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Sunday, February 5, 2023

The Supreme Court’s impact on the midterms and American democracy

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The Supreme Court has just concluded what will most likely be remembered as one of the most consequential terms in modern history.

The Supreme Court’s 6-3 conservative majority delivered major victories for the right’s agenda — on abortion, guns, and environmental regulations — that were in many ways at odds with the American public’s own views. Even so, the court’s term will likely have a negligible political impact on the midterms, given Democrats’ own messaging failures generally and on these issues specifically. 

In a decision that sent a shockwave through the country, the court erased half a century of precedent by overturning Roe v. Wade and ending the legal right to an abortion — even though a majority (56 percent) of Americans, including 53 percent of Independents, opposed the court doing so.

Additionally, days after Congress passed the first bipartisan gun safety bill in decades — at a time when a majority of Americans believe controlling gun violence (59 percent) is more important than protecting gun rights (35 percent) — the court expanded gun rights in a decision that is expected to lead to more Americans being legally armed in public.

Furthermore, even as concern about the environment reached a 20-year high this year, the Supreme Court curbed the Environmental Protection Agency’s power to fight climate change by ruling that the agency can no longer regulate greenhouse gas emissions without explicit direction from Congress.

Some have theorized that the collective blow of these conservative rulings could enable Democrats to turn the midterms into a referendum on right-wing conservativism — given that the electorate largely supports abortion as a legal right, favors common-sense gun safety measures, and is concerned about curbing climate change.

However, as long as Democrats lack both an inclusive agenda and a set of center-left policies that offer voters a viable alternative to right-wing conservativism, the party will be unable to weaponize these issues to their political benefit in 2022 and even 2024.

On abortion, Democrats have struggled to unite around a cohesive narrative — beyond their standard ‘choice’ articulation — about why, when, and under what circumstances abortion should be legal.

This failure, along with voters’ own lack of knowledge on the subject, has made it possible for GOP-led states around the country to pass restrictive abortion bans without much national political blowback. Further, given that most Americans support abortion legality with some restrictions, the messaging from the progressive wing of the party about legalizing abortion in all cases is clearly out of touch.

With respect to the issue of guns, instead of taking a conciliatory tone and promoting the bipartisan gun safety bill as a positive development, prominent Democrats continue to pile blame for mass shootings — the most recent of which took place at a Fourth of July parade in Illinois — on Republicans and to call for more sweeping gun restrictions that have no chance of becoming national law.

Additionally, rather than coming together around an environmental agenda that balances Americans’ concerns about climate change with the public’s wariness toward enacting sweeping changes that will stifle America’s energy independence, the left continues to dominate discourse with talk of their expensive, unpopular, and uncompromising Green New Deal.

Moreover, it is highly unlikely that any of these three rulings will supplant the economy and inflation as the top midterm issues — especially as long as President Biden and Democrats continue failing to offer a solutions-oriented economic agenda.

Indeed, a recent ABC News poll found that 80 percent of Americans say inflation will be a very important factor in their vote in 2022 – a troubling sign for Democrats, given that just over one-quarter of Americans (28 percent) approve of President Biden’s handling of inflation.

While it is helpful to understand the potential political impact of the Supreme Court’s decisions, it is arguably even more important to acknowledge what these decisions tell us about how American democracy is functioning.

In just one term, the Supreme Court dramatically altered the course of American law and culture in a way that went against the will of the American public and — in the case of the Dobbs v. Jackson decision — upended decades of precedent.

The Supreme Court’s outsized ability to shape the direction of the country is indicative of how polarized our politics have become. The court’s duty is to interpret the law — not to make the law — yet, the country has become so divided that Congress lacks the will or the ability to legislate based on public will.  

As a result, the Supreme Court is now increasingly viewed as a partisan institution and a political weapon — even though the Founding Founders intended for the judiciary to be insulated from politics — and public trust in the court is at an all-time low.

After the news broke that the Court would overturn Roe v. Wade, only one-quarter of Americans said they were confident in the Supreme Court — down 11 points from one year ago.

Ultimately, the court’s ascendancy is indicative of the era we are living in — which is one of dangerously extreme polarization and division that has the country on the verge of a constitutional crisis.

Douglas E. Schoen is a political consultant who served as an adviser to former President Clinton and to the 2020 presidential campaign of Michael Bloomberg. He is the author of “The End of Democracy? Russia and China on the Rise and America in Retreat.” 

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