Feb 19, 2016

Divided Government, Stark Partisanship & Gridlock, but Elections Matter because of their Consequences

As amazing as it may sound to those who follow politics, many people in our country don't really understand the role the US Supreme Court plays. They see the fight between president Obama and Congress about nominating a new justice as another political game. Many of my students when asked how does the high court affect their lives couldn't come up with specific cases that determined the conditions and direction of our country. A few mentioned the Roe v. Wade case and then a couple others remembered the decisions about "Obama care" and same-sex marriage.

It's the same view the general public has that things will work out, more or less regardless who's on the Supreme Court, and to similar extend in Congress. Oh, yeah, there's partisanship and some hot-button issues, but most of us have picked a team (like in sports), and we hope for the best while we expect to be disappointed by the way our political system works.

I hope this issue of getting the 9th justice on the supreme court is an educational opportunity in many ways. For starters, it highlights the principle of division of power, checks and balances. Or, how the US model separates the executive (president) from the legislature (Congress) in contrast to most western countries where the executive (usually a prime minister) control the majority of seats in the legislature (parliament). 

On this topic, I wish the media asked the presidential candidates the following question, "How do you expect to do all the things you say you will do when we have a divided government, and in all probability--judging from the last many years--Congress will not go along with your plans?"   

As for the supreme court, the president gets to nominate, and eventually gets someone he chose confirmed. The Senate cannot reject or delay forever. I can see why the Democrats might have opposed a G W Bush nomination in 2008 a few months before the election, but conservative presidents choose conservative judges, like liberals choose their kind. The times of "mainstream" or truly independent candidates for the supreme court are over. The two parties are far apart, primarily because the Republican party has left the mainstream.

Also, an appointment to the high court with its eventual effect on our society is part of a president's legacy. The stakes are high, especially in a politically, and I dare say culturally, divided country. That's why presidents now look to nominate someone in their late 40s or early 50s so they can stay on the court for 30 years!  Funny, thing, I asked my students if they could imagine themselves age 50 and they almost fell off their seats. They got the point though that the next ..supreme will be on the high court making decisions affecting their lives until they reach age 50!

Heck, that's a good reason to register and vote!