Liberals aren’t taking the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg well. Since word of her passing broke, news and social media have been packed with garment-rending tributes to the late Supreme Court justice as well as despair and anger at the highly likely prospect that President Trump will be the one to fill her seat on the bench.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell didn’t wait until the body was cold before announcing his intent to confirm Ginsburg’s replacement as soon as possible. And many of the same liberals who had spent the last few months hand-wringing over the use militant tactics at anti-police protests were suddenly ready to storm the barricades, with a lot of tough talk about “rioting” and burning down Congress.
Part of this reaction can be attributed to the Leslie Knope-like way liberals fetishize their icons. Liberals canonize their heroes, creating an idealized version often bearing only a slight resemblance to the figures themselves.
There is also justified anxiety over the very real, practical implications of Ginsburg shuffling off this mortal coil and what that means for the courts, particularly the right to choose, voting rights, etc.
But ultimately this visceral response to her death is also rooted in something peculiar to liberal psychology. On the whole, liberals have an understanding of history as progressive and linear, i.e. “Whig history.”
In the past two decades, the Democratic Party has been fundamentally unable to deliver substantial progress in most areas — healthcare and economic inequality come to mind. This sense of an inexorable march forward has only been sustained by symbolic victories for representation, such as the election of the first Black president, and landmark Supreme Court rulings, like the legalization of gay marriage.
As a powerful representational figure for women and a liberal voice on the bench, Ginsburg was crucial to maintaining the fiction of progress on both fronts.
And now that she’s gone, liberals need to grapple with not only the implications of the Supreme Court’s likely rightward shift but also the flaws in their views about the nature of politics and how to wield power effectively.
We are in our current position precisely because of this liberal delusion of progress and the hubris that flows from it. Republicans saw the shifting demographics of the country and laid plans to preserve their own power in spite of it.
They launched a decades’ long struggle to take over legislatures in key states and put their people on court benches in strategic districts so they could successfully counteract these trends through gerrymandering and voter suppression.
What did the Democrats do? They smugly sat on their hands, expecting the changing composition of the country to keep them in power indefinitely. Despite being in ill health and over 80, Ginsburg waited until the next election before retiring because it was assumed that the Democrats would just keep winning the presidency.
And when a wealthy far-right game show host took the Oval Office instead, liberals doubled down on their delusion when they should have confronted the actual political reality before them.
This wasn’t how it was supposed to go.
The correct sequence was black president, then woman president, then maybe an LGBTQ+ president, Latinx president, etc., i.e. a long series of barriers broken and milestones achieved.
And this would be accompanied by a gradual consolidation of liberal power on the Supreme Court that would yield even more landmark cases to make up for the inability of Democrats to push through legislation in a polarized Congress.
Then the liberals could go on believing that history was continuing its forward advance. Of course, it didn’t happen that way.
Instead of taking a hard look at the real forces and factors that led to Trump’s election, liberals lashed out at phantoms.
Delusion begat delusion. Progress is inevitable, so the only thing that could have possibly derailed it was outside intervention by sinister actors. Hence, Russiagate became an all-consuming obsession.
Rather than honestly considering their mistakes and trying to craft a vision that could actually appeal to the American people, the Democrats chose instead to define themselves as the anti-Trump party.
Hopefully, the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg is an event that could break that spell and force the Democrats to face facts. Even though Joe Biden’s chances of winning look good at the moment and there’s a chance they might secure a slim majority in the Senate, the Democrats have already been outmaneuvered in the contest for control over federal courts and the Republicans have proven effective at gumming up the works as a minority party.
Ginsburg’s death should be a wake-up call to liberals that they have to match the conservatives in guile, foresight and ruthlessness.
Unfortunately, this doesn’t seem to be happening. Liberals seemed determined to maintain some imagined moral high ground and not sink to their opponents level even if that means losing. Nancy Pelosi was cagey about what approach Democrats might use to put the brakes on the confirmation process and flat-out rejected using a government shutdown as leverage — a favorite tactic of the Republicans. She would only state vaguely that they had many “arrows in their quiver.”
Hillary Clinton talked of appealing to GOP senators “on principle” (good luck, there) and wagged her finger at them for failing to uphold their own precedents. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer spoke in similar terms of “double standards” and “hypocrisy.” He also talked of “options on the table” but didn’t go into detail about any aside from court packing, which is contingent on the Democrats taking back the White House.
The Democrats are about 20 years behind in terms of understanding the political environment. They’re partnering with the so-called moderate conservatives of the Lincoln Project while reminiscing about George W. Bush and John McCain — clinging to this laughable fantasy about the “reasonable Republican.”
In the spirit of the Clinton-era New Democrats — of which Biden is the apotheosis — liberals are still trying to triangulate with a Republican Party that’s moving farther and farther to the right. They think this is the West Wing where you win by giving a rousing, eloquent speech that brings your opponents to their knees through sheer logic and moral clarity.
Here’s the reality: The right aren’t potential allies to be won over. They’re enemies to be crushed and defeated. That’s precisely how they view liberals, and that’s why they’re winning.
You don’t get points for upholding norms nor do you get them for intellectual honesty or ethical consistency. You get points by scoring.
The first step to making a comeback is recognizing that you’re behind.