Tick, Tick, Tick … the Augustus Countdown Continues

If we can’t make our republican system of government work, eventually the people will clamor for a leader who can sweep it all away. Many of them already do.

In the 2013 post “Countdown to Augustus” I laid out a long-term problem that I come back to every year or so:

[R]epublics don’t work just by rules, the dos and don’t explicitly spelled out in their constitutions. They also need norms, things that are technically within the rules — or at least within the powers that the rules establish — but “just aren’t done” and arouse public anger when anyone gets close to doing them. But for that public anger, you can often get an advantage by skirting the norms. And when it looks like you might get away with it, the other side has a powerful motivation to cut some other corner to keep you in check.

… As Congress becomes increasingly dysfunctional, as it sets up more and more of these holding-the-country-hostage situations, presidents will feel more and more justified in cutting Congress out of the picture.

We know where that goes: Eventually the Great Man on Horseback appears and relieves us of the burden of Congress entirely.

The immediate motivation for that post was the debt-ceiling crisis of 2013, when Congress was threatening to blow up the global economy unless President Obama signed off on the repeal his signature achievement, ObamaCare. Various bizarre ways out were proposed, including minting a trillion-dollar coin to deposit with the Federal Reserve.

I had previously raised the declining-norms theme in “Escalating Bad Faith“, about the tit-for-tat violation of norms relating to presidential appointments and the filibuster, going back several administrations. And I returned to it in 2014 in “One-and-a-half Cheers for Executive Action” as Obama tried to circumvent the congressional logjam on immigration reform.

The historical model I keep invoking is the Roman Republic, which didn’t fall all at once when Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon or his nephew Octavian became the Emperor Augustus, but had been on such a downward spiral of norm-busting dysfunction for so long (about a century) that it was actually a relief to many Romans when Augustus put the Republic out of its misery. In “Countdown” I pointed out the complexity of that downward trend:

About half of the erosion in Rome was done by the good guys, in order to seek justice for popular causes that the system had stymied.

So now we are experiencing a new escalation in norm-breaking: The President has nominated a well-qualified judge to fill a vacancy on the Supreme Court, and the Senate is simply ignoring him.

At various times in American history, individual senators of both parties have postured about the Senate’s prerogatives, usually in the abstract, and usually in an attempt to influence the president to choose a nominee more to their liking than the ones they suspected he had in mind. But in the long history of the American Republic, we have never been in this place before. The Senate has never simply ignored a nominee for the Supreme Court.

The gravity of this may not be apparent to most Americans. Day to day, the country is continuing just fine without a fully staffed Court. Justice Scalia died over a month ago, and his absence isn’t causing anything in particular to go wrong. In some ways it’s like operating a nuclear power plant with the emergency-response systems turned off: As long as there’s no emergency that needs a response, nobody notices.

But what happens if the 2016 election comes out like the 2000 election? What if the outcome hangs on some dispute that only the Supreme Court can resolve? As hard as it was on the country when the Court’s poorly reasoned 5-4 decision in Bush v Gore handed the presidency to the man who lost the popular vote, imagine where we would be if the Court had tied 4-4 and been unable to reach a decision?

Constitutional crises are rare in this country, but they happen, and only the Supreme Court can resolve them in a way that preserves our system of government. Legally, a tie at the Court means that the lower-court opinion stands, whatever it was. But in a true crisis, would a lower court have the prestige to make the other branches of government respect its decision?

Go back to the Watergate crisis, and the Court’s order that the Nixon administration turn over to Congress its tapes of Oval Office conversations. At the time, some advised Nixon to defy the Court and burn the tapes. What would have happened next is anybody’s guess, but the unanimity of the Court’s decision gave it additional moral force, and Nixon complied — even though the tapes led quickly and directly to his resignation. If that decision had split 4-4, along what were seen to be partisan lines, history might have played out differently. Nixon might have reasoned that he wasn’t defying a lower court, he was just breaking the tie.

Disputes between lower courts also happen, and if the Supreme Court can’t resolve them, we wind up with different laws applying in different jurisdictions. Imagine, for example, if the availability of ObamaCare or whether you could get married, depended not on which state you live in, but which federal appellate district.

What if appellate courts disagree about jurisdiction? If a government computer in Utah captures a phone conversation between Georgia and Wisconsin, that one case might lead three courts to rule simultaneously on whether the Fourth Amendment has been violated. Whose order should be followed?

Scenarios like that show why leaving a vacancy at the Court is playing with fire. Maybe we’ll get away with it this time. Maybe nothing that can’t be put off or papered over will happen between now and whenever the Senate starts processing nominations again — say, next year. (Or maybe something will happen, and some other branch of government will decide to seize whatever illegitimate power it thinks is necessary to keep the country running.)

But an optimistic reading of the situation only works if we ignore the larger trend. This is not an isolated incident, and we will not return to “normal” after it resolves. Once broken, a norm is never quite the same. The next violation is easier, inspires less public outrage, and usually goes farther. Jonathan Chait elaborates:

It turns out that what has held together American government is less the elaborate rules hammered out by the guys in the wigs in 1789 than a series of social norms that have begun to disintegrate. Senate filibusters were supposed to be rare, until they became routine. They weren’t supposed to be applied to judicial nominations, then they were. The Senate majority would never dream of changing the rules to limit the filibuster; the minority party would never plan to withhold all support from the president even before he took office; it would never threaten to default on the debt to extort concessions from the president. And then all of this happened.

More likely than a return to the prior status quo is that blockades on judicial appointments will become just another “normal” tactic. After all, the Constitution may assign the Senate the duty to “advise and consent” on nominations, but it sets no time limit. Founding-era commentary, like Federalist 78, may envision a Court that is above politics. (The whole point of a lifetime appointment is to make any political deal with a nominee unenforceable. Once a justice is in, that’s it; he or she is beyond reprisal and requires nothing further from any elected official.) It may take for granted that the Senate will consider nominees on their individual merits, rather than on which partisan bloc chooses them. But the Founders didn’t explicitly write any of that into the rules, so …

If Hillary Clinton wins in November and Republicans retain the Senate, they may feel shamed by their promises to let the voters decide the Court’s next nominee and give her a justice. Or maybe not — maybe some dastardly Clinton campaign tactic, or reports of voter fraud on Fox News, will make them rescind their promise. The Supreme Court could remain deadlocked at 4-4 for the remainder of her term, causing federal rulings to pile up and further fracturing the country into liberal and conservative zones with dramatically different constitutional interpretations.

Conversely, if a Republican wins the White House while Democrats retake the Senate, the new Senate majority leader may decide that, rather than let Republicans reap the benefit of their new tactic, he’ll just push it further. Chait describes what either course leads to:

A world in which Supreme Court justices are appointed only when one party has both the White House and the needed votes in Congress would look very different from anything in modern history. Vacancies would be commonplace and potentially last for years. When a party does break the stalemate, it might have the chance to fill two, three, four seats at once. The Court’s standing as a prize to be won in the polls would further batter its sagging reputation as the final word on American law. How could the Court’s nonpolitical image survive when its orientation swings back and forth so quickly?

… The Supreme Court is a strange, Oz-like construction. It has no army or democratic mandate. Its legitimacy resides in its aura of being something grander and more trustworthy than a smaller Senate whose members enjoy lifetime appointments. In the new world, where seating a justice is exactly like passing a law, whether the Court can continue to carry out this function is a question nobody can answer with any confidence.

Our awareness of our dissolving norms ought to be sharpened by the current presidential campaign. Donald Trump makes a lot more sense as a candidate when you realize that he’s not running for President, he’s running for Caesar. His fans and followers are looking for that Man on Horseback who will sweep away all the rusted-over formalities and just make things work.

The Washington Post provides the following graph, based on data from the World Values Survey. It’s disturbing enough that 28% of American college graduates think it might be good to have “a strong leader who doesn’t have to bother with congress and elections”, but among non-graduates it is actually a close question: Democracy still beats authoritarianism, but only 56%-44%.

Vox has several graphs like this one, showing that frustration with democracy is increasing:

The pundits, representing an educated class that still mostly thinks democracy is a good idea, are horrified whenever Trump breaks one of the norms of American political campaigns by endorsing violence, or insulting entire religions or ethnic groups, or talking about the size of his penis during a televised debate. Yet his popularity rises, because here is a man who won’t be bound. He refuses to be tied in knots by rules or traditions or archaic notions of courtesy and honesty and fair play. His willingness to break our taboos of public speech symbolizes his willingness to break our norms of government once he takes power — not one at a time, like Mitch McConnell, but all of them at once. And lots of people like that.

Some of the biggest applause lines in a Trump speech are when he imagines exercising powers that presidents don’t have (if Ford tries to move an auto plant to Mexico, he will impose punitive tariffs until they back down), or using American military power for naked aggression (if Mexico won’t pay for the wall he wants to build, he’ll attack them), or committing war crimes (if terrorists aren’t afraid of their own deaths, he’ll have to kill their families).

Establishment Republicans are currently wringing their hands about the prospect of Trump leading their party into the fall elections. They are searching party rules for norm-bending ways to deny him the nomination in spite of the primary voters. But long-term, the way to stop Trump and future prospective Caesars is simple: Make democracy work again.

It’s not rocket science: End the policy of blanket obstruction. Pass laws that have majority support rather than bottling them up in the House or filibustering them in the Senate. Seek out workable compromises that give each side something to take pride in, rather than promoting an ideal of purity that frames every actual piece of legislation as a betrayal. Stop trying to keep people you don’t like from voting, or gerrymandering congressional districts so that voting becomes irrelevant. Come up with some workable campaign-finance system that lets legislators pay attention to all their constituents, rather than just the deep-pocketed ones.

In short, don’t just follow the rules in the most literal way possible, grabbing every advantage they don’t explicitly forbid; govern in good faith, fulfilling to the best of your abilities the duties you have been entrusted with.

They could start by holding hearings on Judge Garland, as if he were a presidential nominee and one of the most widely respected judges in the country (which he is). By itself, that may not save the Republic, but it would be a welcome gesture of good faith.

The 2016 Republican primaries, in which none of the establishment candidates seemed to understand where the real threat was coming from until it was too late, have a lesson for politicians of both parties: The most important fight of our era is not the Republicans against the Democrats, the liberals against the conservatives, or even the collectivists against the individualists. The battle we have to win is the Catos and Ciceros against the Caesars.

If the American Republic is going to survive, its mechanisms have to work. If they don’t work — if the system stays as clogged as it has been these last few years, and each cycle of attack-and-reprisal gums things up worse — then eventually someone will sweep it all away. Maybe not Trump, maybe not this year, but someone, someday sooner than you might think possible. That would be a tragedy of historic proportions, but crowds would cheer as it happened.

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  • David Lance  On March 21, 2016 at 10:01 am

    “Esteemed Senators, I take this moment, not to glorify myself, but to point out Megan Kelly’s imperfections, and to reiterate what a bunch of losers all the Mexicans and the Muslims are…” http://youtu.be/F8hNaCnOdcw

  • Don Clemens  On March 21, 2016 at 10:11 am

    Brilliantly expounded. I WILL be passing this on to some of my more obstinate friends.
    Thank you!

  • annamadeit  On March 21, 2016 at 11:26 am

    Excellent post! Just shared it, and encouraged others to do so as well. Thanks, and keep ’em coming! 🙂

  • Joe from Lowell  On March 21, 2016 at 1:25 pm

    That sounds just right. I don’t know this episode of American history ends, but it clearly can’t go on like this forever. Something has to give, and I worry about what it might be.

  • Monte Mumford  On March 21, 2016 at 4:10 pm

    Thank you for your insights… well articulated and timely.

  • Marty  On March 21, 2016 at 4:56 pm

    Yes, this is the endgame of constitutional hardball, a new political order is established which may or may not have any relation to the old one.

  • Larry Benjamin  On March 21, 2016 at 10:21 pm

    The founding fathers may not have envisioned political parties, but they clearly expected disagreement. The separation of powers mandated by the Constitution has been described as a guarantee that decisions will be made thoughtfully, that the inherent gridlock in the system is intentional. Apparently, we’re approaching a point where the inability to act becomes a bug rather than a feature. Dictatorships, of course, have no such flaw – things can happen much faster since there is no opposition

  • Larry Benjamin  On March 21, 2016 at 10:29 pm

    Conservatives would like nothing better than to “fracture the country into liberal and conservative zones.” Didn’t we hear during the debate over same-sex marriage, that we should “let the states decide?” Isn’t the degree of federal control over the states at the heart of the dispute over the ACA and Common Core? Aren’t they always bringing up the Tenth Amendment? Whenever the federal government seeks to impose a standard of equality or freedom on the states, whether it’s abortion rights, or civil rights, or workers’ rights, conservatives will oppose this because “states’ rights” is fundamental to ensuring that a small, elite group maintains control of the masses, and this is much easier to accomplish on a local level than on a national one.

    • weeklysift  On March 23, 2016 at 8:30 am

      I see states rights seems more a tactic of convenience for conservatives than as a principle. Conservatives had no problem, for example, pushing a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage, or, when that seemed unlikely to pass, compromising on the Defense of Marriage Act. At that point, the idea that states could decide was anathema.

      Ditto for gun control. They don’t believe any state should be allowed to experiment with it.

      This is a pattern that goes all the way back to the Fugitive Slave Act. States choosing their own way is fine, until conservatives have enough federal power to make everybody do what they want.

  • Joshua Blackstone  On March 21, 2016 at 10:43 pm

    When you get old enough, watching this shit makes you understand Socrates choice.

  • Kevin Horner  On March 22, 2016 at 6:09 pm

    The reason we’re in the position we’re in now isn’t a flaw in our form of government – the problem is who actually seems to care about running that government. The Tea Party has done a fantastic job of controlling their local party apparatuses and running people at all levels. So, since they control who is a candidate at all levels, they have massive control of their party’s decisions. Of course that means that government at all levels will shift right. If you don’t want that happen anymore, do this: find the local party HQ of your choice and volunteer to be a precinct head. Volunteer to run for city council or school board member, or mayor. Offer to run for sheriff. Become a state Senator. Stop worrying so much about national politics and make sure the people who actually run the governments that impact the lives of Americans the most are the people you want.
    Successful revolutions are a libertarian fantasy, though usually they imagine a Heinlein book where the plucky hero lives quite well with his submissive wives on a farm that takes books as payment for services rendered. The liberals who imagine this sort of thing live in a sort of Rivendell, where a wise and benevolent ruler protects them from the eeeeevil orcs and other monsters waiting to ambush the unwary. What they forget is that Rivendell works because of the vigilance of the elves, not because Elrond Sanders led them to the promised land.
    The American form of government was never about democracy – the Framers thought that only a few people (relatively wealthy white men) were clever enough to be trusted with a vote. By the time there was full white male enfranchment there was a continent to conquer and brown people to kill and steal from, thus keeping the poor white men happy enough (or at least busy enough) to revolt. The US government works because it’s a balance – it gives rich people enough things to keep them happy and it gives poor people enough protection that they don’t go murder the rich people, take their stuff, and start the cycle over again. The Tea Party is using the rules they way they were meant to be used – the problem is that the complainers on the left (disclaimer: I’m probably left of Obama, and by that I mean his actual political opinions, not his Administration’s more centrist policies) don’t want to go to party caucuses or sit on local planning boards or drive poor people to the polls. Certainly there are Democrats that do these things, but the people who complain that Senator Ted Cruz does this or that isn’t doing their part to keep him from doing those things.Ted Cruz is a Senator because people voted for him. He wasn’t appointed by anyone – he is a duly elected Senator. If you want change then you have to actually go change things, and you have to do that from the bottom. Stop worrying about “safe seats” and “Red states” – there should never be a Republican candidate for any office at any level that should run unopposed, if it’s a super-liberal suburb of Boston or a most conservative county in Alabama. The Republicans are winning the game of politics because they’re playing by the rules and actually putting effort into it.
    The call for revolution is almost always made by people who are too lazy to actually do something hard – you can be sure that in a revolution, you won’t be fighting or even trying to help people doing the fighting – you’ll be writing articles decrying the strongmen who have taken your lovely fantasy revolution and ruined it. Once you start breaking things it’s very difficult to put it back together again. The US government is much like the people of the US: an bunch of different things all stuck together. It shouldn’t work but it does. It’s working quite well for certain people who are doing things the way they were meant to be done. If you don’t like that, run against them. Change things from within the system.
    The important thing is that you do something. Something other than sit around and complain. Change your local politics and things will get better, because local politics influences the level above it.
    Get away from the keyboard and phone bank. Drive people to polls. take a bunch of cookies to party HQs. Run for office. This is the revolution we need – people who care and actually do something.

    • mysanal  On March 25, 2016 at 2:28 pm


      I’ve watched this up close. My mom started hanging with her local Tea Party and is now a bit of a local power broker. It’s a little scary, until I realize I could do the same thing on the other side. Then it just becomes intimidating – but possible.

  • ozajh  On March 23, 2016 at 12:57 am

    I am not a US citizen (or resident), so this query may be stupid, but does a nomination lapse at the end of a President’s term? If not, or if it does by convention only, a truly scorched earth option if a Republican President is elected but the Democrats regain a Senate majority would be for the new Senate to confirm Judge Garland.

    (I am fully aware that this would immediately trigger a constitutional crisis.)

    • weeklysift  On March 23, 2016 at 8:35 am

      This is one of those things the Constitution doesn’t fully spell out. Nominations do lapse, but by convention, not by an explicit statement in the Constitution.

      I don’t know if the Supreme Court has ever ruled on this issue. So there could indeed be a constitutional crisis with no guiding precedent. And then, what if the Court tied 4-4 on its ruling?

      • Sam Wight  On March 28, 2016 at 7:45 pm

        The Senate is seated first, a week or so before POTUS changes hands. In theory, the Democrats could push through Garland in that week before the nomination lapsed, if they so desired.

  • Dory  On March 23, 2016 at 3:07 pm

    This is brilliant

  • BBarker  On March 25, 2016 at 6:52 pm

    Having just stumbled upon your blog, I’m extremely impressed by the logic and clear thinking that you put into your writing. The decline of norms and the parallels to the end of the Roman Republic resonate very strongly with me and seem to have a great deal of explanatory power.

    Would the conservative camp see it the same way, though? What if Obama put on the full-court press and said he wasn’t going to continue because the breakdown of norms threatens the very democracy that conservatives hold so dear?

    Not knowing the history of the Roman Republic in that much detail, maybe the actors in that drama tried to do the same and failed. Or perhaps there are other aspects of the parallel that don’t hold.

    Still, it crystallized for me a lot of the free-floating anxiety of the decline of our democracy.

    Thank you for the extremely thought-provoking writing.

    • weeklysift  On March 26, 2016 at 7:23 am

      In my experience, conservatives recognize the problem but blame liberals for it. For example: Obama’s executive orders on immigration.

      As I said, liberals are not blameless, but I think the evidence supports the conclusion that conservatives have been the aggressors. For example, the idea of shutting down an organization like the National Labor Relations Board or the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau by explicitly refusing to approve anyone to leadership positions, regardless of views or qualifications; that’s new. Democrats never did that.

      • Anonymous  On March 27, 2016 at 12:09 am

        I think that ignoring the fact that there is a Supreme Court nominee is also new. In the past, there would have been a hearing. The nominee might have been rejected, but there would have been a hearing.

  • David Teachout  On March 30, 2016 at 11:51 am

    Reblogged this on Life Weavings and commented:
    This right here: “In short, don’t just follow the rules in the most literal way possible, grabbing every advantage they don’t explicitly forbid; govern in good faith, fulfilling to the best of your abilities the duties you have been entrusted with.”

    Unfortunately much of the populace is more interested in being saved by a god-like leader than actively engaging in democratic dialogue. Campaigns are no longer about substantive debate, but the creation of a new mythology.

    • weeklysift  On April 1, 2016 at 6:42 am

      Maybe that was the traffic spike I saw. Thanks.

      • David Teachout  On April 1, 2016 at 8:07 am

        If I helped contribute at all, then quite welcome. Your analysis is great to read.

  • Rocjard Drewna  On April 17, 2016 at 4:53 am

    A month late, but I wanted to point out re “The Supreme Court could remain deadlocked at 4-4 for the remainder of [Clinton’s] term” — it’s worse than that.

    Ruth Bader Ginsburg is 83. If she retires during Clinton’s term and the Senate refuses to approve any nominations, the Court will be 4-3, with the middle vote again with Anthony Kennedy.

    But Kennedy will be 80 this July, and is also likely to retire in the next four years. If he did so, the Court would be 3-3, cleanly split along partisan lines.

    Stephen Breyer is the next oldest, and will be 78 this August. If he retires in that same term, the Court would be 3-2, with Chief Justice Roberts holding the “center” seat.

    The next oldest is Clarence Thomas, but he’s ten years younger than Breyer.

    It’s pretty unlikely, but it would be one way for the GOP to arrange for a conservative Court until they get their way.


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