A Matter of Principles

Today, while the nation mourns the death of one of the most consequential figures on the Supreme Court in modern times, other forces are working to further decimate the democratic processes and take this nation another step closer to an autocracy.  Robert Reich, as always, sums it up well.

Rushing to replace Ruth Bader Ginsburg, McConnell shows power trumps principle

The justice who died on Friday night stood for the integrity of democracy. The Senate leader stands only for Republican gains

Robert Reich-4Robert Reich

People in public life tend to fall into one of two broad categories – those motivated by principle, and those motivated by power.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died on Friday night at the age of 87, exemplified the first.

When he nominated her in 1993, Bill Clinton called her “the Thurgood Marshall of gender-equality law”, comparing her advocacy and lower-court rulings in pursuit of equal rights for women to the work of the great jurist who advanced the cause of equal rights for Black people. Ginsburg persuaded the Supreme Court that the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection applied not only to racial discrimination, but to sex discrimination as well.

For Ginsburg, principle was everything – not only equal rights, but also the integrity of democracy. Always concerned about the consequences of her actions for the system as a whole, she advised young people “to fight for the things you care about but do it in a way that will lead others to join you”.

Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, exemplifies the second category. He couldn’t care less about principle. He is motivated entirely by the pursuit of power.

McConnell refused to allow the Senate to vote on Barack Obama’s nominee to the supreme court, Merrick Garland, in February 2016 – almost a year before the end of Obama’s second term – on the dubious grounds that the “vacancy should not be filled until we have a new president”.

McConnell’s move was a pure power grab. No Senate leader had ever before asserted the right to block a vote on a president’s nominee to the supreme court.

McConnell’s “principle” of waiting for a new president disappeared on Friday evening, after Ginsburg’s death was announced.

Just weeks before one of the most consequential presidential elections in American history, when absentee voting has already begun in many states (and will start in McConnell’s own state of Kentucky in 25 days), McConnell announced: “President Trump’s nominee will receive a vote on the floor of the United States Senate.”

This is, after all, the same Mitch McConnell who, soon after Trump was elected, ended the age-old requirement that supreme court nominees receive 60 votes to end debate and allow for a confirmation vote, and then, days later, pushed through Trump’s first nominee, Neil Gorsuch.

Ginsburg and McConnell represent the opposite poles of public service today. The distinction doesn’t depend on whether someone is a jurist or legislator (I’ve known many lawmakers who cared more about principle than power, such as the late congressman John Lewis). It depends on values.

Ginsburg refused to play power politics. As she passed her 80th birthday, near the start of Obama’s second term, she dismissed calls for her to retire in order to give Obama plenty of time to name her replacement, saying she planned to stay “as long as I can do the job full steam”, adding: “There will be a president after this one, and I’m hopeful that that president will be a fine president.”

She hoped others would also live by principle, including McConnell and Trump. Just days before her death she said: “My most fervent wish is that I will not be replaced until a new president is installed.”

Her wish will not be honored.

If McConnell cannot muster the Senate votes needed to confirm Trump’s nominee before the election, he’ll probably try to fill the vacancy in the lame-duck session after the election. He’s that shameless.

Not even with Joe Biden president and control over both the House and Senate can Democrats do anything about this – except, perhaps, by playing power politics themselves: expanding the size of the court or restructuring it so justices on any given case are drawn from a pool of appellate judges.

The deeper question is which will prevail in public life: McConnell’s power politics or Ginsburg’s dedication to principle?

The problem for America, as for many other democracies at this point in history, is this is not an even match. Those who fight for power will bend or break rules to give themselves every advantage. Those who fight for principle are at an inherent disadvantage because bending or breaking rules undermines the very ideals they seek to uphold.

Over time, the unbridled pursuit of power wears down democratic institutions, erodes public trust and breeds the sort of cynicism that invites despotism.

The only bulwark is a public that holds power accountable – demanding stronger guardrails against its abuses, and voting power-mongers out of office.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg often referred to Justice Louis Brandeis’s famous quote, that “the greatest menace to freedom is an inert people”.


May we honor her legacy with action.

21 thoughts on “A Matter of Principles

  1. Neither party has principles, hate to spoil that for you. What did Obama say, on response to some of the stuff he was pulling, “win a election“. The Republicans did, albeit some help. They actually improved their numbers in the Senate in 2018. A couple of seats, I believe. Not a lot, but enough to make the majority hard to break. This is going to turn into a campaign ad, if he nominates a woman, which he has said he was going to. If the Democrats rise hell about it, they will surely point out the hypocrisy of the Democrat party. How can they oppose a woman, when they brag about their accomplishments on women’s rights? It only applies when it’s a woman that thinks like them. Just like the #metoo movement. Everyone wants to hold Blake up as some kind of martyr, what does that tell the woman he sexually assaulted? That she doesn’t matter, because it don’t fit the Democrats narrative. Right or wrong, seriously believe this is how they’re going to play this, and still put her( maybe) in the seat before the election. No filibusters allowed, thanks to the Democrats. Now it turns around to bite them in the a##. I am so sick and tired of a two party system.


  2. “Those who fight for principle are at an inherent disadvantage because bending or breaking rules undermines the very ideals they seek to uphold.”

    Yet, how do we fight, if fighting fairly nearly ensures that we will lose?

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I do not expect Moscow Mitch to honour RBG’s last wish, he’s a man of no honour. I do not expect Trump to do something a real man would do because he’s a greedy man and he would expect support from the heavily biased
    Supreme Court. But I would expect Joe Biden to immediately work on expanding the size of the court to disperse and thin out the obvious disparities and to ensure that justices on any cases are drawn from a pool of appellate judges. I hope Trump will serve as a warning of what can happen when you appoint a greedy person so it can be avoided in the future.

    Liked by 2 people

    • No, I don’t expect Moscow Mitch or Trump or most of the republicans in the Senate to follow their conscience. I am hoping, slim hope though it may be, that at least 4 of the republicans in the Senate will do the right thing. So far, Collins and Murkowski have said they will not confirm a nominee until after the election, but then Collins is known to change her mind, and she is up for re-election in a blue state this year. Sigh. If Biden is elected and IF the democrats manage to take a majority in the Senate, then those things might well happen. But, that ‘IF’ got to be an even bigger ‘if’ last Friday night. Sigh.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Jill, I posted the following on PadreSteve’s website. While I agree with Reich, we must not lose sight of the normal process.

    Ginsburg is a hero to many, especially women and the disenfranchised. Her career must be celebrated. We must also understand when Mitch McConnell conducted his treachery. It was in 2016 when he chose to not follow normal process to vet and vote on a pretty well respected candidate named Merrick Garland, who won near unanimous consent for his current position. When a politician does not follow normal process, take it to the bank it is political. And, McConnell cannot go to the bathroom without it being political.

    Now, we are faced with his pushing the process he is supposed to follow, but it is in direct contradiction to what he did in 2016. Yes, McConnell is a hypocrite. Where I get mad is those crying foul today, who chose not to vote for Clinton in 2016 – she had flaws, they were unfair to Bernie, and she ran a poor campaign. She also was one of he best prepared candidates for the office.

    Trump won because he got folks to stay home, vote for Stein, or even vote for him. Now, this unsavory, deceitful and corrupt person (who was all of those things before the election), will pick one third of the Supreme Court in four years. If you did not vote, remedy it by voting in 2020.

    Of course it would be respectful to wait and McConnell deserves every bit of criticism he got in 2016 and his hypocrisy now. What bugs me is I want good jurists on the Supreme Court. We could have had a Garland, who Obama knew would also appeal to Republicans as well as Democrats. Yet, he did not get a fair (or any) hearing and that McConnell let the country down.

    So, we can bitch all we want, but people need to get out and vote. Climate change, women’s rights, healthcare, civil rights and our global standing are on the ballot.


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