation’s history play out in real time, a tipping point that may well spell the end of the Great American Experiment. While most of us can’t do anything but watch, I can at least suggest that educators see the magnitude of this moment and help the next generation understand and learn.
(Disclosure: I am a social liberal, a fiscal conservative, what pollsters would describe as a left-of-center centrist. For decades I was not registered with either major party; more recently I have generally voted Democratic, but have supported Republicans, including the first precinct work I did as a teenager. I am also a dedicated student of history.)
When, as seems likely, the Senate votes to seat the next member of the Supreme Court, in a complete reversal of their refusal to vote on President Obama’s nomination nine months before an election, they will have slammed shut the door on one of the most fundamental building blocks of any democracy; the idea that playing by a certain basic set of rules will and should take precedence over politics. We teach this to our kids. We play games on the playground according to a set of rules that are not subject to change by those who hold the ball at the moment.
Too many Americans think that our country has a God-given right to succeed forever, that which holds us together is inevitably stronger than that which can divide us. Our success is not built on inevitability, but rather on a set of principles, a set of game rules that everyone, from segregationists to New Dealers, from Lindbergh to Roosevelt, from Jackson to Lincoln, and from Scalia to RBG, have heretofore agreed to play by.
The Senate is about to violate this basic principle of fair play in a way that is almost unprecedented throughout American history. They are unabashed in their own defense. I believe that history will show this moment in a magnitude similar to that of the Louisiana Purchase or the Missouri Compromise. Why such seemingly grandiose comparisons? Because we are about to witness the death of an apolitical judiciary, the last of the three parts of our government that has been at least a partial brake on a remarkable slide into radical partisanship over the last three decades. And there is not a single country on earth today or in the past that has succeeded as a democracy without an independent, non-political judiciary.
There are those who would argue that, had the shoe been on the other foot, the Democrats would have taken these same steps; that is a hypothetical which we can’t prove or disprove. What I predict WILL happen, and what will be justified according to these new rules of the game, is that the next time the Democrats hold both the presidency and both houses of Congress, they will suspend the senate filibuster, add Washington D.C. and Puerto Rico as states, and pack the Supreme Court. Even as a centrist, I will have no argument to make that such steps are not both justified and justifiable. There will be no rational basis for centrists to fight for a middle ground. The rules of the game will have changed: winners take all until they can’t.
And, then, of course, as soon as the Republicans can, they will re-pack the court, ensuring that it becomes an openly political organ of power, in complete violation of the principles of the Constitution. The basic checks and balances of our form of government will have been nullified. This downward spiral will likely only be stopped by one of three forces: a spontaneous return to reason, a slow return to pragmatism, or outright conflict. History shows us that all are possible, the road to return will be tortuous at best.
When the new justice is rammed through in complete contradiction to the rules we played by just a few years ago, the Rubicon will be crossed. You may disagree, and hopefully we, and you and your students, can have a civil discussion about it, though my optimism about civility, and the long-term interests of our nation, are taking a severe beating today.