America Is a Failed Democracy: A Primer (It’s Long But Essential)

. . . the American republic, originally designed to be a majoritarian representative democracy, has become minoritarian. Or more precisely, at every level of the current institutions of our representative democracy, we have rendered those institutions unrepresentative. This fact alone should be enough to lead aspiring democracies around the world to look elsewhere for models for how democracy might be made to work. 

Those are the words of Laurence Lessig, a Harvard law professor, writing for The New York Review of Books. If you want to understand the ways this country has failed at democracy, read what follows. The features of minority rule discussed below include gerrymandered state legislatures and congressional districts, vote suppression, political action committees, the Electoral College, the Supreme Court, the Senate and the filibuster:

What’s most striking about America’s understanding of our own democracy is our ability to see what’s just not there. We are not a model for the world to copy. The United States is instead a failed democratic state.

At every level, the institutions that the US has evolved for implementing our democracy betray the basic commitment of a representative democracy: that it be, at its core, fair and majoritarian. Instead, that commitment is now corrupted in America. And every aspiring democracy around the world should understand the specifics of that corruption—if only to avoid the same in its own land.


The corruption of our majoritarian representative democracy begins at the state legislatures. Because the Supreme Court has declared that partisan gerrymandering is beyond the ken of our Constitution, states have radically manipulated legislative districts. As Miriam Seifter . . . summarized in a recent article for the Columbia Law Review, “across the nation, the vast majority of states in recent memory have had legislatures controlled by either a clear or probable minority party.” Her work was based in part upon an extraordinary analysis published by the USC Schwarzenegger Institute, which found that after the 2018 election, close to 60 million Americans “live under minority rule in their US state legislatures.” The most egregious states in this mix are also among the most important in presidential elections. In Wisconsin, for example, the popular vote for Republicans in 2018 was 44.7 percent; but Republicans controlled 64.6 percent of the seats in the statehouse. Likewise, Republicans in Virginia won just 44.5 percent of the vote but received 51 percent of statehouse seats.

State legislatures, as Seifter characterizes them, are “the least majoritarian branch” of our representative democracy. Yet this fact is all but invisible to most Americans—including, as she evinces, justices on the Supreme Court. We are all outraged when the Electoral College selects a president who hasn’t won a plurality of votes, something it has done five times in its history. Why are we so sanguine about legislatures that are regularly controlled by the party that won fewer votes across the state?

These gerrymandered states then spread their minoritarian poison in two distinctive ways. First, they have taken up the most ambitious program of vote suppression since Jim Crow. Through a wide range of techniques, Republican state legislatures are making it selectively more difficult for presumptively Democratic voters to vote, by reducing the number of polling places in Democratic districts, by ending early voting or voting outside of ordinary working hours, by deploying biased ID requirements that selectively allow forms of identification commonly held by Republicans (gun club registration cards) while disallowing those held by likely Democratic voters (student cards), by understaffing polling places so voters must queue for hours to vote, and by many other creative techniques. In Georgia, the legislature has even made it a crime to give water to people waiting in line to vote. What possible legitimate state interest could that law serve?

These acts are often framed by their opponents in racial terms. That framing is a strategic mistake. I’m happy to stipulate that some who push these techniques of suppression may well be motivated by race—after all, many of the techniques were those of race discrimination before —though most would surely disavow any such thing. But every single person pushing these techniques of suppression is certainly motivated by politics. It is raw partisan power, driven to destroy the electoral prospects of the other party, that explains what is happening here. Before the United States Supreme Court, Justice Amy Coney Barrett asked lawyers from the Republican National Committee why they were opposing provisions enabling more people to vote. Because it “puts us at a competitive disadvantage,” the lawyer was untroubled to reply. How can it be permissible for the party in power nakedly to rig the system against its opponents?

The second way that minoritarian state legislatures spread their poison is by gerrymandering the United States House of Representatives. Partisan gerrymandering was first perfected in its modern “big data” form by Republicans in 2010, and the Democrats then spent the following decade trying to get the Supreme Court to put a stop to it. When the Court announced it would not, there was little left for the Democrats except good government initiatives, aiming at moving the redistricting process away from the most egregiously partisan influences. That did some good—until the 2020 election signaled to Republicans that their party faces virtual annihilation if the majority gets its say. The efforts to gerrymander for 2022 will therefore be the most sophisticated seen yet. Barring a legislative miracle to safeguard voting rights, by the next presidential election Republicans will have secured through gerrymandering the control of the House of Representatives, whether or not they succeed in winning more votes than Democrats. And if the plans of some extremists come to fruition, a critical mass of state legislatures will also have passed laws by then that give them the power to overturn the results of a popular presidential election in their states.

These two techniques of minoritarian rule—gerrymandering and partisan vote suppression—could have been resisted by the courts. Yet what’s striking about the United States Supreme Court is not only that it has done nothing to resist minoritarianism but also that its most significant recent interventions have only ratified perhaps the most egregious aspects of our minoritarian democracy: the influence of money in politics.


While most mature democracies have various techniques for minimizing the corrupting effect of money in politics, the US Supreme Court has embraced the most radical conception of campaign money-as-free speech of any comparable democracy. While the Court has upheld limitations on direct contributions to political campaigns, it has simultaneously held, in its infamous decision in Citizens United v. FEC (2010), that any limitation on independent spending violates the First Amendment. Lower courts have then read Citizens United to mean that any limits on contributions to independent political action committees would violate the First Amendment as well. These rulings together gave rise to the so-called Super PACs that now dominate political spending, and enable strategic coordination of influence that is more effective than spending alone. In 2020, for example, the ten top Super PACs accounted for 54 percent of outside spending.

What’s critical to recognize is that the real power of this money comes not from its effect in persuading voters. Its power comes instead from the dependence it creates within our political system. Candidates know they need the support of Super PACs, either to make the case for them or to defend them from others who would attack. That dependence produces enormous power in the Super PACs concentrated in the hands of a tiny number of very wealthy individuals (who are presumptively but not necessarily Americans). In a nation of hundreds of millions, a few hundred families now dominate political spending.

Here again, there is no shame. In June 2021, the political action committee (PAC) No Labels had a call with Senator Joe Manchin, Democrat of West Virginia, about legislative priorities in the balance of the year. On the call, the founders of the PAC emphasized the power their group had in Washington—not because of their ideas, but because of their money. The ultra-wealthy donors supporting No Labels were able to “hand out $50,000 checks,” its cofounder, Andrew Burskey, bragged. And those checks, he explained, represented the most valuable money in any political campaign. This was “hard” money, money given to candidates directly, which FEC rules allow the candidates to spend themselves. And then to prove just why that money was so valuable, Burskey offered the incredibly revealing picture of just why the economy of influence in Washington gave the ultra-wealthy so much power in Congress. As he explained:

[Most House members] are spending four hours on the telephone, dialing for dollars. And so what [a large contribution from donors] does—aside from sending the very strong message that there are folks who will have your back if you take tough votes that . . . may not be popular within your party—it also in real life frees them to do more work, because it’s spending less time raising those funds.

Burskey is remarking upon the obvious dependence that exists with our current system for campaign finance: the dependence of representatives on fundraising. Because of that dependence, particular kinds of funders—namely, large funders—are especially valuable. Large contributors give members two things at the same time: first, and obviously, money; but second, and even more critically, time. A $50,000 contribution gives members of Congress the chance to breathe, even as it naturally obliges them to [serve] the interests of the person who enabled that chance.


The legislative branch, of course, is not the only minoritarian institution within our republic. Because of the way states allocate Electoral College votes, the executive branch is effectively minoritarian, too. Not just in the most egregious way, when the candidate who wins fewer votes nonetheless becomes the president, but also, and more significantly, in the most regular way: because of the way states allocate their Electoral College votes, it is only a tiny fraction of American voters who actually matter to the ultimate result. All but two states give the winner of the popular vote in their state all of the electors from that state. This means that the only states that are actually contested in any presidential election are the “swing states,” at most a dozen or so of the fifty in the union. Those swing states represent a minority of America—less than 40 percent of the electorate depending on the election. That minority is in turn radically unrepresentative of America itself. The voters in the swing states are older and whiter. Their occupations are more traditional. For example, seven and a half times more people work in solar energy in America than mine coal, yet we never hear anything about solar energy industry workers as an important political bloc in a presidential campaign because those people live in non-swing states like Texas and California. Coal miners live in battleground states, so they become the central focus of the candidates running for president.

It is thus this tiny, unrepresentative minority that effectively selects the occupant of the Oval Office—making the president, as political scientists (such as Douglas Kriner and Andrew Reeves) have shown, especially responsive to this unrepresentative few. Federal spending is higher, all things being equal, in swing states over non-swing states, and regulators are particularly accommodating of swing states’ regulatory concerns. Does America tinker with steel tariffs or ethanol subsidies because either policy makes any sense? No. We live with these policy vagaries because their beneficiaries live in Pennsylvania and Iowa (both swing states).


And so, too, with the courts: if any institution within a representative democracy is supposed to be minoritarian, or at least, counter-majoritarian, courts are. That is true substantively, but it is not supposed to be true politically. Substantively, of course, courts are meant to uphold constitutional rights, regardless of popular majorities. My First Amendment right to speak should not depend upon whether my views are liked by a majority. But the institution of the judiciary is also populated through political action. And to the extent that those actors have power because of a minoritarian corruption of representative democracy, the courts they populate are likewise tainted by minoritarianism.

Consider the Supreme Court: the current bench is divided 6–3, with the majority dominated by extremely conservative justices. That division is in no sense representative of America. Two thirds of the US is certainly not “conservative.” And while the random nature of Supreme Court turnover can sometimes produce such unrepresentativeness, this Court was expressly constructed by Senate leaders who changed the norms of confirmation to effectively steal a Supreme Court seat. In February 2016, then Majority Leader Mitch McConnell declared, after Justice Scalia’s death, that it was “inappropriate” to confirm a nominee of President Barack Obama’s because it was an election year. But when Justice Ginsburg died just six weeks before an election, McConnell declared that it was perfectly appropriate to rush a nominee through the Senate before the 2020 election. In record time (for a modern appointment), Justice Amy Coney Barrett—certainly among the most conservative of the justices now seated on the Supreme Court—was confirmed by a Republican Senate.


Yet, without doubt, the most extreme institution of minoritarian democracy in America today is the United States Senate. Of course, that flaw was in a sense intended: the only way small states were going to agree to the new Constitution in 1787 was if the Constitution gave them extra power. That compromise enraged James Madison, but he could read the political writing on the wall and eventually became a defender of this counter-majoritarian compromise at the heart of our republic.

Even then, though, the minoritarianism built in to the Senate was muted in the first century after the Constitution’s signing. It was muted first because the differences in states’ populations were much smaller than they are today. The largest state in 1790 (Virginia) was thirteen times more populous than the smallest (Delaware). Today, the largest (California) is sixty-eight times more populous than the smallest (Wyoming). But it was muted second, and more fundamentally, because until this century the Senate did not regularly block the will of the majority of senators. The original Senate rules expressly protected the power of the majority, a simple majority, to vote on any bill whenever it wanted. It was only when Senator John C. Calhoun, the proslavery Democrat of South Carolina, began to muck about with those rules fifty years after the Constitution was ratified that the will of the majority was placed in jeopardy.

We miss this fact because the technique of this blocking has a name that has long been part of Senate lore: the filibuster. And given the tactic’s long pedigree, it is easy to imagine that what we are talking about today is the same as existed in the Senate for most of the institution’s history.

The reality is radically different.

The filibuster that existed for most of the Senate’s history was a device that simply slowed the consideration of legislation. It didn’t kill it. The one exception to that characterization was civil rights legislation: the only examples of laws being blocked by filibuster all the way through 1965 were anti-lynching laws, and laws to improve civil rights. For the rest, the filibuster simply delayed the debating and passage of legislation. And for that delaying tactic to operate, the Senators supporting the filibuster had to do real work: if a Senator was to filibuster a bill, he would have to stand on the floor of the Senate and speak, for many hours without a break. Strom Thurmond, Democrat of South Carolina, held the floor for twenty-four hours to hold up the 1957 Civil Rights Bill. That was not mere showmanship as House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s recent eight-hour filibuster was. It was the only way that a filibuster could have any effect.

Today, however, the mechanism of the filibuster is radically different. All a senator must do to assure that a bill is filibustered is make a request to their party leader. That request—which can literally be by e-mail or text—then shifts the bill from being one that will pass if a simple majority supports it to being one that cannot even be debated unless a supermajority of sixty senators supports it.

The effect of the old filibuster was to keep a bill on the floor of the Senate as the filibusterers were debating. That allowed their dissent to be better understood, if not in the Senate, then at least by the public. The effect of the new filibuster is exactly the opposite: its effect is to block any debate until a supermajority allows it. Thus, the For the People Act—a bill that would have reversed much of the state suppression of the vote, ended partisan gerrymandering, and changed fundamentally the way campaigns are funded—has been blocked from debate on the floor of the Senate now twice, even though a majority would vote to allow that debate to occur. This modern filibuster thus doesn’t enable debate or understanding. The modern filibuster is just a gag rule on any legislation a minority does not like.

Even this description, however, masks the real corruption in the system. The norms that limited the filibuster to important issues are gone. Both parties killed those conventions over the past twenty years, the Republicans more aggressively than the Democrats. The filibuster has now become a routine hurdle that any significant legislation must clear. What that means is that we have now introduced a procedural requirement into the passage of legislation that makes the process more institutionally minoritarian than that of any legislature in any comparable representative democracy. Senators from the twenty-one smallest and most conservative states, representing just 21 percent of America, now have the power to block any non-budget legislation.

This filibuster lock alone—setting aside all the gerrymandering in the states, the gerrymandering of Congress, the suppression of the vote in elections, the Electoral College, the corrupting dependence of money—would be enough to categorize America as a “minoritarian democracy.” Like segregationist or sectarian regimes such as South Africa under apartheid, or the Sunni rule of Baathist Iraq, or Syria under the Alawi, the American republic, originally designed to be a majoritarian representative democracy, has become minoritarian. Or more precisely, at every level of the current institutions of our representative democracy, we have rendered those institutions unrepresentative. This fact alone should be enough to lead aspiring democracies around the world to look elsewhere for models for how democracy might be made to work. Our only lesson for these democracies is the consequence of our own failure.


In 1997, after he had surprised the world by winning reelection decisively, Bill Clinton convened a small dinner with the top donors to the Democratic Party at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C. What should he do in his second term? What did they think he could achieve? It was a moment of great hope and possibility—nine months before the revelations of a White House intern would deflect the administration from achieving anything of significance.

As the story is told, about thirty of America’s super-wealthy sat around a table. The president asked each in turn to give him their views. One by one, they rose to speak. The last to rise was a businessman, the founder of Stride Rite Shoes, and the second-largest contributor to the Democrats in 1996. As he stood up, few had any sense of what he would say. When he sat down, few could believe he’d actually said what he did say.

“Mr. President,” Arnold Hiatt began, “I know you’re an admirer of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. So I want you to put yourself in FDR’s shoes in 1940—the year when Roosevelt realized that he was going to have to convince a reluctant nation to wage a war to save democracy. Because that, Mr. President, is precisely what you need to do now—to convince a reluctant nation to wage a war to save democracy.” That would not, of course, be a war against fascists. It would be a fight against fat cats—people like Hiatt, rich people, and people who believed (unlike Hiatt) that just because they are rich, they’re entitled to dinner with the president at the Mayflower. Hiatt was challenging the president to recognize that “current campaign finance practices are threatening this nation in a different, but no less serious way,” he said. . . . There was silence when Hiatt finished. No doubt, some were uncomfortable. . . .

At the time Hiatt spoke, Citizens United was still more than a dozen years in the future. We had not yet seen the pathological gerrymandering of 2010. Few could have imagined the open efforts by partisans in state legislatures to suppress the votes of their political opponents. Not a single Republican in any state legislature was then considering legislation to allow state legislatures to override the popular vote for president. And though the filibuster had been deployed beyond the domain of civil rights by then, it would be nine years before the architect of the modern filibuster, Mitch McConnell, would be elected to lead his party in the United States Senate. And no one—literally, no one—could have imagined an event like January 6 taking place in the United States of America. From our perspective today, Hiatt spoke at a time of relative health in the American democracy. And yet to him, and to many others then—including an eighty-eight-year-old woman who, nine months later, would begin a 3,000-mile walk across the country with the words “campaign finance reform” emblazoned across her chest—the corruption of money was already reason enough to “wage a war to save democracy.”


Today, we confront a Republican Party that has effectively declared war on majoritarian democracy. At every level, the leadership of that party challenges the fundamental idea of majority rule. Rather than adjust their policies to appeal to a true majority of Americans, Republicans have embraced the minoritarian strategy of entrenching what has become, in effect, a partisan, quasi-ethnic group against any possible democratic challenge. They rig the system so the majority cannot rule.

In the face of this threat, what America needs is what Hiatt said FDR had been: a leader who could “convince a reluctant nation to wage a war to save democracy.” Or maybe better, what America needs is a leader like Winston Churchill, who could convince a distracted nation that there is a fundamental threat to our democracy that we must now wage war to save.

Yet we don’t have a Churchill leading this fight. We have a Chamberlain. Rather than name the threat, and rally America against it, President Biden has been keen to negotiate the differences in conciliatory fashion—as if the modern filibuster were not a fundamental threat to democracy and as if the fight against majoritarianism were not a threat either. Biden has been eager to engage in a bizarre nostalgia, recalling a golden age when white men from different parties somehow got along, rather than recognizing that American democracy has never faced a threat like one—even if this is precisely the political reality that Black Americans have known for all of the country’s history.

There was real hope this year for effective action to address this corruption of democracy. Every single major candidate for president in the Democratic Party in 2020 (with the exception of Kamala Harris) had committed to making the For the People Act a top priority in the first hundred days; some had promised even more. Speaker Nancy Pelosi maintained that momentum and passed the act in the House. And after she succeeded in the House, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer committed to getting the Senate to do the same.

Standing in the way, however, was the filibuster.

For most of this year, President Biden defended the filibuster and stood practically silent on this critical reform. He has focused not on the crumbling critical infrastructure of American democracy, but on the benefits of better bridges and faster Internet. Democratic progressives in Congress were little better on this question. Although Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren all supported the For the People Act, in the public eye the issues they’ve championed have overlooked the country’s broken democratic machinery: forgive student debt, raise the minimum wage, give us a Green New Deal…. As a progressive myself, I love all these ideas, but none of them are possible unless we end the corruption that has destroyed this democracy. None of them will happen until we fix democracy first.

It may well be that nothing could have been done this year. It may well be true that nothing Biden could say or do would move Senators Joe Manchin and Krysten Sinema, the two who are apparently blocking reform just now. Yet we have to frame the stakes accurately and clearly: if we do not confront those imperfections in our democracy, openly and transparently, we will lose this democracy. . . . [i.e. what’s left of it].

Good News, Yes, Good News

There might be good news coming from Washington. The obvious good news should be the passage of the Build Back Better Act in some form or other. Last month, Reuters used seven categories to summarize what’s in the bill (the details of which are all subject to change):

  1. Climate
  2. Education
  3. Family Benefits
  4. Healthcare
  5. Housing
  6. Immigration
  7. Taxes
  8. Other

Its passage after months of negotiation between the best and worst Democrats in Congress will be a very good thing (Republicans are opposed to progress and fairness so will all vote against it).

Meanwhile, Senate Democrats are working on changes to the filibuster. That would allow them to pass some kind of voting rights legislation over the usual Republican opposition. From Politico:

The latest attempt is taking place among a group of Senate Democrats who have gone back to the drawing board. Rather than the draconian step of tossing out the filibuster, they’re debating other possible rule changes to the chamber that could pave the way for election reform bills that are viewed by Democrats as paramount to combatting restrictive new voting laws and preserving democracy.

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), who is a member of the group drafting the reforms, said it would be “premature” to share specifics of the possible rule changes at this stage because “there’s no handshake deal yet.” But he did express a level of cautious optimism, stressing that abolishing the filibuster, which requires 60 Senate votes to advance legislation, is not under consideration this time.

“We’re not going to abolish the filibuster. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) has made [it] very plain we’re not abolishing the filibuster,” Kaine said in an interview. “We’re looking at a number of complaints that Democrats and Republicans have had about the way the place operates to see if we can restore it to operating better and do it in a way that would facilitate passage of voting rights.”

Kaine said the group is “analyzing potential rule reforms” by “putting the shoe on the other foot” and asking “If we’re in the minority, how would we feel about this? Can we live under this? Would this make the Senate work better for either party under a president of either party?”

The latest conversations come after four failed attempts by Democrats to pass voting or election reform bills in the Senate due to a [Republican] blockade. The hope within the party is that once President Joe Biden’s social spending plan is passed, they can prioritize voting rights and present a pathway to get it through the Senate. . . . 

The effort is expected to come to a head as early as January, according to multiple senators involved. . . . 

Ideas being floated . . . include changes to the amendment process and how the Senate debates legislation and nominations. . . . Other options raised by Democrats — and Manchin himself — include a standing filibuster which would require senators to continue debating on the floor rather than needing 60 votes to end debate on a bill. . . . 

Biden has urged Congress to pass legislation that expands ballot access, ends partisan gerrymandering and would restore the pre-clearance authority of the 1965 Voting Rights Act gutted by the Supreme Court. . . . Biden has characterized the moment as an inflection point that poses the “most significant test of our democracy since the Civil War”, as civil rights advocates press the administration to match the president’s rhetoric with urgent action . . .

For months, Democrats have repeatedly run into a brick wall as every GOP senator but one has refused to offer votes for even a restoration of key sections of the Voting Rights Act, a reform Democrats see as a modest step. Republicans have voted for such reauthorizations in the past but their opposition has led an increasing number of Democrats to either endorse a carveout to the filibuster, if not an outright elimination. . .

But Democrats will need buy-in from Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) — who both oppose nixing the legislative filibuster — if they want to change the chambers’ rules. . . .

Tester said Tuesday that he thinks Manchin and Sinema are “absolutely” open to some of the changes being considered. . . .

Unquote.

On another front, the five most reactionary Republicans on the Supreme Court decided it’s fine to let states ignore the Supreme Court and the Constitution. This is how Chief Justice Roberts, the least reactionary Republican, described the majority’s ruling on Texas’s anti-abortion bounty hunter law:

The clear purpose and actual effect of [the Texas law] has been to nullify this Court’s rulings. It is, however, a basic principle that the Constitution is the “fundamental and paramount law of the nation,” and “[i]t is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is.” Marbury v. Madison (1803). Indeed, “[i]f the legislatures of the several states may, at will, annul the judgments of the courts of the United States, and destroy the rights acquired under those judgments, the constitution itself becomes a solemn mockery.” United States v. Peters (1809). The nature of the federal right infringed does not matter; it is the role of the Supreme Court in our constitutional system that is at stake.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote:

The Court should have put an end to this madness months ago, before [the law] first went into effect. It failed to do so then, and it fails again today. . . . The Court thus betrays not only the citizens of Texas, but also our constitutional system of government.

Given that a Supreme Court majority has gone renegade, reform is clearly necessary. A former federal judge and a law professor published a column in The Washington Post explaining why they now favor a major change:

We now believe that Congress must expand the size of the Supreme Court and do so as soon as possible. We did not come to this conclusion lightly. . . . We started out leaning toward term limits for Supreme Court justices but against court expansion and ended up doubtful about term limits but in favor of expanding the size of the court. . . . 

Sadly, we no longer have [confidence in the Court], given three things: first, the dubious legitimacy of the way some justices were appointed; second, what Justice Sonia Sotomayor rightly called the “stench” of politics hovering over this court’s deliberations about the most contentious issues; and third, the anti-democratic, anti-egalitarian direction of this court’s decisions about matters such as voting rights, gerrymandering and the corrupting effects of dark money.

Those judicial decisions haven’t been just wrong; they put the court — and, more important, our entire system of government — on a one-way trip from a defective but still hopeful democracy toward a system in which the few corruptly govern the many, something between autocracy and oligarchy. Instead of serving as a guardrail against going over that cliff, our Supreme Court has become an all-too-willing accomplice in that disaster . . . [We cannot look] other way when the court seeks to undo decades of precedent relied on by half the population to shape their lives just because, given the new majority, it has the votes.

Unquote.

Republicans go too far when they have power. Their overreach invites a Democratic response. Perhaps they’ve done it this time as well. I sure hope so.

Nothing New, But It Bears Repeating

From Maureen Dowd of The New York Times:

Ordinarily staid and silent Supreme Court justices have become whirling dervishes of late, spinning madly to rebut the idea that Americans are beginning to regard the court as a dangerous cabal of partisan hacks.

They need not fret and wring their hands. No one is beginning to think that.

Many of us have thought that for a long time.

Supremes are often Shakespeare fans, so of course they are familiar with the phrase “doth protest too much, methinks.”

The once august court’s approval ratings on fairness were already falling two decades ago. The bloom came off the robe in 2000, when the court threw the game on Bush v. Gore, voting 5 to 4 to stop the Florida recount and anoint a Republican president.

If we conjure an alternative-history look at America, consider all the things that the Supreme Court brought down on our heads by pre-emptively purloining that victory for George W. Bush: two interminable and inexplicable wars, costing so many lives and so many trillions; a descent into torture; the villainous Dick Cheney.

As some on Twitter noted, our 20 years of quicksand in Afghanistan was capped Friday with this headline: “Son of Afghanistan’s Former Defense Minister Buys $20.9 Million Beverly Hills Mansion.”

Al Gore, mocked as “Ozone Man” by Bush senior, certainly would have tried to head off the biblical floods and fires engulfing our country.

The right-wing justices may as well embrace their reputation for hackery. Because in this blockbuster year, when the conservative court begins debating abortion and the Second Amendment, one thing is certain: They are going to make rulings that will drive people crazy, rulings that will be out of sync with what most Americans believe.

So please, conservative cabal, don’t pretend you’re not doing this out of ideology.

And please, Justice Breyer, skedaddle. You’re playing a dangerous game. You need to get out of there because it looks as if the midterms are going to be bad, and if the Democrats lose the Senate majority, there’s no guarantee that Mitch McConnell will let any Biden nominee onto the court, even with two years left on the president’s term. Do you want the court to be 7 to 2?

Listen to those Democrats who are warning that staying would be irresponsible and egotistical. Don’t make the colossal mistake that Ruth Bader Ginsburg did, ignoring entreaties from top Democrats and hints from the Obama White House to leave in a timely way and hanging on so long that the worst possible outcome happened: That remarkable feminist’s seat went to the ferociously anti-abortion Lady Handmaid’s Tale . . . 

And please, America, can we have term limits? Justices should not be on the court for 30 years, or into their late 80s.

Chief Justice John Roberts, who did not want the court to be seen as too extreme, has lost control because there are five more rabid conservatives running over him.

D____ T____’s ability to get three conservatives [Correction: reactionaries] on the court, thanks to McConnell, will turn out to be the most consequential part of his miserable presidency. And the minority leader is about to get his reward in the form of a bunch of conservative rulings.

The beauty of it for McConnell is that the court is going to do his dirty work for him. Republicans don’t want to vote to roll back abortion rights because they know it’s not popular and they don’t want their fingerprints on it. They’d prefer the court do it.

Linda Greenhouse, who has a book coming out called “Justice on the Brink,” had a piece in The Times summing up why it is brutal for our democracy to have institutions so out of step with majority views in the country: “Three polls within the past month show that fewer than a third of Americans want to see the court overturn Roe v. Wade. Yet it appears that only a third of the justices can be counted on to preserve the right to abortion as defined by the court’s current precedents.” So unlucky women in red states are going back to back-alley days?

. . . Ignore the charade of the parade of justices protesting that they are pure and neutral. Nobody’s buying it. We all know it’s a disaster if the country’s going one way and the court’s going the other. . . . 

We Are at Their Mercy

There are six Republicans on the Supreme Court. Three of them were nominated by a president who encouraged his followers to overturn an election after he’d lost the popular vote for the second time. Two others were nominated by a president who lost the popular vote the first time he ran, but became president anyway because a 5-4 Republican majority on the Court ordered the vote counting in Florida to end. The sixth Republican was elevated to the Court after he lied to Congress about his sexual harassment of Anita Hill.

This week five of those Republicans demonstrated that they can find an excuse in what they call “the law” to do anything they want in service of their reactionary ideology.

From Charles Pierce of Esquire:

My generally unfocused red-eyed rage at what the Supreme Court did late Wednesday night cleared momentarily and I realized that, according to the 5-4 decision allowing the blatantly unconstitutional anti-choice Texas law to stand, a state can pass all kinds of blatantly unconstitutional laws as long as they leave the enforcement of those laws to bounty hunters.

This moment of clarity passed, quickly, and unfocused red-eyed rage reasserted itself. This was completely appropriate when directed at a corrupted Supreme Court majority which did what it wanted to do, legitimate precedents be damned, and through such preposterous playground illogic that William Blackstone should rise from his unquiet grave and smack all five of those hacks upside their watery heads with copies of his Commentaries. 

We all knew that Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett were bag-job nominations for the specific purpose of voting the way they did late Wednesday night, and we all knew that Neil Gorsuch and Sam Alito were just waiting in the weeds with Clarence Thomas.

But, at their moment of ultimate triumph, they at least could have tried a little harder. I mean, look at this mess.

To prevail in an application for a stay or an injunction, an applicant must carry the burden of making a “strong showing” that it is “likely to succeed on the merits,” that it will be “irreparably injured absent a stay,” that the balance of the equities favors it, and that a stay is consistent with the public interest. . . .

The applicants now before us have raised serious questions regarding the constitutionality of the Texas law at issue. But their application also presents complex and novel antecedent procedural questions on which they have not carried their burden. [Note: I quoted a different part of the mess than Mr. Pierce did]

The Supreme Court of the United States is saying two things here: 1) that it really doesn’t understand the law it is being asked to adjudicate, and 2) that the Texas law, which depends upon a transparent scheme to dodge judicial review, is beyond the Supreme Court’s reach because its transparent scheme to dodge judicial review is so cleverly drawn. No wonder the five cowards in the majority issued their order unsigned. I wouldn’t want my name attached to this pile of offal, either.

Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan were not so reticent, and they clearly can see a church by daylight. From Sotomayor:

The Court’s order is stunning. Presented with an application to enjoin a flagrantly unconstitutional law engineered to prohibit women from exercising their constitutional rights and evade judicial scrutiny, a majority of Justices have opted to bury their heads in the sand…Because the Court’s failure to act rewards tactics designed to avoid judicial review and inflicts significant harm on the applicants and on women seeking abortions in Texas, I dissent…In effect, the Texas Legislature has deputized the State’s citizens as bounty hunters, offering them cash prizes for civilly prosecuting their neighbors’ medical procedures.

The Legislature fashioned this scheme because federal constitutional challenges to state laws ordinarily are brought against state officers who are in charge of enforcing. By prohibiting state officers from enforcing the Act directly and relying instead on citizen bounty hunters, the Legislature sought to make it more complicated for federal courts to enjoin the Act on a statewide basis.

Today, the Court finally tells the Nation that it declined to act because, in short, the State’s gambit worked. The structure of the State’s scheme, the Court reasons, raises “complex and novel antecedent procedural questions” that counsel against granting the application, just as the State intended. This is untenable. It cannot be the case that a State can evade federal judicial scrutiny by outsourcing the enforcement of unconstitutional laws to its citizenry.

For her part, Kagan expanded her anathemas to include the Court’s continuing abuse of its “shadow docket,” of which this order is the apotheosis.

Today’s ruling illustrates just how far the Court’s “shadow-docket” decisions may depart from the usual principles of appellate process. . . . It has reviewed only the most cursory party submissions, and then only hastily. And it barely bothers to explain its conclusion—that a challenge to an obviously unconstitutional abortion regulation backed by a wholly unprecedented enforcement scheme is unlikely to prevail. In all these ways, the majority’s decision is emblematic of too much of this Court’s shadow-docket decision-making—which every day becomes more unreasoned, inconsistent, and impossible to defend.

(It is notable that [Republican] Chief Justice John Roberts joined the minority in dissent. This further reinforces my belief that the only issues on which Roberts is reliably implacable are restricting the franchise and enhancing the corporate power of the oligarchy. That’s why Citizens United is his defining decision. For Roberts, that was a two-fer.)

Expand the Court. Do it tomorrow. Jesus Christ, a 5-4 majority just ruled that a cheap legal three-card monte game at the heart of a law was too clever for the Constitution to address.

Questioning the Power of Five Unelected Judges

It’s human nature to be pleased when decisions go our way and upset when they don’t. This certainly applies to decisions made by the Supreme Court. But there is a basic issue of democracy vs. aristocracy when it comes to the Court’s ability to invalidate or undermine laws passed by elected officials.

A Harvard law professor, Nikolas Bowie, submitted this testimony to the Presidential Commission on the Supreme Court of the United States that Biden created earlier this year. Reprinted in The New York Times, its title was “How the Supreme Court Dominates Our Democracy: Judicial Review Gives Any Five Justices Power Over the Whole Government. Why?”:

The United States calls itself the world’s oldest democracy, which would be true if the world began in 1965. That was the year John Lewis marched to the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the president said “We shall overcome” and Congress passed the Voting Rights Act, which allowed many citizens to exercise their right to vote for the first time.

Yet the legislation of 1965 wasn’t Congress’s first attempt to build a multiracial democracy. A century earlier, lawmakers enacted a half-dozen laws that protected the right to vote, punished political violence, and banned racial discrimination in public places. But as Frederick Douglass lamented in 1883, those laws were “grievously wounded” and cut down during his lifetime. Their assassin was the Supreme Court.

Striking down the first federal voting rights act, the court wrote “It would . . . be dangerous if the legislature could set a net large enough to catch all possible offenders”. Concerning a White mob that murdered more than 100 Black voters, the court stated that “it does not appear that it was their intent to interfere with any right granted or secured by the constitution”. In 1903, the court held that the federal government was powerless to stop “the great mass of the white population [that] intends to keep the blacks from voting.”

Because the Supreme Court undermined or ignored Congress’s attempts to enforce the Constitution, the racial caste system that we know as Jim Crow emerged like an invasive species. With the court’s approval, White people in the South terrorized Black voters, disenfranchised them and enacted state laws to codify their place at the bottom of a racial hierarchy.

Today, as American democracy enters a midlife crisis, the Supreme Court has often been heralded as democracy’s guardian. Decisions dating from 1954’s Brown v. Board of Education are seen by many as essential responses to the tyranny of the majority. Yet it appears that the court has reverted to its older ways.

In 2013, a justice sneered at Congress’s nearly unanimous reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act, calling it the “perpetuation of a racial entitlement.” He was soon joined by four of his colleagues in the Shelby County decision, which treated a central provision of the Voting Rights Act as beyond Congress’s power to enact “appropriate” legislation. And in its Brnovich decision this month, the court stuck a second dagger into the act, calling it too “radical” to be enforced as written.

In the wake of these decisions — as before — Jim Crow laws are reemerging. By declining to enforce federal laws because it disagrees with Congress about whether they’re constitutionally appropriate, the Supreme Court has functioned as an antidemocratic institution that produces antidemocratic results.

In his inaugural address in 1861, President Abraham Lincoln offered perhaps the best argument for why Congress, and not the Supreme Court, should have the final word on what the Constitution requires. The court had just held in its infamous Dred Scott decision that Congress had no power to restrict the spread of slavery. “The candid citizen must confess that if the policy of the government upon vital questions affecting the whole people is to be irrevocably fixed by the Supreme Court,” Lincoln said, “. . . the people will have ceased to be their own rulers, having to that extent practically resigned their government into the hands of that eminent tribunal.” Lincoln thought that a self-governing people should have the power to determine what their fundamental law meant.

Lincoln’s argument wasn’t that the Constitution shouldn’t be enforced, but rather that Congress was the best institution to enforce it. Most of the Constitution’s limits are vague: The 15th Amendment permits Congress to enact “appropriate legislation” to protect the right to vote, for example, while the Fifth Amendment prohibits Congress from violating the “due process of law.” For as long as these limits have existed, there have been passionate disagreements about what they require. Congress offers a relatively democratic method for resolving these disputes. If people or state governments disagree about a law’s constitutionality, they can campaign to repeal that law.

By contrast, when the Supreme Court decides not to enforce a federal law, the justices in the majority effectively declare that their view is superior to everyone else’s. Even if the president, more than 500 members of Congress and four justices interpret the Constitution as permitting a law, if five justices disagree, then the law is not enforced. This was the scenario in 2013, when five members of the court held that a key section of the Voting Rights Act wasn’t “appropriate legislation.”

Yet no democratic procedure requires the justices to think of themselves as political equals with people who disagree with them. And while later generations of justices can revisit and overturn any of the court’s precedents, everyone else has the formal power to overrule the court only if two-thirds of both houses of Congress and three-quarters of the 50 states approve a constitutional amendment.

Indeed, it’s difficult to explain why, in a democracy, the constitutional interpretation of five justices should be superior to the constitutional interpretation of the elected officials who appointed and confirmed them.

One possible answer is that it’s the court’s job to interpret the Constitution. “It is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is,” Chief Justice John Marshall wrote in his famous 1803 opinion in Marbury v. Madison. “The constitution controls any legislative act repugnant to it.” But Marshall’s emphatic response, as one critic put it, “begged the question-in-chief, which was not whether an act repugnant to the Constitution could stand, but who should be empowered to decide that the act is repugnant.”

A second possible answer is that everyone, the justices included, should follow their own interpretation of what the Constitution requires. But we all expect presidents, federal officials, state officials and even state judges to comply with federal law, regardless of whether they personally believe that the law is constitutional. As Lincoln well knew, it would be profoundly antidemocratic for a member of a state militia or the military to resist federal law. So the question — again — is what makes the justices different?

The only honest answer is that the justices are supposed to be antidemocratic. As Justice Robert Jackson wrote in 1943, “The very purpose of a Bill of Rights was to withdraw certain subjects from the vicissitudes of political controversy, to place them beyond the reach of majorities and officials and to establish them as legal principles to be applied by the courts.” Other scholars have joined him in accepting the “counter-majoritarian difficulty” of judicial review. This perspective concedes that judicial review is antidemocratic — yet necessary for democracy to function properly.

This embrace of a judicial aristocracy affects much of the culture surrounding the Supreme Court. For the past hundred years, nearly every justice has been a graduate of an elite law school. New appointments are generally praised for their brilliance, credentials, professionalism and collegiality. And written briefs, adversarial argument, secretive deliberation, highly educated law clerks and a lack of political accountability are considered tools that allow the justices to resolve fraught questions correctly, even when their interpretations are politically unpopular.

But there is little historical reason to believe there is anything intrinsically correct about the Supreme Court’s constitutional interpretations. No expertise on the planet can determine whether Congress’s 1875 ban on racial discrimination, its 1965 expansion of voting rights, or its 2010 expansion of health insurance is “appropriate” or providing for the “general Welfare.” Resolving those questions requires the same trade-offs among competing principles that a democracy makes when it decides to enact any law. Our democracy suffers when an unelected group of lawyers take away our ability to govern ourselves.

This isn’t to say that Congress hasn’t adopted any horrific laws over the past 250 years. But there are few examples of the Supreme Court intervening in a timely fashion to overturn them. The court was silent at best when Congress violently captured fugitives from slavery, dispossessed Native American tribes, excluded Chinese immigrants, persecuted political dissidents, withheld civil rights from U.S. citizens in territories and interned Japanese Americans. Efforts to remedy these injustices have been achieved not by courts, but by expanding our democracy.

The history of judicial review of federal legislation shows that the principal “minority” most often protected by the court is the wealthy. Wealthy litigants can muster the skills, time, money, influence and capacity to challenge the same legislation over and over in court. For example, in 1895’s Pollock v. Farmers’ Loan and Trust Co., the Supreme Court invalidated a century of precedent to hold that a federal income tax would violate “one of the bulwarks of private rights and private property.” And in 2010’s Citizens United, the court threw out another century of federal campaign finance laws.

The best examples of judicial review working as expected by its proponents are cases such as the 2013 Windsor decision, which invalidated the Defense of Marriage Act of 1996, the 2008 Boumediene decision, which guaranteed minimal due process protections for Guantánamo detainees, and decisions in the 1970s that prohibited Congress from “protecting” women by engaging in sex discrimination. But when these cases are compared with rulings that directly contributed to the rise of Jim Crow, it becomes pretty evident that the court is, at best, no more reliable than Congress as a safeguard of political equality.

Of course, the Supreme Court has advanced democratic equality at the state level, from Brown v. Board in 1954 and Roe v. Wade in 1973 to Obergefell v. Hodges in 2015. But in these cases, federal judges didn’t disagree with Congress about the constitutionality of a federal law. To the contrary, they all enforced a federal law — the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871. Congress enacted that law in response to Southern officials’ inaction against white supremacists terrorizing Black people. In its current form in the U.S. Code, the Klan Act instructs federal courts to invalidate state actions that violate the Constitution.

As the legal theorist James Bradley Thayer observed over a century ago, when the Supreme Court invalidates a state law, it is doing something far less objectionable than what it does when it refuses to enforce a federal law. In any federal system in which a national government disagrees with a state government, one side has to prevail. There is nothing undemocratic about our system in which the federal government decides who should win.

And when Congress instructs federal courts to preempt state laws — whether with the Klan Act or even with an ordinary federal law — the effect is as consistent with democracy as when President John F. Kennedy instructed federal troops to integrate the University of Mississippi. Either way, the federal government is simply seeking that its commands be enforced.

The situation profoundly changes when the Supreme Court goes rogue. For precisely the same reason that it can be democratic for federal troops to enforce Congress’s interpretation of the Constitution but extremely antidemocratic for them to disregard it, the proper role for federal courts in a democracy is to serve as its agents, not as a countervailing force. Democratic decision-making belongs in the hands of democratic bodies, not people with robes or guns.

Indeed, what a case like Brown actually illustrates is how federal legislation has successfully expanded American democracy when the Supreme Court serves as Congress’s enforcer. As the law professor Michael Klarman has observed, Southern schools remained almost as racially segregated in 1964 as they had been 10 years earlier, when Brown was decided. Formal segregation drew to a close in the South only after Congress enacted the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act.

Yet both laws stood in the face of Supreme Court precedents that restricted Congress’s power. Because the court continued to hold itself as the supreme interpreter of the Constitution, it had to give Congress permission to evade its own bad precedents . . .
Which returns to the original problem: Why should a court be in charge of a democracy? The answer is: It shouldn’t.

. . . Most of the time, the court gives Congress free rein to act as it pleases. But the justices are quick to pull on the reins when lawmakers move to disrupt hierarchies of wealth or status. Either way, the court arbitrarily dominates Congress: Even when the court is permissive, Congress can make no law without permission.

What makes that domination arbitrary is that the justices themselves are unbridled. Federal laws stand and fall on the votes of nine unaccountable lawyers, all appointed for life because of their educational backgrounds and relationship to the governing elite.

As a result, the political choices available to us as a democracy depend not on our collective will but on the will of people who hold power until they resign or die. This is precisely what the Declaration of Independence protested. As absurd as it was then for a continent to be perpetually governed by an island, it is equally absurd now for a nation of 300 million to be perpetually governed by five Harvard and Yale alumni.

As we debate new legislation to expand the franchise and protect the right to vote, the threat of judicial invalidation has forced our elected representatives to lower their expectations about how democratic our nation can become. In the name of protecting us from the excesses of democracy, the judicial review of federal laws is costing us democracy itself.