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.