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“The American people should have a voice in the selection of their next Supreme Court justice. Therefore, this vacancy should not be filled until we have a new president.”  

So said Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell in 2016, mere hours after Justice Antonin Scalia died. A stalwart reactionary, Scalia was the standard bearer of conservative jurisprudence. McConnell was not about to let that seat be filled by a Democratic president. Not if he could help it.

Obama’s nominee, Merrick Garland, didn’t get a hearing. McConnell refused to bring the nomination before the Senate. Donald Trump won the election. And America got Justice Neil Gorsuch.

That was four years ago. A lot has changed, including, apparently, Mitch McConnell. “President Trump’s nominee will receive a vote on the floor of the United States Senate,” he said in a statement last night following the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. McConnell twisted himself into more knots than a balloon animal to justify it, talking about majorities and elections as though he cared one iota about democracy. If he did, this wouldn’t be happening.

Our country is a tinderbox right now. Faith in our institutions, including Congress and the Supreme Court, are at or near historic lows. The nation is deeply divided, with sustained protests against public health initiatives (on the right) and for racial justice (on the left) engulfing the land like the wildfires scorching the west coast or the coronavirus pandemic which has killed nearly 200,000 people. Pick your apocalyptic simile. 

Meanwhile, a president half the country thinks is racist is facing re-election, while a third of Republicans believe a conspiracy theory which claims Bill and Hillary Clinton drink children’s blood. Nominating a conservative to replace the staunchest liberal on the court will be the proverbial match tossed into this tinderbox, and America is already on fire.

McConnell doesn’t care. The chance to remake America in his image is just too enticing to pass up, consequences be damned. He now says that because Obama was a second term “lame duck” as opposed to Trump, an incumbent Republican seeking re-election, the situations are different and therefore he is justified in bringing Trump’s nominee to a vote when he didn’t for Obama.  

This is, frankly, bulls***. It is not what he said four years ago. McConnell’s words in 2016 were crystal clear. The American people should have a say.

Crowds gather outside Supreme Court after death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Apparently, though, McConnell lied. He didn’t want the American people to have a say, he just wanted a conservative justice. Instead, he has changed the rules and cheated his way into replacing the standard-bearer of progressive jurisprudence with some hardline reactionary in the vein of Brett Kavanaugh. It doesn’t really matter, though. Either way, the result is the same: good for Republicans, bad for America.  

McConnell figures he’ll get away with it, and if I’m being honest, he probably will. Lisa Murkowski has said she won’t vote to confirm a justice until after the election, and no doubt Susan Collins will be deeply concerned, but I find it hard to believe Republican senators care enough about fairness and democratic norms to pass up such an opportunity.  

The Republican base certainly doesn’t. “F*** ‘em, we’ll do what we want” seems to be their philosophy judging by how they’ve reacted to the imposition of masks and social distancing. They’ll not only support this shady nomination, but they’ll relish in its duplicity. There is, after all, no better way to “own the libs” than to replace our liberal lioness with a conservative crocodile. The cruelty is the point.

Many others are forlorn and who can blame them? You think the protests you saw over the summer were chaotic? Buckle your seatbelts, Republicans. Either way, it’s going to be a bumpy ride, because liberals are not going to take this lying down. Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death is devastating for more than just the loss of a true progressive heroine. It is devastating for everything else we might lose with her: abortion access, voting rights, healthcare, and a litany of other issues often decided by the Supreme Court.

A Supreme Court whose legitimacy is being undermined by this president and Mitch McConnell. Changing the rules now utterly, utterly diminishes any faith Americans might have in the Court specifically and our institutions more generally. How can we ever be expected to trust Congress again if they are so willing to change the rules and manipulate the game? How can we trust the court to be apolitical if the nomination process becomes so blatantly partisan? If McConnell says when a Democrat is president that the American people should have a say in their next justice but that when a Republican is, they shouldn’t, how can we believe our vote matters? If the rules aren’t fair, how can democracy survive?

It can’t.  

When the ruling party changes the rules so that the opposition does not have a fair chance, there can be no doubt that democracy is atrophying. But stacking the Supreme Court is the most flagrant attempt at rigging the system in Republicans’ favour yet. It is also the most blatant example of just how much contempt Republicans have for our democratic institutions.  

The faith the American people have in the fairness of our government is being undercut again and again by this party. After all, the candidate who got fewer votes at our last election is currently the president, and he literally had protestors gassed earlier this year. Meanwhile, the Republican Party has gerrymandered the country so badly our electoral maps would make Dali cringe. They’ve done all this while suppressing voters across the country. Now, Republicans are blatantly changing the rules to tighten their stranglehold on power.  

This is not democracy, it is despotism. Democracy can only survive if the people think that things are fair, and as McConnell demonstrated last night, they are not fair. Mitch McConnell is hammering yet another nail into the coffin of American democracy.  

Tonight, I mourn for Ruth Bader Ginsburg and all that we bury with her.

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