Merrick Garland is Obama’s Supreme Court nominee to replace the late Justice Scalia. Garland is eminently qualified. He’s the chief judge of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, the second most powerful court in the country. He’s a Harvard-educated lawyer who has worked in private practice and for the Justice Department. His decisions appeal to both sides of the political spectrum: he’s clerked for Justice Brennan, the leader of the liberal wing of the Court before his retirement in 1990, and he also led the prosecution against both Timothy McVeigh and the Unabomber, giving him solid tough-on-crime credentials. He’s received admiration from both sides of the aisle and from essentially every individual who has ever known him. Thirty years ago, he would have been confirmed in an instant.
But, somehow, Garland’s nomination has stalled and it’s pretty clear why. Republican leadership (i.e. Mitch McConnell, the Senate Majority Leader) has led the charge to delay the nomination until a new president assumes the office in January 2017. While Senator McConnell and other Republican senators argue that their decision is not based on qualifications, but simply on the principle of allowing the public to decide their next Supreme Court Justice (a responsibility, mind you, not given to the public), other Republican Senators have shown their more colorful motivations (here, I could make a joke that it’s more one color rather than colorful, but I will spare the world, or at least my readership, of my dull humor).
The impasse at which we find ourselves today is partially a result of the post-modern political world (somewhere, my friend, Jacob Rich, is rolling his eyes). With the advent of cable news in the 1980s and the internet a decade later, politics’s relationship with public accessibility has become, for lack of a better word, complicated. While the 24/7 news cycle and easier access to information should allow the public to develop more complex, nuanced understandings of the machinations of daily political developments, the opposite effect has occurred. Cable networks are faced with a daunting task: maintaining a lengthy programming schedule without turning politics into the dramatic sideshow tomfoolery that it can easily become.
And yet, it happened. TV news abruptly adjusted from the integrity-laden news monologue to the epic political circus we see now. By its very nature, this should have been predicted. TV reduced the news to its bare bones. It condensed everything of importance that had occurred in 24 hours into a 30 minute (or less) segment. TV had always competed with the newspaper, a news source so complex it may require a number of hours to pore through. With its 24/7 coverage, cable television was able to cover much more material than it had been able to before, but, quite unfortunately, that material was, more often than not, rather non-substantive.
The first president of the post-modern era was Bill Clinton. Clinton, who led an administration with a number of high-profile scandals, such as Whitewater and Monica Lewinsky, became a target of the cable news media not for his policy achievements, but rather for his personal life. Of course, these scandals are important to cover. But to cover them incessantly through the entire news cycle distracts from the actual political developments that were occurring throughout the 1990s. This is perhaps the biggest trace to our modern CNN. CNN, which I regard to be the least of three incompetent evils (the other two being MSNBC and Fox), has established itself to be a facade of a credible news agency by retaining some semblance of non-partisanship, even though it’s still a network that would devote hours-, days-, weeks-long coverage of the missing Malaysian Airlines airplane.
The other two, MSNBC and Fox, are also now widely disparaged, but mostly along partisan lines. Dismissing MSNBC and Fox is vogue nowadays, but to grow up in the 2000s is to understand how important these two cable stations were in serving as mouthpieces for their respective political party affiliations. Since the internet has come into its own as a fully-functioning ecosystem of information, Fox and MSNBC have been replaced by online presences just as evil. Websites like Salon, Mother Jones, and ThinkProgress on the left, and The Daily Caller, Breitbart, and The Blaze on the right, among many, many other websites, represent just the latest front in the war on non-partisan media. On a website like Mother Jones or Breitbart, an individual in their respective party can find an incredibly convenient article on a subject, one that defends their views and disparages others, all under the veneer of faux factual legitimacy.
The information and resource bonanza that was cable news and now is the internet has allowed individual to avoid interaction with opposing argument. This is not how effective politics works. Any change in political opinion happens because of an interaction – more likely than not an accidental one, as no one seeks out the opportunity to be wrong – with new information. This is, perhaps, an argument against “PC Culture,” but anyone frustrated by the utter refusal of individuals to even listen to a position other than their own should consider whether they are doing the same. We have a natural ability to automatically shut down at the mention of an opposing viewpoint. But if we hold certain ideologies, we should be able to defend them, not limit others.
I am, admittedly, straying from the point. In this post-modern media age, we are able to effectively silence internal dissent – dissent within ourselves. We are able to avoid any opposing viewpoint no matter how rational. By dividing the media into left and right – an institution that should, by all accounts, be as neutral as possible because reporting events can happen objectively – into political factions, we turn politics into a game, a sport where Democrats and Republicans score political points at the expense of the nation’s populace and our government’s integrity. The same thing is happening in our Court.
When Senator McConnell declares his refusal to meet with Chief Judge Garland, he is spitting in the face of 240 years of congressional precedent. Never mind the debate over election year nominations and confirmations, a debate which, by the way, overwhelmingly supports the Democrats’ argument. Rather, he is making the Court overly political. McConnell’s argument that the people should have a say comes with a few strong misconceptions about the role of the public in the selection of the Court (hint: it’s basically zero because the average voter would be basically unable to discern who is a good nominee and who isn’t), but even besides that, McConnell fundamentally misunderstands the Court.
For McConnell, the future of the country rides on a Court for which nominees ought to be selected by people when they vote for a political party at the election. McConnell and Senator Orrin Hatch, who recently penned an op-ed in the New York Times calling for the vacancy to be determined by the people, are looking for a Justice who would simply be a Republican stalwart. Is this the purpose of the Court? To be yet another dysfunctional political branch? If the point of nominations is to just appoint the most conservative or liberal person possible, wouldn’t that destroy the integrity of the Court? We’ll essentially get to a point where appointees are selected not based on their experience and capability for the judge, but their partisan credentials. Of course, Merrick Garland is one of the most qualified nominees in recent memory. This is a litmus test for Republicans: if they don’t confirm Garland, they are sinking into the same partisan villainy for which they have accused the liberal wing of the Court.
This partisan divide, like the media, is a symptom of this post-modern, hyper-partisan political environment. No longer can justices serve as the leaders of our non-political government. They have, instead, become the judicial wings of their respective parties, serving only to represent their interests on the Court, rather than abide by their legal studies. Branches of government can no longer remain apolitical.
This also isn’t to say that Republicans are unique, or that this is a new phenomenon. Both of Bush’s nominees received unprecedented partisan opposition, and Republicans responded by vigorously opposing Obama’s two appointees. I find deplorable then-Senator Joe Biden’s statements on preventing any election-year judicial nominee in 1992. This is a non-partisan issue because the Court is, fundamentally, non-partisan. But it’s easy to not think so. Like the rest of the public, the two reduce the Court to a few decisions a year, the five or six cases that make waves at the end of June. But what of the countless other cases – more than 70 each year – that deal with other issues that are, sure, less sexy, but as important? Cases that deal with how the federal court system operates, or the intricacies of the sixth amendment, or perhaps cases of original jurisdiction? In these cases, in which splits occur often but not along normal partisan lines, we need experienced judges, a category of people of which Merrick Garland is perhaps the best, to serve on the Court.
For those who may wonder, this is why I write. I write to rectify this imbalance. I write to persuade people that politics ought not be partisan – it ought to help the public. These are simple demands yet their solutions remain infinitely complex. You can help by challenging everything you see and read, by remaining open to new ideas, and by constantly looking for new, truthful information. Seek out resources like Politifact, non-partisan truth-focused reporting services. Don’t read just one; sometimes different sources disagree. It’s important to remain vigilant in the face of lying, partisan bickering, and endless frustration at those with whom one disagrees. Otherwise, we may just lose our country to the demagogues.