Saturday, October 08, 2022
Facts matter even if Republicans continue to try to spin an alternate reality.
With the September jobs report in hand, there’s only one more employment update left before the midterms. The October report will be released on Friday, November 4th—just four days before the polls open. Yes, there is a possibility of a last-minute surprise, but, based on what we know today, the Democrats and Joe Biden can go to the voters and make a very strong case: since his January, 2021, Inauguration, the American economy has created ten million jobs.
Last month, according to the Labor Department’s payroll survey, over-all employment rose by two hundred and sixty-three thousand. While that figure was lower than the three hundred and fifteen thousand increase during August, it still represents healthy job growth in an economy where the unemployment rate now stands at just 3.5 per cent—tying the lowest figure for the past half a century. The U.S. economy has added, on average, half a million jobs per month since Biden took office. White House officials were quick to point out that this pace of job growth is unprecedented for the first half-term of a Presidency.
[T]he jobs gains over the past twenty months have been widely spread. When Donald Trump left office, the unemployment rate among Hispanics was 8.6 per cent: last month, it hit an all-time low of 3.8 per cent. During the same period, the Black jobless rate has fallen from 9.2 per cent to 5.8 per cent. (The white unemployment rate is now 3.1 per cent.)
Much of the strong employment growth we’ve seen over the past year and a half is a continuation of the rebound from that unprecedented shock. Still, maintaining and extending the recovery from the pandemic was far from guaranteed when Biden took office. In fact, the U.S. has had the most rapid recovery from the pandemic of any G7 country.
This success surely has something to do with the fact that, shortly after Biden took office, Democrats passed the American Rescue Plan Act, a 1.9-trillion-dollar stimulus package. The Rescue Act is controversial, of course. Republicans (and even some Democratic economists) have tied it to the upsurge in inflation during the past year and a half. In a sense, though, the critics of the Rescue Act are acknowledging that it succeeded in supporting the economy and boosting job growth: their argument is that the aid was too much of a good thing and led to economic “overheating” in the form of rapidly rising prices.
It should be noted that the September jobs report provided no evidence that the economy is suffering from a nineteen-seventies-style wage-price spiral, which is the inflation hawks’ nightmare scenario.
Since the end of last year, the rate of wage growth has fallen slightly. The corporate profit rate, on the other hand, has recently reached its highest level in seventy years, as businesses of all kinds pass along higher prices to consumers, and then add in a little extra for themselves.
For some reason, you don’t read about record corporate profits much, or hear about it very often from Federal Reserve officials, who remain determined to keep raising interest rates until something goes pop. Jerome Powell and his colleagues are hoping that this something will be the inflation rate, but it could just as easily be the entire U.S. economy, including the jobs market.
According to a Monmouth University poll released earlier this week, more than four out of five Americans still rank inflation as an extremely important or very important issue, so Republicans will continue to hammer Democrats on it through November. But the President and his Party now have a new economic slogan for the campaign’s final month: ten million new jobs. “The fastest job growth in history,” Biden boasted on Twitter.
37 states allow marijuana for medical use, and 19 states, including Virginia (after years of Republican opposition), allow recreational use - 5 more states have initiatives on the ballot this November to allow recreational use. Yet the federal law has continued to treat marijuana as a "Schedule 1 drug with “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse” despite medical evidence to the contrary, especially in terms of pain management. As for being a "gateway drug," in my view, this has never been true. If one has moved on to other drugs it is due to emotional and psychological issues that cause one to want to escape their current reality, something the ridiculous "Just Say No" campaign never admitted and never sought to address. Now, Joe Biden has taken the step of pardoning those with federal convictions for possession of marijuana. Hopefully, this is a first step in repealing ridiculous laws that have been ruining lives and disproportionately criminalizing minorities for decades. Not surprisingly, many critics of Biden's move are Republicans who seek to continue to use the marijuana laws to criminalize minorities and, when possible, deprive them of voting rights (e.g. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a truely heinous individual). Two columns in the Washington Post look at this welcomed development. Here are highlights from the first:
President Biden’s announcement of mass pardons for those convicted of federal marijuana possession charges comes just weeks before midterm elections that will determine control of Congress. It is not hard to detect the political calculation behind a decision likely to appeal to — and motivate — the young voters who could be key to Democrats winning. Yet it was also the right thing to do. Simple marijuana possession does not pose a serious threat to public safety, and users should not be hauled into the criminal justice system.
“Sending people to prison for possessing marijuana has upended too many lives … for conduct that many states no longer prohibit,” Mr. Biden tweeted Thursday. “That’s before you address the clear racial disparities around prosecution and conviction. Today, we start to right these wrongs.” In addition to his pardons of thousands of people with federal misdemeanor convictions for simple possession (not sale or distribution) of marijuana, Mr. Biden ordered a review of whether marijuana should continue to be classified as a Schedule I substance, the same category as heroin and LSD.
The impact will be more limited than the sweeping rhetoric suggests, because state, not federal, prosecutors bring the vast majority of simple possession cases, and Mr. Biden can pardon only those convicted of federal offenses. White House officials said 6,500 people convicted between 1992 and 2021, plus thousands more D.C. residents whom federal law covers, will be impacted.
[T]he president’s action will allow offenders’ records to be cleared, removing barriers to them getting jobs, finding housing or applying to college.
The largest effects might come as state officials follow Mr. Biden’s lead, as he urged governors to do. Early reactions to the president’s plea ran the gamut. Some states pointed to actions they have already taken to pardon or erase lesser marijuana convictions; some said they are taking formal steps to review the president’s request; some said they won’t take similar actions, either because they lack authority in their states or because they disagree with the president’s approach. Predictably, there were also those who saw opportunity to score their own political points.
Opinion polls show that majorities of Americans favor releasing people imprisoned solely on marijuana-related charges and legalizing marijuana for medical and recreational use. . . . Marijuana use is a public health challenge that the criminal justice system cannot solve — and should not be asked to. We hope Mr. Biden’s move advances the shift away from criminalization.
Here are excerpts from the second column:
Biden, once the squarest of Democrats, has done what no previous president has done on the issue: He has offered mass pardons for those convicted of possessing marijuana.
Why was the most significant presidential step toward ending marijuana prohibition taken by Biden and not, say, the considerably less square Barack Obama or Bill Clinton? Because this president’s ideological flexibility has intersected with the force of party politics and public opinion to finally move toward something that should have happened long ago.
[T]he absurdity of marijuana being classified as Schedule I, which means it has “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.” Other drugs in that category include heroin and LSD, while cocaine and methamphetamine are classified in the less restrictive Schedule II, showing how divorced from reality the scheduling system is.
Biden appears sincere on the question of how to approach those with possession convictions. He surely believes it’s unacceptable that thousands of Americans have a criminal record — which makes it harder to access education, employment and housing — because they were arrested for something that is now legal to one degree or another in most of the country.
And as Biden noted in his video message announcing the new policy, though members of all racial groups use marijuana at about the same rates, members of minority groups are far more likely to be arrested for possession than others.
With midterm elections looming, Biden might have finally succumbed to the force of public opinion: Over the past 20 years, support for legalizing cannabis has doubled, an extraordinary evolution in public sentiment, and today, more than two-thirds of Americans favor legalization. More than 8 in 10 members of Biden’s party support legalization.
There’s another irony here. Public opinion on marijuana has changed in part because people around Biden’s age, who are most likely to support prohibition, have been dying off, to be replaced by younger people for whom it makes no more sense than alcohol prohibition did. According to the Pew Research Center, those over 75 make up the only age group in which a majority doesn’t support legalization.
Friday, October 07, 2022
Wars bring together surprising alliances. Today, we have America and its NATO allies backing the brave Ukrainians fighting to save their country from being torn to shreds by Vladimir Putin.
And we have Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Bernie Sanders, the House progressive caucus and the whole G.O.P. all working — deliberately or because they are dupes — to ensure that Putin has more oil revenue than ever to kill Ukrainians and freeze the Europeans this winter until they abandon Kyiv.
In another dark corner, Putin and Saudi de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman are also probably hoping that the soaring energy inflation unleashed since Russia’s invasion helps the Donald Trump-led Republicans to regain control of at least the House of Representatives in next month’s elections. That would be icing on the cake for both, who view Trump as a president who still loves black crude over green solar and knows how to look the other way when bad things happen to good people.
Too cynical you say? No, sorry, you can’t be too cynical with this cast of brutes, bandits and useful idiots. Just look at the facts.
On Wednesday, with the world already heading toward recession and with the global oil and natural gas market already tight, the OPEC Plus cartel, which includes Saudi Arabia and Russia, agreed to collectively reduce its output by two million barrels a day — to ensure oil prices don’t retreat, but instead go back over $100 a barrel and stay there.
Putin’s motivation for this price hike is no mystery. With his army in Ukraine suffering steady loses of territory — and his having annexed portions of Ukraine that he doesn’t even control — Putin has one hope before he’s forced to do something really reckless: squeeze the supply and jack up the price of oil and gas high enough to force the European Union to abandon both Kyiv and Washington and accept his annexations in return for a cease-fire and resumption of Russian energy exports. The Saudis went along for the ride.
Putin’s strategy is neither crazy nor without hope because of two decades of Western nations’ failing to think strategically about energy. They willed the ends — a world no longer dependent on fossil fuels as soon as possible. But they did not will the means to reach that goal in a stable way — by maximizing their climate security, their energy security and their economic security all at the same time. Instead, they pretended.
In Europe they pretended — with Putin’s covert encouragement — that they could abandon large-scale, largely emissions-free energy like nuclear power, as the Germans did, and just jump directly to intermittent wind, solar and other renewables and everything would be just peachy. Oh, my goodness. The Germans felt so virtuous in doing so — without acknowledging that the only reason they were getting away with this pipe dream was that Putin was selling them cheap gas to make up the difference.
When Putin ended the charade, here’s what happened: On Sept. 28, Reuters reported from Frankfurt, “Germany’s cabinet on Wednesday passed two decrees to prolong the operation of sizable hard coal-fired power generation plants up to March 31, 2024, and to bring back idled brown coal capacity up to June 30, 2023, to boost supply.”
In America, we did our own version of this green virtue signaling. Green progressives demonized the oil and gas industry — for good reasons in some cases because of how much the industry worked to deny the reality of climate change and refused to clean up its own act — and basically told it to please go off and die somewhere quietly, while we moved to wind and solar. Oil and gas investors and bankers got the message and began delaying or stopping investment in new oil and gas production at home, and instead focused on reaping as much profit as they could from existing wells.
As a Goldman Sachs newsletter in April put it: “How much future production have we lost because of all the delays in investment decisions on new oil and gas projects? The answer is 10 million barrels per day of oil, which is the equivalent of Saudi Arabia’s daily production and three million barrels per day of oil equivalent in liquefied natural gas (LNG), which is more than the equivalent of Qatar’s daily production. If we had not kept delaying new investment decisions in oil and gas since 2014, we essentially could have had a new Saudi Arabia and a new Qatar.”
But the green progressives never got that message. At a House committee hearing two weeks ago, Representative Rashida Tlaib demanded to know if JPMorgan Chase C.E.O. Jamie Dimon and other banking executives appearing before the panel had any policies “against funding new oil and gas products.” Dimon answered, “Absolutely not, and that would be the road to hell for America.”
Tlaib then told Dimon that any students who had student loans and bank accounts with JPMorgan should retaliate by closing their accounts. Have no doubt: This kind of juvenile moral preening by Tlaib surely made Vladimir Putin’s day. She’s nowhere nearly as bad as the G.O.P. senators who were inspired for years by ExxonMobil lies that climate change is a hoax, and then used that to block our transition to clean energy. But Tlaib still made Putin’s day.
What lifted Putin even more was when he watched Bernie Sanders, House progressive Democrats and the whole G.O.P. last week come together to kill a bill backed by President Biden and the Democratic leadership to streamline the permitting process for domestic energy projects, particularly permitting for gas pipelines and wind and solar transmission lines — one of our biggest impediments to a stable green transition.
Hard to know who is worse, the progressives who did not understand how much solar and wind energy require quicker transmission permitting to safely scale clean energy or the Republicans, who knew oil and gas companies need quicker pipeline permitting to grow gas production, but killed it so Biden would not have another success.
All in all, Putin had a bad month in Ukraine — but a good month in the U.S. Congress.
This is not complicated, folks: Do you want to make a point or do you want to make a difference? If we want to make a difference, we need to maximize our energy security, natural security and economic security, all at once. The only way to do that effectively is to incentivize our market to produce a stable and secure supply of energy, with the lowest possible emissions at the lowest possible costs as fast as possible.
The only truly effective way to do that is with a strong price signal — either taxes on dirty stuff or incentives for clean stuff — plus steadily increasing clean energy standards for power generation . . . . As long as we are not ready to do that, we’re just faking it, indulging in virtue signaling on the left and the right — and Putin and M.B.S. are laughing all the way to the bank.
Thursday, October 06, 2022
Elections just about a month away. A ton of races to keep track of, but if you’re looking for diversion, you’ll find some of the Senate campaigns really … unusual.
In a normal year — OK, let’s just admit there hasn’t been any such thing for ages. But if normal years existed in American politics and this was one of them, we could reasonably assume the Republicans were going to be big winners. You know, two years after one party takes control in Washington, voters have a tendency to rise up in remorse and throw out whoever’s been in.
Except — whoops — the Republicans have assembled a trove of truly terrible candidates. You’d almost think the party honchos met in secret and decided that running the Senate was too much of a pain, and that they needed to gather some nominees who would guarantee they could keep lazing around in the minority.
I know you know that we have to begin this discussion with Herschel Walker.
A few days ago, Georgia looked like a prime possibility for a turnover. It tilts strongly toward the G.O.P., and Walker seemed like your normal Republican candidate by 2022 standards — terrible, yeah, but with some political pluses. . . . On the minus side, Walker was a tad, well, fictional on points ranging from his academic and business achievements to the number of his children.
Walker also has a very angry and social media-skilled son who describes him as a terrible father to four kids by four different women, who “wasn’t in the house raising one of them.” . . . Plus, Walker seems totally out to lunch when it comes to … issue stuff.
So maybe not a perfect pick for a candidate to run against incumbent Senator Raphael Warnock, a longtime public speaker, community activist and pastor of Martin Luther King Jr.’s old church. But hey, Walker was a really good football player! And a Donald Trump fave!
As the whole world now knows, The Daily Beast reported that one of Walker’s ex-girlfriends says that he’d paid for her to have an abortion, producing the check for $700 along with … a get-well card.
Walker isn’t the only awful candidate the Republicans are fielding in critical races. In New Hampshire, a Democratic senator, Maggie Hassan, is running for re-election to a seat she won by only about 1,000 votes last time around.
The Republicans had it made. All the party had to do was avoid nominating somebody off the wall, like Don Bolduc, a retired general who the Republican governor, Chris Sununu, called a “conspiracy-theory extremist.”
Surprise! Bolduc won the primary. And the way he’s handling his victory makes you think he was as shocked as the party leaders. From the beginning of his campaign, he’d told voters that he was positive Donald Trump actually won the 2020 election. In August, he was assuring them, “I’m not switching horses, baby.”
This is the same guy who vowed to “always fight” for the life-begins-at-conception principle. But we live now in a political world where Republicans are discovering, to their shock, that people don’t want to be told what to do about their reproduction choices.
In the Republican search for terrible candidates for winnable races, we can’t overlook Arizona. It’s a very tough state for Democrats. The incumbent, Mark Kelly, won the seat after John McCain’s death with the power of his story — an astronaut who took his wife’s place as family politician after she was shot in the head while meeting with constituents. Many of his supporters feared he’d be doomed to defeat in a year like 2022.
Enter Blake Masters, the Trump-backed Republican nominee who appeared in one early campaign ad toting a short-barreled rifle that he kinda boasted was designed not for hunting but “to kill people.”
Masters, a venture capitalist, rose into political prominence with the enthusiastic backing of Peter Thiel, billionaire megadonor. You certainly cannot dismiss a candidate with that kind of money, even if he does have a history of blaming gun violence on “Black people, frankly” and making a video while dressed in war paint in which he makes fun of people who worry about “cultural insensitivity.”
Lots to look out for, particularly if you’re not interested in baseball playoffs or another “Halloween” movie in which Jamie Lee Curtis does battle with Michael Myers. Hey, you don’t need to go to a movie theater to be horrified. Just think what the Senate would be like if these guys win.
Wednesday, October 05, 2022
VLADIMIR PUTIN’S war is, first and foremost, a war against the Ukrainian people, who are being bombed, robbed, raped and killed by his army. But it is also a war against millions of Russians, whose lives and futures their president is willing to sacrifice in pursuit of his imperial fantasies. Tens of thousands of Russian soldiers have already died in battle. Having suffered a series of humiliating defeats in Ukraine, Mr Putin plans to throw yet more young men and women into the furnace.
His order for mass mobilisation has caused shock and panic in Russia. Mr Putin calls it “partial mobilisation”, but there appears to be no legal limit to the number of people he can force to go and fight. This has shattered the illusion among Russians that they could ignore his war, or support it passively without disruption to their daily lives.
Until now, those who oppose Mr Putin’s war—roughly estimated to be at least 30% of Russians, most of them young—have been afraid to speak out. But mobilisation has changed their calculus. Faced with the prospect of dying in a frozen Ukrainian field, many have loudly protested against the mobilisation. In the past few days nearly 2,500 people have been detained in protests that have erupted from Dagestan to Yakutia. . . . At least 20 military recruitment centres have been attacked or torched, sometimes resulting in the destruction of paper records identifying those eligible for the draft.
Others have voted with their feet. Russian officials report that at least 260,000 people have fled the country since Mr Putin issued his call. Most have crossed land borders into Georgia and Kazakhstan . . . . Kassym-Jomart Tokaev, the president of Kazakhstan, says his country will offer a safe haven to Russian draft-dodgers.
The much richer countries of Europe, by contrast, have been less welcoming. Among large European countries only Germany and France have so far indicated that they are willing to let Russians in. To get there, however, most would have to cross borders with the Baltic states and Finland. These countries are a lot less keen.
They—and others—have reasonable excuses. Poland has already accommodated millions of Ukrainian refugees. Russia’s neighbours, including the tiny Baltic states, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, have bitter experience of being ruled from Moscow and remain under constant threat from Mr Putin, who claims a right to “protect” ethnic Russians in neighbouring states . . . . You can see why they refuse to open their borders—though they might consider letting draft-dodgers pass through en route to the rest of the EU.
Privately, European officials and diplomats argue that if Russians are unable or unwilling to overthrow Mr Putin’s regime, they bear some responsibility for it.
This argument is flawed. Forcing people to stay and accept the draft so that they get sent to the front to kill and die is cruel. It is also likely to be counterproductive. Closing an escape route could in theory increase the pressure on a dictatorship, feed dissent and hasten its collapse, but that is not how it has worked out in, say, North Korea. More probably, shutting the border would strengthen Mr Putin’s regime by seeming to confirm the story he tells Russians–that their country is under siege by a hostile West.
Expelling Russian forces from Ukraine will be hard. Mr Putin may be an incompetent commander, but he has nuclear weapons and dictatorial control of a vast country. The war cannot be won on the battlefield alone. It will also have to be won inside Russia, when enough Russians see it for the pointless waste of life it is and demand that it ends.
The struggle for Russian hearts and minds is one that must be waged primarily by Russians themselves. Mr Putin is attempting to rally support with the argument that the entire West is fighting Russia, and that it holds Russians in contempt and wants to destroy their country.
If Europe shuts its borders to all Russians, it is handing Mr Putin tangible evidence that he is right. It undermines Europe’s credibility as a defender of human rights and alienates those parts of Russian society whose interests and values are most strongly aligned with the European Union and Ukraine. It is also failing to shelter the people best suited to rebuild the Russian state once he is gone. Just as it did in the cold war, the West should offer safe haven to the Russians with whom it has no argument.
If the exodus of draftable Russians continues, Mr Putin may decide to impose his own travel ban on them. In other words, the man who called the collapse of the Soviet Union the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century may partly recreate the Iron Curtain. Now, as then, the West should let the tyrant in Moscow take the blame for restricting Russians’ freedom, and welcome the brave souls who escape.
Tuesday, October 04, 2022
Donald Trump on Friday issued what can only be described as a threat against Mitch McConnell, declaring that the Senate minority leader’s support for bipartisan bills amounts to a “DEATH WISH.” The former president also added a racist insult against McConnell’s wife, former transportation secretary Elaine Chao, referring to her as “his China-loving wife, Coco Chow.”
Neither McConnell nor other Republican leaders — including Sen. Rick Scott (Fla.), head of the Republican National Senatorial Committee — have condemned Trump for the statement. That’s the state of today’s MAGA movement, where decency toward fellow Americans, loyalty to one’s spouse and support for democratic values all take a back seat to cult worship and the unquenchable thirst for power. And once again, the mainstream media is failing to rise to the moment.
One might expect the media to stop treating Republicans like normal politicians after their “big lie” about a stolen election, their ongoing whitewashing of the Jan. 6, 2021, assault on the Capitol, their attacks on the FBI and their indifference — if not assent —to racism. Alas, there is little sign that mainstream outlets have dropped their addiction to false equivalence and willful, moral blindness.
Scott, in an appearance on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday, explained Trump’s heinous statement by saying the former president likes to give people “nicknames.” . . . . Making matters worse, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who also appeared on the segment, was not asked about any of this.
CBS News’s Margaret Brennan did a somewhat better job on “Face the Nation,” pressing Scott to comment on Trump’s remarks and on another disgusting statement from Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), who claimed on Saturday that Democrats “want Republicans dead” and “have already started the killings.” Brennan was able to keep Scott from ducking the question. But she allowed him to falsely claim that Trump was merely raising a concern about government spending and to say he didn’t “see” Greene’s remarks. He then ended the interview with a declaration that “we need to bring people together.” Seriously?
What should reporters be doing? Let’s start with five basic rules.
First, they cannot leave these exchanges for the end of an interview, when the guest can filibuster until the commercial break. Do it upfront, and don’t allow them to move on unless they give a straight answer. If Trump and his party present a threat to democracy, don’t treat their misconduct as an afterthought.
Second, interviewers must explain in real time when a guest is employing a common dodge. Brennan could have said, “For years Republicans have pleaded that they didn’t hear a comment, even after it is read to them.” She also could have followed up with tougher questions. For example:
- Jonathan Greenblatt, head of the Anti-Defamation League, tweeted, “Against the backdrop of rising anti-AAPI hate, former Pres. Trump’s slander against Elaine Chao is inexcusable. American Jews know the danger of accusations of dual loyalty and name calling of this sort. It’s incitement, plain and simple, and unacceptable.” Do you agree?
- Why does the GOP countenance another four-year term for someone willing to use such violent rhetoric?
- What does “DEATH WISH” mean to you? At a moment when members are more concerned about violence than ever before, why don’t you deplore such language?
- Why does the party not disown a member such as Greene, who lies about Democrats “killing” Republicans and makes blatantly antisemitic comments?
- Why shouldn’t voters consider your silence as endorsement?
Third, the media cannot allow the plethora of Trump outrages to go down the memory hole. Scott cannot get by without answering questions on GOP attacks on the FBI, Trump’s hoarding of top-secret documents at Mar-a-Lago or any other topic that suggests the party is a hapless front for a delusional cult. Yet for too many in the media, a smooth, cordial interview seems more important than exposing GOP lies and antidemocratic tactics
Fourth, there is nothing to be gained from inviting election deniers, violence enablers and abject liars on TV to talk about “regular” topics. Scott does not have anything unique to offer about Hurricane Ian. You’d never know from the interview that he released an agenda this year attacking women’s rights, LGBTQ Americans, Social Security and the separation of church and state. It’s akin to inviting Greene to talk about Georgia’s economy without grilling her on her lies.
Finally, interviewers should always have a Democrat to respond to MAGA dissembling, either in the same interview or immediately following. That didn’t happen on Sunday. If you were a Republican campaign consultant, you couldn’t have asked for cushier venues to project political normalcy.
These and countless other interviews illustrate the urgent need to reimagine coverage of the GOP. Refusing to confront and expose MAGA Republicans’ betrayal of democratic values doesn’t make members of the media “balanced.” It makes them enablers.
Monday, October 03, 2022
The Supreme Court’s authority within the American political system is both immense and fragile. Somebody has to provide the last word in interpreting the Constitution, and — this is the key — to do so in a way that is seen as fair and legitimate by the people at large.
What happens when a majority of Americans don’t see it that way?
A common response to this question is to say the justices shouldn’t care. They aren’t there to satisfy the majority or to be swayed by the shifting winds of public opinion. That is partly true: The court’s most important obligations include safeguarding the constitutional rights of vulnerable minorities who can’t always count on protection from the political process and acting independently of political interests.
But in the bigger picture, the court nearly always hews close to where the majority of the American people are. If it does diverge, it should take care to do so in a way that doesn’t appear partisan. That is the basis of the trust given to the court by the public.
That trust, in turn, is crucial to the court’s ability to exercise the vast power Americans have granted it. . . . . A court that does not keep that trust cannot perform its critical role in American government.
And yet as the justices prepare to open a new term on Monday, fewer Americans have confidence in the court than ever before recorded. In a Gallup poll taken in June, before the court overturned Roe v. Wade with Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, only 25 percent of respondents said they had a high degree of confidence in the institution. That number is down from 50 percent in 2001. . . . This widespread lack of confidence and trust in the nation’s highest court is a crisis, and rebuilding it is more important than the outcome of any single ruling.
Chief Justice John Roberts recently suggested that the court’s low public opinion is nothing more than sour grapes by those on the short end of recent rulings.
This is disingenuous. The court’s biggest decisions have always angered one group of people or another.
The actual cause of its historic unpopularity is no secret. Over the past several years, the court has been transformed into a judicial arm of the Republican Party. This project was taking shape more quietly for decades, but it shifted into high gear in 2016, when Justice Antonin Scalia died and Senate Republicans refused to let Barack Obama choose his successor, obliterating the practice of deferring to presidents to fill vacancies on the court. Within four years, the court had a 6-to-3 right-wing supermajority, supercharging the Republican appointees’ efforts to discard the traditions and processes that have allowed the court to appear fair and nonpartisan.
As a result, the court’s legitimacy has been squandered in the service of partisan victories. The Dobbs decision in June, which overturned Roe v. Wade, eliminated American women’s constitutional right to control their own bodies and was a priority of the Republican Party for decades, is only the most glaring example. In cases involving money in politics, partisan gerrymandering and multiple suits challenging the Voting Rights Act, the court has ruled in ways that make it easier for Republicans and harder for Democrats to win elections.
For most of the court’s history, it was difficult to predict how a case would turn out based on the party of the president who nominated the justices. Even into the 21st century, as the country grew more polarized, the court’s rulings remained largely in line with the views of the average American voter. That is no longer the case.
In the process, the court has unmoored itself from both the Constitution it is sworn to protect and the American people it is privileged to serve. This could not be happening at a worse moment. Election deniers in the Republican Party are undermining the integrity of the American electoral system. Right-wing political violence is a present and growing threat.
It is precisely during times like these that the American people need the Supreme Court to play the role Chief Justice Roberts memorably articulated at his own confirmation hearing — that of an umpire calling balls and strikes, ensuring a fair playing field for all. Instead, the court’s right-wingers are calling balls for one team and strikes for the other.
The way the court went about eliminating the federal right to abortion is a prime example of this misuse of its power. First, the right-wing justices used the court’s “shadow docket,” which refers to orders issued in response to emergency applications without open hearings or any public explanation, to allow an obviously unconstitutional anti-abortion law in Texas to stand. They also agreed to hear a separate challenge out of Mississippi, Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, that didn’t formally ask them to overturn Roe v. Wade. When they chose to do so anyway, the majority opinion, by Justice Samuel Alito, cherry-picked its historical examples and dismissed Roe as “egregiously wrong,” disdaining the work of earlier justices who had weighed the same constitutional questions carefully for decades.
In the coming months, the court will decide cases on affirmative action, the Voting Rights Act (yet again) and the power of state legislatures to ignore their own constitutions and even their voters. The rulings in these cases could dramatically reshape the country’s politics, and Americans should be able to trust that those rulings will be made by an impartial tribunal.
There is no clear solution to this crisis. Legal scholars have put forward many proposals for structural reform — expanding the number of justices, imposing term limits or stripping the court of jurisdiction over certain types of cases — but none are a perfect remedy to the court’s politicization.
In the meantime, it is worth remembering that the court heads only one branch of the federal government. Congress has far more power to counteract bad rulings than it generally uses — by doing its job and passing laws.
With a few exceptions, the Supreme Court rarely has been at the forefront of making America a more equal place. But we are not consigned to living under the thumb of a reactionary juristocracy. To the contrary, the meaning of the Constitution is far more than what the court decrees; it is the result of an ongoing conversation between the court and the American people. Those who protested the loss of their rights after the Dobbs decision, and those who showed their determination to protect those rights, as voters did in Kansas in August, are speaking directly to the court. When the justices stop listening, as they have at other moments in history, the people’s voices will eventually become too loud for them to ignore.