The Symposium: Republicans Have Trashed Democratic Norms. Now What?

The Symposium is a column by Leland Culver ’24 intended to act as a forum for the Amherst community to engage in dialogue together about current issues. If you would like to contribute to the Symposium, whether with suggestions for a topic, your opinion on this week’s topic or by guest-writing an installment yourself, you can submit by clicking this link. This week’s topic is on preserving democratic values in the face of a majority conservative Supreme Court.

The battle for the Supreme Court is over. What was once a carefully balanced bench with a single swing vote in the middle will, in about a week, likely be cemented into a new conservative paradigm backed by a strong and long-lasting 6-3 majority. The tale of how we got here is almost worse than the result: Republicans repeatedly violated democratic norms, to achieve their goal of amassing unchecked power to dictate the meaning of the law. The best way to do this? Seize the judicial branch.

Why is control of the judiciary so important? Well, the judicial branch, especially the Supreme Court, has long been considered the backstop of progressive reform, since it is the institution that brought decisions like Brown v. Board of Education, Roe v. Wade and, more recently, Obergefell v. Hodges. All were landmark cases establishing the greatest protection for various civil liberties possible short of a constitutional amendment; however, a great portion of that protection is merely precedent, the idea that the courts, as a rule, follow the traditional interpretation of the law set down by previous courts. But such obedience to history is not guaranteed. Turning the institution with the final say on the law towards right-wing ends, especially during a time of historic congressional gridlock, will bestow long-lasting power to a party that may be about to be voted out of office, both in the legislative and executive branches.

Looking beyond the potential imperilment of progressive precedent, liberal America has also generally been able to consider the judiciary a non-partisan institution. It is a place of higher ideals in the American cultural consciousness because federal judges and Supreme Court justices serve for life and can thus focus on interpreting the law without having to think about how it may impact their career prospects.

This idea of the courts being free from politics as well as the aforementioned landmark cases have helped create the romanticized image of the crusading lawyer snatching justice from the jaws of a politically biased, unjust legislature and changing the system from within. That image of passionate participation and decorum is the centerpiece of shows like “The West Wing” and movies like “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” and “Lincoln.”

But the conservative sweep of both federal courts and the Supreme court, and the flouting of procedure, propriety and professionalism (oh, and the will of the people as well)  has left many on the left scared and outraged. It feels like decorum and bipartisanship will never return to Washington, that the days of honest, hard-working people willing to compromise and move the country forward are over.

So, beyond getting mad about it, how do we fix this battered system? Or, in lieu of fixing, how do we rebuild it into something a little less exploitable? There are many structural changes we could consider, such as abolishing the electoral college, reinstating the three-fifths or two-thirds majority for Senate confirmations to ensure that they can’t be done on party lines or imposing term limits on the Supreme Court, since, despite our best efforts, the mere fact that we can discuss a liberal or conservative majority means that it is a partisan institution. But, since few of us will eventually become politicians and activism about procedure has in the past been almost impossible to pull off, we should probably look elsewhere for the moment.

Merely electing a Democratic president or even a majority-Democrat Senate isn’t going to cut it either. It’s a good first step, but we need to look beyond this election cycle, to battles that haven’t even begun yet.

I would argue the greatest untapped potential is in local activism. Change on a local level is faster, easier and often more protected and more impactful. If you manage to repeal a restrictive abortion law in your state, that’s meaningful protection for people with uteruses and one fewer law that can be used to challenge Roe v. Wade. If you start a refugee resettlement program in your city, that’s something that’s a meaningful good on many fronts while also being difficult to attack legislatively or judicially. If you can replace your governor, or even just your mayor, with a kinder, smarter, more respectful person, you’ve ensured that your state or city will not be swept away with the national tide of blind partisan politics that have already penetrated the Supreme Court.

And if enough states and enough cities stand strong against this tide, it will wash away as so many others have before it.