Mellman: What happened after Ginsburg?

Mellman: What happened after Ginsburg?
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Twenty-seven years ago, the late, great, Ruth Bader GinsburgRuth Bader GinsburgMcConnell tees up Barrett nomination, setting up rare weekend session Jaime Harrison raises million in two weeks for South Carolina Senate bid Dozens of legal experts throw weight behind Supreme Court term limit bill 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 Cross-cutting cleavages have been replaced by mutually reinforcing cleavages — James Madison thought his constitutional system would work, in part, because Americans identify with multiple groups,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 CarterDavis: On eve of tonight's debate — we've seen this moment in history before Obama urges voters to back Graham challenger in South Carolina Poll: Graham leads Harrison by 6 points in SC Senate race MORE and Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonBon Jovi to campaign with Biden in Pennsylvania The Hill's Campaign Report: 2020 spending wars | Biden looks to clean up oil comments | Debate ratings are in Biden gets late boost with key union endorsement 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 HatchMellman: What happened after Ginsburg? Bottom line Bottom line 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 McConnellOvernight Health Care: Following debate, Biden hammers Trump on coronavirus | Study: Universal mask-wearing could save 130,000 lives | Finger-pointing picks up in COVID-19 relief fight On The Money: Finger-pointing picks up in COVID-19 relief fight | Landlords, housing industry sue CDC to overturn eviction ban Finger-pointing picks up in COVID-19 relief fight MORE (R-Ky.) and his GOP colleagues violated these norms, inventing a false version of history to deny Merrick GarlandMerrick Brian GarlandMcConnell tees up Barrett nomination, setting up rare weekend session Republicans advance Barrett's Supreme Court nomination after Democrats boycott committee vote Democrats to boycott committee vote on Amy Coney Barrett's Supreme Court nomination 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.