The death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg has clarified what is at stake in the 2020 election. It is not, as some believe, democracy itself. Nor is it, as others assume, our continued existence as a nation. Democracy will survive Donald Trump, and the United States of America will outlast Joe Biden. The question that 2020 will help to answer is what sort of democracy, and what sort of nation, America will be as it prepares to enter the second quarter of the 21st century.
The reaction to Ginsburg’s death, and to Republican plans to fill her seat on the Supreme Court, underscores the choice before the electorate: Does it prefer to live in a democratic republic ordered toward the principles of the Founders and the constitutional structure they designed to protect individual liberty? Or would it rather dwell in a plebiscitary democracy where the original meaning of the Constitution, when it is not explicitly repudiated, is politely overlooked in order to satisfy ever more radical egalitarian demands?
Needless to say, the answer is up in the air, and has been for some time. But we may be nearing a settlement, one way or another. The civil unrest of the past several months has made unignorable the existence of a large body of opinion that holds something is terribly wrong with America as founded, something that cannot be redeemed, and that American history and American institutions must be drastically revised to atone for the injustices committed against racial minorities. President Trump, in his inimitable way, has made the opposite argument, and called for a renewed appreciation of the American story and a resurgence of national pride.
Ginsburg’s passing heightened the tension. Suddenly an abstract cultural debate was transformed into a concrete political-legal struggle, and the prospect of lasting victory for one team (Trump and Mitch McConnell’s) looked real. The fight over the Supreme Court vacancy Ginsburg left behind also illuminated the lengths to which some progressives are prepared to go to make real their vision of the future. And it is in their openness to institutional upheaval that the real import of this election may be found. If enacted, the measures these Democrats propose would warp our constitutional system. They would turn the American government into a creature far different from the one the Founders made. This would be the upshot of the “structural reform” that, until the last week, lived mainly on Twitter and in the heads of policy wonks. (Read more from “What’s Really at Stake in 2020” HERE)