Mellman: What happened after Ginsburg?

Mellman: What happened after Ginsburg?
© Getty

Twenty-seven years ago, the late, great, Ruth Bader GinsburgRuth Bader GinsburgCourt watchers buzz about Breyer's possible retirement Five hot-button issues Biden didn't mention in his address to Congress Schumer waiting for recommendation on Supreme Court expansion MORE was confirmed to her seat on the Supreme Court by a 96-3 Senate vote.

Whichever president ends up appointing her, it’s inconceivable that Ginsburg’s successor will elicit anything close to that level of bipartisan support.

That speaks volumes about the changes convulsing American politics.


Let me recount some of those developments:

1. Cross-cutting cleavages have been replaced by mutually reinforcing cleavages — James Madison thought his constitutional system would work, in part, because Americans identify with multiple groups, espousing differing interests.

We used to have liberal Democrats and liberal Republicans, conservative Democrats and conservative Republicans. Conservatives and liberals in each party shared commitments with each other, differentiating them from their co-partisans animated by a different ideological perspective.

There were urban Democrats and rural Democrats, as well as urban and rural Republicans. Religious and secular individuals inhabited each party.

These cross-cutting cleavages meant there were few permanent allies and few permanent enemies. Senators and House members with you on today’s issue could be against you tomorrow on the next.

Now, however, a conservative, rural/small town and religious Republican Party squares off daily against a Democratic Party that is liberal, urban/suburban and secular.


So, these days, when votes are tallied in Congress, most often, the same people are standing with you and the same legislators arrayed against you. You have permanent allies and permanent enemies. The once semi-permeable line between the parties has been transformed into an unbridgeable chasm.

2. States are homophilic — Increasingly people live with others like themselves — even at the state level.

Jimmy CarterJimmy CarterWeird photo of Carters with Bidens creates major online buzz Feehery: Biden seems intent on repeating the same mistakes of Jimmy Carter Never underestimate Joe Biden MORE and Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonMcConnell: Taliban could take over Afghanistan by 'the end of the year' Hillary Clinton: There must be a 'global reckoning' with disinformation Pelosi's archbishop calls for Communion to be withheld from public figures supporting abortion rights MORE each won the national popular vote by about 2 points. But in 1976, 20 states gave one candidate or the other a margin of 10 points or more. Forty years later, 34 states gave Clinton or Trump landslide margins.

So, despite politicians’ frequent denunciations, our country is comprised of lot of blue states and a lot of red states.

In those places, candidates aren’t pulled to the middle by moderate voters, but rather pushed to the extremes because blue state representatives fear primaries from the left, while red state legislators fear challenges from the right.

3. Norms have been upended — Our society, including our democracy, functions because nearly all of us respect a host of largely unwritten norms of behavior.

Some of the Senate’s most conservative Republicans articulated norms about confirming Supreme Court nominees at Justice Ginsburg’s hearing.

Utah’s Orrin HatchOrrin Grant HatchBottom line The Republicans' deep dive into nativism Press: Forget bipartisanship — it's dead! MORE: “A president is entitled to some deference in a selection of a Supreme Court justice. President Clinton and I are unlikely to agree on the person who ought to be nominated. But so long as the nominee is experienced in the law, intelligent, of good character and temperament … I can support that…nominee” — and he did.

With a year remaining in President Obama’s term, Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellBiden to meet with 6 GOP senators next week GOP is consumed by Trump conspiracy theories The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Emergent BioSolutions - Upbeat jobs data, relaxed COVID-19 restrictions offer rosier US picture MORE (R-Ky.) and his GOP colleagues violated these norms, inventing a false version of history to deny Merrick GarlandMerrick GarlandDOJ proposes crackdown on 'ghost guns' following Biden pledge America's Jewish communities are under attack — Here are 3 things Congress can do Biden set to flex clemency powers MORE even a hearing.

Once blatantly violated with impunity, norms are difficult to rehabilitate. Tit-for-tat — and an ever-deepening gulf — is the more logical response.

4. Politics is now seen as Manichean, as a battle between good and evil — Part of the reason McConnell felt justified, perhaps even compelled, to violate norms was the changing character of our political debate.

Our opponents no longer bring just a different perspective, or divergent priorities, or distinct interests, to the table.

Increasingly our political debates have taken on a moral caste. Each side fervently believes they represent good, while their opponents advocate evil.

If morality is at stake, if incommensurate, but deeply held values are in conflict, the stakes rise for every decision, norms are cast by the wayside and compromise becomes vastly more difficult.

When Ruth Bader Ginsburg was confirmed, with support from 41of 44 Republican senators, the stakes seemed much lower and the gulfs far narrower.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has helped elect 30 U.S. senators, 12 governors and dozens of House members. Mellman served as pollster to Senate Democratic leaders for over 20 years, as president of the American Association of Political Consultants, and is president of Democratic Majority for Israel.