Sometimes a perfect political metaphor just lands in your lap. I was out riding my bike the other day in a residential neighborhood here in central Connecticut, on an east-west road with which other, smaller north-south roads intersected. As I approached an intersection—I didn’t have a stop sign—a silver pickup truck pulled up to the stop sign on the street from the north. With barely a pause, he breezed across, cutting me off. “Hey!” I shouted, and waggled an index finger at him.
He braked to a hard stop. A white guy, stocky, maybe fifty. “You got a problem?” he shouted.
“Yeah,” I said. “You almost hit me.”
“I got there before you,” he said.
“But you had a stop sign, and I didn’t.” I pointed back to the intersection. “I had the right of way.”
“Yeah?” He smirked. “Well, fuck you and your right of way!” And away he roared.
I noticed the Trump/Pence bumper sticker on his truck; and while of course aggressive drivers come in all ideological stripes, I can’t help thinking about this exchange when I regard the political brouhaha over nominating a Supreme Court justice to replace Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The encounter at the intersection makes me think about the relation of power to principle.
Like many a battered idealist, I’m often irked by the gap between what individuals, institutions, and governments do in pursuing their interests, and what they say they’re doing. Naked power moves always seem to gather a fig leaf of principle. The Supreme Court mess is a classic example. When the GOP stole the Merrick Garland seat, they tried to hide the larceny behind a principle: namely, that no new justice should be chosen in an election year. Everyone knew that the real reason was that they wanted the seat, and they had the power to take it.
What is it that requires the fig leaf in these situations? Partly it’s human nature, people not wanting to look selfish or petty. But politically there’s a lot more to it than that. People don’t only want to feel good about themselves; they want to prevail, they want to win. In politics, that means taking your case into the public realm and presenting it to people. And that in turn requires tools and weapons. The appearance of principle is a useful tool.
Back in 2016, when Antonin Scalia died and then-President Barack Obama nominated Merrick Garland, the argument piously reiterated by all those ostensibly Constitution-worshiping Republicans was that no Supreme Court justice should be nominated in an election year; rather, the will of the people should decide. “The American people should have a voice in the selection of their next Supreme Court justice,” said Sen. Mitch McConnell. “Therefore, this vacancy should not be filled until we have a new president.”
In truth, nothing in the Constitution requires, or even suggests, that we should deviate from the normal advice-and-consent procedure for vetting Supreme Court nominees simply because it’s an election year. In the century before Garland, we’d had thirteen nominees in election years, and eleven were confirmed. The truth was that the GOP just didn’t want Obama to get a nominee through—not even a moderate, middle-of-the road judge like Garland, whom Obama had chosen precisely because he thought some Republicans might be able to vote for him. Fat chance. The setup was purely partisan, and they rammed it home.