It was hard to fathom how 2020 could get worse, but here we are.
The death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg at 87, with a Republican president and Republican Senate set to choose her successor, during an election year, is a nightmare of almost unimaginable proportions—and yet we must imagine it, because it is now our reality.
I will leave it to others to work out what this means for the 2020 race—who knows???? I will also leave it to others to assess the finer points of Ginsburg’s legacy on the court. If her actual record was always somewhat at odds with the fandom that built up around her, she was undoubtedly a trailblazer and a legal pioneer for women. Millions of people will be grieving tonight because they have lost a hero.
But that feeling is as nothing to the horror that seems likely to greet us. Republicans—who must be in a state of euphoria hitherto thought unachievable before tonight—will waste no time. They will ram through the most acceptable young psychopath they can, and they will do it as soon as possible. Whining pleas about Mitch McConnell’s hypocrisy or Ginsburg’s dying wishes will make no difference at all. Earnest tweets about how some good senators should do the right thing will go unheeded.
It is beyond disturbing to think about the injustice that a rock-solid 6-3 conservative Supreme Court majority can push through. The court has been a reactionary barrier to progress for a great portion of American history, and today’s court will firmly be able to solidify its place in that legacy. The right to a legal abortion feels as close to doomed as possible. Labor and environmental protections, attempts to expand the welfare state, any curbs on corporate power—good luck. What remains of the right to vote in this country just got even more precarious. You can all write your own list. It will be a plunge even deeper into the abyss.
There are a few things to take away from this hell.
The first is that we have to be honest about the disastrousness of Ginsburg’s choices over the last decade. She may have been a liberal icon and a champion for women. But she did the causes that were supposedly so important to her no favors by refusing to retire when there was a Democratic Senate and a Democratic president. Instead, Ginsburg clung on and subjected the country to a years-long psychodrama about her health—one that has now culminated in the worst possible way. The people who said she should retire under President Obama were brushed aside, told that it was presumptuous to ask someone like Ginsburg to quit. The people who backed her choice to stay were wrong. We can never let those arguments win again. (I’m looking at you, Stephen Breyer.)
The second is that a system of government in which the fate of millions rests on the status of one woman’s health is not a system that is fit for purpose. Lifetime appointments to the Supreme Court are indisputably insane; no other (supposedly) democratic country gives its most important judges such a vast level of power. They should be done away with as soon as possible.
The third is that Democrats should obviously pack the court if they get the chance. There is too much at stake to play games with any alternatives. The court is a political tool. Republicans understand this intimately. Democrats prefer being Very Into Norms. If Joe Biden wants literally any policy of his to become law, he knows what he has to do.
Last, but certainly not least, this is yet another reminder that we cannot rely on our “institutions” to be the guardians of our rights and freedoms. The Supreme Court has the power it does because we have given it that power. It is not an immutable force, fixed in stone forever. We can tear down the agreements the rulers of this country have put in place to safeguard their domination. We can be our own saviors. We can defeat these people. And after tonight, we had better fucking try.