The Scourge of Sentimentality Politics

Democrats are busy worshipping people while Republicans worship power

Women pause in front of The Four Justices, a portrait by Nelson Shank...
The Washington Post/The Washington Post/Getty Images
John Ganz

For 50 years, conservatives have worked tirelessly towards the repeal of Roe v. Wade. While calling for “strict constructivism,” “judicial restraint,” and denouncing “judicial activism,” they trained and deployed cadres of lawyers as right-wing activists. They gradually took over institutions and then the key institution: the Supreme Court. This required them to adopt Machiavellian means: most of the justices in question swore up and down at their confirmation hearings that they had no designs on Roe, that it was the settled precedent. They were lying. In a certain way it’s a brilliant feat of political will and organization that should be studied.

But while the conservative movement has pumped out loyal foot soldiers who understood that the cause was the main thing, liberals have gotten caught up in the hagiography of their leading functionaries, making everyone involved forget that they are part of a larger movement and not the ends in themselves.

A perfect example of this is the pathetic and embarrassing cult of Ruth Bader Ginsberg — the “Notorious RBG” T-shirts, the inane interest in the details of her workout regimen, the literal votive candles — part of that political tribe’s tendency to worship bureaucrats and officials as saviors, a process replicated in Comeyism (his trashing of Clinton’s electoral chances was quickly forgotten after he became a vocal Trump critic), Muellerism, and Faucism.

Liberals started to get everything backwards: women’s rights existed to produce a woman Supreme Court Justice who could be feted rather than a woman on the Supreme Court being there to guarantee women’s fundamental rights. When people called for Bader Ginsberg to step down, the sentiment was labeled “sexist:” “She doesn’t owe you anything,” the idiotic refrain went. Even after her death during Trump’s presidency, when the catastrophic reality of her decision was clear, her supporters vocally still insisted on her absolute right to stay on the job, come what may.

Republican voters are much less sentimental: when a figure betrays them or just insufficiently serves their interests, they turn on them, ruthlessly destroy their reputation, and cast around for better instruments. They are no respecters of persons. When they got the sense that they were being cheated by their establishment who would just collect checks, pal around in Washington D.C., and not deliver anything, they unleashed Trump to menace them. Their entire apparatus is a kind of grotesque vision of ideal democracy: an unruly mob terrifying and disciplining the elite. “Don’t get out of line, we will come for you.”

It wasn’t an idle threat; they tried to lynch the vice president. Will Roe satisfy the troops and prove to them that slow and steady takeover of institutional power is the way to go? No, now they have tasted blood and know they can get what they want. The justices must make themselves useful. The conservative media knows its role is to flatter and placate the mob: the leaker is the real traitor and insurrectionist, we should pray for the families of the justices. But conservatives know to fear the wrath of their own constituents, not angry liberals.

By not getting caught up in the myth of itself, the entire Republican movement worked in concert when it needed to. The conservative court gave a leg up to Bush in 2000 and, in return, he elevated more of them to the bench. When Trump appeared, they didn’t see an obstacle but an opportunity, a crude battering ram to crash through the gates for a final assault. During a debate with Hillary Clinton in 2016, when asked about the court, Trump said, “The Supreme Court…that’s what it’s all about.” On the one hand, it sounded dumb, like he didn’t know what to say and was reverting to his usual hyperbole and bluster. But it was a clear message to conservative voters: “I can deliver what you’ve always wanted.” And he did. Mitch McConnell invented a precedent out of whole cloth and blocked Merrick Garland. When it looked like Brett Kavanaugh might be sunk, the entire conservative movement and Republican party snapped into fighting formation. The prize was in sight. It was no time to break ranks.

Of course, Republicans caught some lucky breaks along the way. Most notably in their choice of opponents: Democrats and liberals. Why didn’t Ruth Bader Ginsberg retire? Why didn’t Democrats push through a federal abortion law when they could? Why didn’t they play hardball in the Senate? There are many answers that can be given, dozens of contexts and specific reasons, but there are few threads running through the whole sad story, namely a combination of stupidity, cynicism, and lack of imagination. Characteristically, the Democrats never really believed that a political movement could and would actually deliver on its promises. They could not conceive that tactical evasions and temporary compromises were actually just that: tactical evasions and temporary compromises, not the basis for an entire political party’s continued existence.

So what’s next on the docket? How about American citizenship as we’ve come to know it? If Roe was “wrongly decided,” how about all the other liberties based on the right to privacy? We should also expect twisted reinterpretations of the Reconstruction Amendments, like when the Trump administration mooted that the 14th Amendment did not really guarantee birthright citizenship and therefore such citizenship could be stripped by executive fiat. “They wouldn’t,” is no longer a sufficient hope. We have to assume now they would and can. We certainly know their public avowals are worthless.

Fortunately, a clear majority of the American public is on the side of legal abortion. Roe being struck down is likely to send shockwaves through the country that can’t be fully drowned out by the Right’s propaganda machine. Laws can be passed. Perhaps even Constitutional amendments. But the leadership of the Democratic Party often seems most uncomfortable with sustained popular mobilization. They are hidebound and conservative, more conservative in a way than the actual conservatives: terrified of the infusion of new ideas and personnel that would come along with a mobilized public. The Democratic Party needs to live up to its name and re-learn very fast what it means to actually lead a democratic nation or they will be swept aside anyway, along with who knows what else.