The 2020 Democratic National Convention was a game-changer for national political campaign events: Without a large, cohesive, in-person live gathering, this year’s DNC (and this week’s even less adorned Republican National Convention, for that matter) took a considerably more bare-bones approach. This year’s convention cost millions less to produce and communicated the Democratic Party’s viewpoints just as effectively as before, without relying on all the space and spectacle typical of the physical event.
A win-win, right?
Well, not exactly. Live political conventions draw attendees for many reasons, be they delegates, activists, politicians, or wonks. For many of those attendees, the appeal is only partly about what’s happening onstage — and what’s happening onstage is only partly about politics. For all that this year’s DNC offered plenty of obvious advantages to its at-home viewers, it also lacked the key ingredient many of its usual, in-person attendees say they want: the energy of a passionate community.
Perhaps the best way to think of the Democratic National Convention is not as a political meeting for delegates, representatives, and voters across the country and territories. Perhaps it’s more helpful to consider the DNC as a major fan convention — like a Comic-Con where the stakes are much higher than who gets into Hall H.
Conventions are traditionally places where passionate people come to be passionate together, in real time. That feeling of mutual excitement can be crucial for political engagement across the spectrum. The need for that in-person camaraderie is something fandom and politics have in common — and understanding where they converge can help us understand why there are divergent opinions on whether a virtual convention is as effectively inspiring as an offline one.
Toward the end of the four-day convention, some viewers argued that all DNC events should be held virtually from here on out. But this was far from a consensus-building take, and each of the delegates I spoke to emphasized aspects of the convention you can only get from an in-person gathering.
If you think the political national conventions are just about establishing the party’s values, the speaker lineup, the procedural act of nominating the presidential candidate, and presenting that slate to the world, you’re probably one of the many people who now believe that all future conventions can be successfully run virtually.
Best convention I’ve ever seen.
1st time I’ve ever been able to listen to every speaker.
Please don’t ever fill up another convention hall.
Please don’t waste $millions on plane tickets & hotels.
If, however, you view the convention as the vital real-life space where politically engaged people get to meet, network, and generate ideas through the kinetic energy of a big group gathering, then a virtual event is a massive disappointment.
Several of the Democratic delegates I spoke with, nearly all of them younger, told me they were hugely disappointed with this year’s virtual DNC and the growing call to make the convention virtual moving forward.
This view surprised me — after all, aren’t the younger delegates the more extremely online ones? — until I placed it in the context of fannish engagement. After all, the fundamental appeal of a convention is about bringing people together so they can connect in person. The internet hasn’t changed that; if anything, it’s made people more eager to connect face-to-face at events like these.
“It’s kind of ironic, because young people understand the virtual world better than any other age group in attendance at this convention,” Zenaida Huerta, a California delegate who campaigned for Sen. Bernie Sanders as part of this year’s Young Delegates Coalition, told me. “And yet we find the young people craving more of really missing out on [the] in-person convention format because of the lack of community currently at present.”
The different perspective these younger delegates have on the DNC compared to older delegates also reflects a different approach to politics altogether from older generations — one that’s heavily, and often directly, influenced by fandom.
Huerta is one of many political activists with a background in fandom. As a teen, she said, she’d been “deeply entrenched” in the Hunger Games fandom, and the series profoundly affected her politics along with those of many of its fans. She points out that Gen Z teens grew up with the flood of post-apocalyptic young adult literature that The Hunger Games ushered in. “In a lot of ways, the circumstances that we find that we’re in now are post-apocalyptic,” she told me. “We’re in a global pandemic [and] an incoming economic crisis, and we’re experiencing it all under the pressure of a frankly authoritarian government, and [Hunger Games heroine] Katniss Everdeen rebels against that.”
Huerta and many of her fellow Hunger Games fans have modeled their behavior after their favorite fictional political rebels. Internationally, the franchise’s three-fingered salute to symbolize resistance has become a major protest symbol off the page, and Hunger Games fans have built activism campaigns based on the books to combat actual poverty, while using imagery from the books to protest President Donald Trump and climate change. And these fans aren’t the only ones drawing on their fandoms for inspiration. Some political organizations, like the Harry Potter Alliance and the Project for Awesome, have grown entirely out of fannish movements.
“There’s a bunch of connections between the Yang army and the BTS Army,” Prat Mallick, a 17-year-old Democratic delegate from Texas, told me. “I have a couple of friends who stan both.”
Mallick pointed out that K-pop fans organize in precisely the way grassroots political organizations do, with individuals and small groups recruiting more people into the fold through systemic tools like social media to broadcast their message. “You totally see the same tactic where you have mass Twitter engagement and interest. That’s really what the grassroots [political] movement is about. It’s about taking individual people and combining with them with the power of every other person in that group and creating a real, sizable effect on whatever they’re trying to do. … When they come together, they can make some really cool stuff happen.”
The intersection of politics and fandom — both the politicization of fandom and the growth of intense fannish engagement around politics — has been a major theme of the 21st century. The links are everywhere, from Trump’s fandom-esque voter base to voter bases self-identifying as collective fan communities, like the “deplorables” or the Yang Gang.
Academics have spent years observing and tracking the similarities between grassroots political activism and fandom. It’s a fusion that arguably has taken shape with the rise of what media studies scholar Henry Jenkins calls “convergence culture” — the convergence of the internet, fandom, and grassroots political activism as driving cultural forces merging into one system through which ideology spreads.
In his 2006 book Convergence Culture, Jenkins wrote that obsessive consumers of media were just beginning to engage in progressive political movements, modeling their behaviors around their fictional heroes. “With the 2004 election,” Jenkins wrote, “we can see citizens starting to apply what they have learned as consumers of popular culture toward more overt forms of political activism.” He described an evolution from a personal, individualistic view of politics to a collective, community-oriented view, “bringing the realm of political discourse closer to the everyday life experiences of citizens … a shift from the individualized conception of the informed citizen toward the collaborative concept of a monitorial citizen.”
Politicians have spent the past two decades weaponizing fandom both negatively and positively. During the 2008 election, in order to counter what pundits deemed an “enthusiasm gap” between Republican candidate John McCain and Barack Obama, McCain chose to attack emotion itself, actively mocking Obama’s “fan club” and the fannish enthusiasm surrounding Obama’s campaign. But Obama’s popular appeal and his still-thriving fandom have left their imprint on presidential campaigns since, from Trump to Sanders.
In the modern era, politicians have proven eager to capitalize on the mobilizing power of fandom. Trump’s zealous fannish engagement became one of the vital forces shaping modern election campaigns. And former Vice President Joe Biden managed to create a classic Cinderella narrative for the DNC this year around a single fan, after he rode an elevator with New York Times office building security guard Jacquelyn Brittany.
But if politics as fandom is nothing new, the view that politics is an act of fannish engagement is still an unconventional one. And as calls increase for the DNC to move online, fandom is a framing that’s getting overlooked.
“These conventions have often been raucous affairs,” Jeff Cohen, a longtime DNC attendee and co-founder of the Roots Action advocacy group, said. “They’re often a lot of fun. A lot of bonds are made, and it’s just hard to do that virtually.”
Cohen, who’s been to five national conventions, would know — he also attended Woodstock. But he spoke most wistfully to me not of Jimi Hendrix playing “The Star-Spangled Banner” in 1969, but of convention scenes he’d witnessed over the years: of fleeing police officers alongside other attendees after Rage Against the Machine’s 2000 DNC concert; of protesters filling the convention floor with signs, noise, and activist chants against party leaders of the day; of Jesse Jackson and other progressive leaders hanging out and chatting with delegates during the casual downtime moments.
In other words, Cohen may have come for the politics, but what he’s clearly taken away from all his decades of activism and campaigning is the community.
That DNC needs people gathering in one space. Without them, the DNC isn’t the DNC, in precisely the ways that Comic-Con isn’t Comic-Con without the parties, the side events, and the teeming social whirl — all the stuff that happens around and outside the actual convention programming.
At a fan convention like Comic-Con, all that passion fuels the fan communities, and the corporate machines their engagement supplies. But at a political convention, the passion leads to political engagement and ideally, political change. In a time when we urgently need such political change, activists and organizers need all the boosts of fannish energy and motivation they can get.
Cohen told me there was “zero” fannish energy around Biden’s campaign. “Everyone knows that.” He and the other delegates I spoke with all unanimously told me they’d found their main founts of communal energy at this year’s convention through events hosted by side organizations like the Progressive Democrats of America, not the Democratic Party itself. Attendees who were part of the Young Delegates Coalition, for example, could join virtual breakfasts, play games of Pictionary with fellow delegates, and attend nightly bingo game viewings of the speakers.
But it’s not the same — and Huerta told me she felt the actual experience of the main programming has been even worse. “Obviously at a breakfast, you get to sit down with your delegate friends in the morning and your lineup of speakers. And I recall that so vividly from my experience in Philadelphia [at the 2016 DNC]. Now you can’t even show your face. You don’t even have the option on Zoom to show your video.”
She told me she found that “extremely demoralizing.”
“I’ve been sheltering in place since March, because I live with an at-risk family member,” she said. “And it’s really lonely. And having some kind of sense of community at this convention would have meant the world.”
“There’s a lot of burnout that can happen,” Mallick echoed. “We feel like all this performative activism on the social media.” In person, the convention would have provided “that almost kinetic excitement. You hear and feel the screaming when you see a famous actor or a famous politician come up. Online, it’s a little different.”
The delegates also stressed to me that the lack of visibility of a virtual convention meant that they had a much harder time gaining attention for platforms and crucial issues that should have been headline news.
For example, during an in-person convention, the push to win more speaking time for Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — one party leader with an undeniably huge fan base — would have garnered mainstream attention, with protesters able to visibly push her to the forefront of the conversation. Instead, she wound up getting little more than 60 seconds.
Cohen told me he thought many mainstream delegates saw that as a win. “I think the corporatists in the Democratic Party are happy about the fact that they could put on something that’s just a TV show,” he said, with no activists disrupting events.
But it’s also clear that these moments offer the diversity and colorful conversations that keep a convention fresh and exciting, and its attendees refreshed and enlivened. The appeals of a virtual convention may be many. But the drawbacks may cause the DNC to feel a little less human — at a moment when the party needs to remain in touch with its humanity more than ever.
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If elected, Democratic nominee Joe Biden would become only the second Catholic president in American history. Here he prays at Grace Lutheran Church in Kenosha, Wis., on Sept. 3.
Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images
Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images
When Joe Biden seeks to inspire or comfort, he turns to his faith. He speeches are woven with references to God, biblical language or the pope.
On Monday, the Democratic presidential nominee spoke to the faith-based anti-poverty group the Poor People’s Campaign, and described the United States under President Trump as a “nation in the wilderness.”
“All of you remind me of how Scripture describes a calling born out of the wilderness,” Biden told the virtual audience. “A calling to serve, not to be served. A calling toward justice, healing, hope — not hate. To speak the good news, and followed by some good deeds. It’s not just enough to speak the good news, but good deeds.”
This wasn’t a one-off religious reference; this is how Biden routinely speaks.
The former vice president launched his candidacy by referring to his campaign as a “battle for the soul of the nation.” It was the central theme of his primary run, and remains a core tenet of his campaign. If elected, Biden would become only the second Catholic president in American history. It’s not a detail he highlights, but people who know him well say his Catholic faith is central to how he sees the world.
Biden, who carries a rosary in his pocket and attends Mass every Sunday, is known as a deeply devout person of faith, and his campaign sees electoral implications in that — in part because Biden has tried to frame this election as a clear moral contrast between Trump and himself.
Some Democrats would go so far as to say that Biden is running perhaps the most overtly devout Democratic presidential campaign since Jimmy Carter in 1976.
John McCarthy, Biden’s deputy political director, worked on faith outreach for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election, and acknowledges Biden’s campaign is different than others.
“Campaigns obviously stem from who a candidate is, and because this is such a true part of Joe Biden, this is something that is just in the core messaging of our campaign,” McCarthy said.
Part of that distinction is about values and policy, but the other part is cultural.
“Part of him being who he is, he has these kind of touchstones that so deeply resonate with the kind of cultural Catholicism in those kind of places like the Ohio and Pennsylvania of the world,” McCarthy said.
During Holy Week this past spring, the campaign released a video in which Biden spoke about faith seeing best in the dark, juxtaposed with images of the coronavirus pandemic. And when he delivered a eulogy for George Floyd and called for racial justice, he spoke of growing up with a Catholic social doctrine that taught him “faith without works is dead.”
“It’s not like we are just talking about faith to faith voters, but instead the vice president is being who he authentically is — which is a person of faith — and that is obviously coming across,” McCarthy said.
Allies say Biden’s faith informs his values and, in turn, his values shape his politics.
“Joe is someone for whom the ways in which he sees issues around racial justice, around the treatment of refugees and immigrants — all of that is connected to a view of other people — who he sees as neighbor, who he sees as being made in the image of God,” said Delaware Sen. Chris Coons, who’s known Biden for decades.
And so Biden’s stances on a range of social and environmental issues, Coons added, are not “casual political positions;” they’re informed by his upbringing and go back, he said, to “a deeply rooted sense of fairness that he learned from his parents and from the nuns and priests who educated and helped raise him.”
Sister Carol Keehan, who’s often credited as a key player in the passage of the Affordable Care Act when she was president of the Catholic Health Association, agreed.
“He’s very clear about justice,” she said. “When Joe Biden talks about faith, he talks very much about things like the Gospel of Matthew — ‘what you’ve done to the least of my brother, you’ve done to me.’ “
Friends and staffers say Biden focuses on faith, rather than religious doctrine; he prays with voters, rather than proselytizes.
And yet for some religious conservatives, all of that pales in comparison to the single issue of abortion. Earlier this week, the conservative group Catholic Vote released an ad referring to “Joe Biden’s radical stance on abortion.”
“Joe Biden would force American Catholics to pay for abortions, sacrificing his Catholic values to kneel before the leftist mob,” the narrator warns.
Over his years in public life, Biden has become more consistently liberal on the issue of abortion. Last year, he reversed his decades-old position on the so-called Hyde Amendment, which bans federal dollars from funding abortion in most cases. Polling from the Pew Research Center finds that a majority of American Catholics believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases.
For his part, Trump has tried to portray Biden as a heathen. Last month the president attacked the Democratic nominee for being a man “against God.” And more broadly, Trump and his supporters have made religion a cultural issue, painting Democrats as the party against religious freedom.
The struggle for Trump in trying to define Biden as a godless man is that Biden is the rather rare Democratic politician whose faith has been in public view for decades.
And Sen. Coons thinks that’s an asset.
“I think one of the mistakes Democrats have made over decades is to be very private about the values that move them into public life,” he said. “If we — as many Democrats in elected office have for 20 years — hide that or don’t speak about it, millions of Americans are left wondering what drives you.”
With Biden, staff and allies say, it’s obvious what drives him.
Josh Dickson, national faith engagement director for the Biden campaign, says the former vice president “wears his values and his faith on his sleeve.”
And because faith is such a core part of Biden’s identity, some staff say it’s become a core part of the campaign.
But it’s also a tightrope for religious Democrats to walk. Fewer voters identify as Christian, as the share of people who identify with no religion has jumped in recent years, according to polling from the Pew Research Center. In 2019, almost 40% of Democratic-leaning voters were religiously unaffiliated.
It’s almost impossible to overstate the transformative effect on American politics ignited by the death of this one woman, at this one moment.
The far-ranging potential consequences from the passing of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Supreme Court justice and liberal legal icon, will start immediately, beginning in the election campaign that determines whether Donald Trump gets a second presidential term.
And they could last for decades in the staggering array of issues to be litigated before the court — some of whose consequences reach far beyond America’s borders and could have global repercussions.
Here are five changes prompted by her death.
It pours fuel on an overheating election
It’s been distressingly common to hear this election described as a do-or-die moment for American democracy.
It was the theme of Barack Obama’s speech to the Democratic convention. Meanwhile, figures inside the Trump administration, and close to the president, and on talk radio, have evoked scenarios of post-election violence.
There are books, essays and newspaper articles in which political scientists sound alarm bells about the durability of the American republic.
Which is to say this election was already heated enough, with a president insisting he’s being cheated, legal fights over mail-in voting, deaths at protests and armed demonstrations.
The stakes have now risen.
“I’m genuinely worried,” Pulitzer Prize-winning American historian Joseph Ellis said in an interview Saturday.
“The fate of the republic [has not been] genuinely at stake [since the Civil War].… I think we’re in a moment analogous to that now.”
Republican Sen. Marco Rubio tweeted that America will face its most difficult months in a generation, and asked for prayers for the country.
It means conservative court dominance, potentially for decades
The court recently had a 5-4 conservative tilt. It’s now 5-3, and will be 6-3 if Trump gets his nominee confirmed.
The Supreme Court has gained power throughout American history, starting in the 19th century, in its interpretive role over U.S. law.
Now, as bitter partisanship makes it harder to pass bills in Congress than a few decades ago, parties frequently rely on courts to resolve political disputes.
One big case before the new, Ginsburg-less court involves a challenge to the law known as Obamacare — hearings are scheduled for Nov. 10 on the Affordable [Health] Care Act.
Obama’s signature law, which extended health coverage to millions, appears in grave danger: the law survived one earlier challenge by a single vote.
This court could even decide the presidential election.
In 2000, the high court ended a Florida recount and made George W. Bush president; the numerous fights this year over mail-in ballots could be far, far messier.
Longer-term battles are inevitable over abortion, and over myriad presidential executive actions. Take climate-change regulations and immigration rules.
Obama signed a flurry of such climate and immigration executive orders; future ones would inevitably be challenged in a more hostile court.
“It would be the strongest conservative majority we’ve seen,” former U.S. federal prosecutor Joseph Moreno told CBC News.
“[Now you have chief justice] John Roberts potentially sometimes voting with the minority. [But with a change now] you’d have a potentially secure block of conservative votes.
“That would impact so many things in this country.”
Other big changes could be economic. In his book, Supreme Inequality, author Adam Cohen argues that the U.S. Supreme Court has, for most of American history, favoured the wealthy and powerful, with a rare exception being the 1960s court led by Earl Warren.
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a champion for women’s rights, has died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 87. 3:00
He said the court has recently been a major driver of American inequality — stripping away union powers, allowing corporate money into politics and undermining the integration and funding of schools in minority areas.
Page 1 of his book carries an anecdote about Bader Ginsburg: she wrote the dissent for the losing side in a case involving a Black man subjected to racist abuse at work.
It upends the election focus
The court fight threatens to overshadow the presidential election issue Democrats hoped to focus on: the pandemic, which has killed around 200,000 Americans.
It will play out, day after day, as voters cast ballots. Voting has already started. Ballots are being mailed out, and in-person polling stations are open in some states.
The Supreme Court has been a winning issue for Trump before. In 2016, more than a quarter of Trump voters told pollsters it was the reason they voted for him.
.<a href=”https://twitter.com/GOP?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>@GOP</a> We were put in this position of power and 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!
Trump cemented his alliance with social conservatives by vowing to name only conservatives to the court, and he took the unusual step of releasing a list of candidates in advance.
He’s done it again: Trump released his new list of picks just over a week ago. He’s promised to announce his choice, likely a woman, within days.
Intriguingly, when asked Saturday about one candidate, Barbara Lagoa, Trump praised her and mentioned, unprompted, that she was “Hispanic” and “from Florida” — a critical voting group in a critical swing state.
There’s no guarantee this issue will help him. The intense upcoming debate on abortion is no slam-dunk for conservatives.
Some polling suggests a strong majority of Americans want to preserve, at least in part, the landmark abortion-rights decision Roe v. Wade.
It’s one of the first points mentioned in a fundraising letter to supporters from Democratic VP candidate Kamala Harris.
“Today, we fight for [Bader Ginsburg’s] legacy,” said Harris’ note.
Democratic donors certainly appeared energized: the party said it raised tens of millions of dollars in the hours after Bader Ginsburg’s death.
In an inimitably American political phenomenon, both parties were actively fundraising upon the judge’s death.
The Trump campaign released a similar message to supporters.
This sudden effect of this debate will likely resonate unevenly across the country, helping Republicans in some places but not others.
It’s illustrated in the different reactions from Republican senators involved in tough re-election fights.
Just compare their reactions to a map showing church attendance rates per state: Republicans running in more religious states dove headfirst into the fight, which will inevitably raise hot-button social issues.
North Carolina’s Thom Tillis, Kelly Loeffler of Georgia, and South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham, who heads the justice committee in charge of the process, vowed to support a nomination immediately.
By contrast, Colorado’s Cory Gardner dodged various questions on the topic and released a vague statement; Susan Collins of Maine said the presidential election winner should get to make the pick.
There’s some reason for optimism for Democratic nominee Joe Biden: surveys in three smaller swing states this week suggested he’s more trusted on court appointments than Trump.
It triggers a brawl on Capitol Hill
The power to pick judges rests with the president. The power to confirm them belongs to the Senate.
Right now Republicans control the Senate with 53 votes, to 47 Democrats and Democratic-leaning Independents.
Those numbers would not, until recently, have guaranteed confirmation: for generations, 60 votes were required for most major actions in the Senate, but because Congress is so frequently paralyzed, first Democrats, then Republicans, began chipping away at the so-called filibuster rule.
Now it takes a simple majority, of 50 or 51, to confirm a judge. And it will be close.
The first question is how quickly Republicans proceed. Trump tweeted his own suggestion that the party move fast: “We have this obligation, without delay!”
His party has flexibility on timing a final vote. It can happen before or after the Nov. 3 election: the current Senate term lasts two months beyond the election, until Jan. 3, and the current presidential term lasts until Jan. 20.
It’s taken an average of just over two months to confirm justices since the 1970s. It used to be faster, in less-partisan eras, and it could be faster again with the new simple-majority rule.
Democrats are vowing to put up whatever fight they can — with legislative delay tactics, threats of revenge if they regain the chamber and efforts to embarrass Republican senators in tough re-election races.
Then there are the insults.
Both parties are calling each other hypocrites: Republicans for reversing themselves on their 2016 declaration that presidents shouldn’t name a judge close to an election, and Democrats for reversing themselves in the other direction.
Yet Republicans likely hold the upper hand in this nomination battle. They controlled the Senate in 2016 and they control it now.
It foreshadows a clash over institutions
The Republican Party has won the popular vote in a presidential election precisely once since 1988. Yet it has a stranglehold over the Supreme Court.
And Democrats are livid.
There are growing calls within the party to overhaul the country’s institutions to make them more representative of the country’s actual, increasingly diverse, demographics.
Obama spelled out some of this agenda in his eulogy for the late civil-rights hero John Lewis: he called for full votes in Congress for Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico, a new voting-rights law and an end to the Senate’s 60-vote filibuster rule.
Many progressives want to go even further — and expand the Supreme Court: meaning add new judges.
Biden has opposed the idea and said Democrats would come to regret it.
The Democrat who leads the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee on Saturday said that if Republicans proceed with this nomination, Democrats should immediately move to expand the court should they win the Senate.
Franklin Roosevelt famously failed in an effort to pack the court in the 1930s.
If Sen. McConnell and <a href=”https://twitter.com/SenateGOP?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>@SenateGOP</a> were to force through a nominee during the lame duck session—before a new Senate and President can take office—then the incoming Senate should immediately move to expand the Supreme Court. 1/2 <a href=”https://t.co/BDYQ0KVmJe”>https://t.co/BDYQ0KVmJe</a>
To win political power will mean using it brazenly, extravagantly, and without comity or consensus.
The death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is devastating, and not simply because it is the passing of one of the most influential jurists in American history.
It is what comes next that should alarm us the most.
If we lived in a normal democracy in which all political parties abided by basic democratic norms and traditions, both presidential candidates would spend the next six weeks debating— among other issues — who they would appoint to the Supreme Court in 2021 should they win the presidential election.
But if we lived in that country, Merrick Garland would be a member of the highest court in the land.
Instead, four years ago Republicans — led by Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell — refused to give Garland a Senate hearing. As they argued at the time, nine months before a presidential election was too soon to appoint a Supreme Court replacement for Antonin Scalia. Fast forward to 2020 and McConnell announced within hours of Ginsburg’s death that there will be a Senate voteon Trump’s pick to replace her on the Court, even though voters in some states have already begun to cast ballots.
McConnell’s move is cynical, hypocritical, and completely in keeping with the nihilism that he has brought to bear on American politics. For McConnell, norms are for the weak. Might makes right and political power is a tool to be wielded in the pursuit of ones self-interested political goals, the consequences on the legitimacy of America’s democratic institutions be damned. We saw this when Republicans pushed through Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Court after credible allegations of sexual assault, and we will likely see it play out now. While it’s far from guaranteed that McConnell will persuade 49 of his other Senate Republicans to go along with his efforts to pack the Court, one would be foolishto bet against cynicism winning the day.
If this happens, what will Democrats do in response? Should the polls hold up and they win the presidency and narrowly take control of the Senate, American politics will dramatically change. As Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer made clear Saturday morning, if McConnell moves forward, “…nothing is off the table.”
That means, almost certainly, an end to the Senate filibuster if Democrats win control in November. Democrats would probably move forward with statehood for the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, which could mean four new Democratic senators. And Democrats may be emboldened to expand the Supreme Court to make up for what the party rightly perceives as the theft of two seats by McConnell and the GOP.
Democrats would have already pushed for many of these reforms before Ginsburg died. But if the GOP rams through yet another new justice, the gloves will come off — not because Senate Democrats will be furious, but because it will be the only way to hold back the bile of party activists.
This is the right thing for Democrats to do. When one party refuses to abide by democratic norms; when it acts as an agent of only its own political supporters and makes no effort to honor institutional principles; and when there is no accountability and there are no political repercussions for nefarious actions, the course forward is clear. Democrats must play the same political hardball Republicans have played for much of the past two decades.
But we should not delude ourselves about the larger corrosive effect. For Democrats to imitate the actions of Republicans means a new era of cutthroat politics in which bipartisanship remains out the window and both political parties shove aside all of America’s political traditions. To win political power will mean using it brazenly, extravagantly, and without comity or consensus. It will complete the evolution of American government from its current state to one more representative of a parliamentary democracy in which once a party achieves power, it treats it as a mandate to put in place its political agenda lock, stock, and barrel. And when the other party achieves power, it will do the same. It’s not to say cooperation will be impossible or never happen, but rather that the system will evolve in such a way that it will not be necessary — and each party will put in place reforms to increase their power and weaken the other side. Republicans have been doing that for years. Now Democrats will likely follow their lead.
Perhaps this is the politics we need. Perhaps Americans need a starker reminder of the differences between the two parties. But the ugliness and divisiveness that will flow from this will only deepen the intense polarization that already defines American politics.
In an ideal world, Mitch McConnell would step back from the brink or enough members of the Senate Republican caucus would demand he do so. Don’t hold your breath on that happening. After all, if the last few years have taught us anything — we don’t live in that America.
Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.
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