Elections have consequences. The Senate Democrats’ detonation of the “nuclear option” has dramatically raised the stakes for secular progressives in 2014, because if there are two issues that juice the Christian Right the most, it’s women’s reproductive rights and judicial activism. On the latter, the Religious Right senses a once-in-a-decade opportunity to impose its radical worldview on America.
Last week, the Senate voted 52-48 to eliminate the ability of the minority party in the Senate to filibuster executive branch nominees and any judgeship below the Supreme Court by changing the requirements for passage to a simple majority vote. It was a historic move made because there was no other alternative, given the GOP’s unprecedented abuse of the filibuster. In the history of the United States, 168 presidential nominees have been filibustered. Half occurred under all presidents from Washington through to Bush. Remarkably, the other half has taken place under just one president: Obama.
Why such aggressive judicial obstructionism by the GOP?
Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne Jr. writes, “This era’s conservatives will use any means at their disposal to win control of the courts. Their goal is to do all they can to limit Congress’s ability to enact social reforms.”
The Christian Right, which is the GOP’s most reliable and agitated voting bloc, is obsessed with the courts, and the Court of Appeals for the D.C. circuit is the nation’s second most important judicial body, which is why Republicans “gave the game away when all but a few of them opposed Obama’s three most recent appointments.”
Now that Democrats were forced into limiting the filibuster, the Christian Right has its incentive to mobilize for 2014. A simple majority control of the Senate gives it an opportunity to pack the courts with judges straight out of the Justice Scalia mold, who once said that separation of church and state would come under scrutiny under a Supreme Court with a Scalia majority. If the Christian Right sweeps Republicans to control the Senate in next year’s midterms, the anti-secularists will take a big step forward toward their stated ideological goals.
The recent Values Voter Summit demonstrated that the likely 2016 GOP frontrunners have a base wish to transform America’s secular state into a tyrannical theocracy — a nirvana absent gays, liberals, immigrants, Muslims and science books. The right-wing media elites are already doing their bit to gin up the far right’s judicial activists with Rush Limbaugh comparing filibuster reform to rape.
Truth in Action Ministries recently released a film titled Freedom on Trial, which features Robert Bork, the failed Reagan Supreme Court nominee, Eagle Forum founder Phyllis Schlafly, and Heritage Foundation vice president Genevieve Wood. The general theme of the documentary is that Christianity is under attack thanks to liberal "activist judges." Bork warns that courts are “teaching the people that religion is evil,” while another conservative attorney claims decisions that go against the Ten Commandments will “destroy the country.”
President Obama’s judicial nominees were being filibustered because they threaten to alter the circuit court’s philosophical balance. The Republican Party has again demonstrated that nullification and obstruction are ready-made weapons to ensure the courts remain dominated by conservatives.
Cass R. Sunstein, author of Radicals in Robes: Why Extreme Right-Wing Courts are Bad for America, writes, “Our courts now represents the most extreme elements of the Republican Party. These reformers include a number of federal judges—radicals in robes, fundamentalists on the bench….some of these judges do not hesitate to depart radically from longstanding understandings of constitutional meaning.” Political analyst James Fallows writes, “Add that to the simply unprecedented abuse of the filibuster in the years since the Democrats won control of the Senate and then took the White House, you have what we’d identify as a kind of long-term coup if we saw it happening anywhere else.”
The end of the filibuster threatens the far right’s stranglehold on our courts. Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell warned, “The solution to this problem is at the ballot box. We look forward to having a great election in November 2014.” John McCain warned, “Democrats will regret this.”
For Republicans to take back the Senate, they’ll need to win six seats. Given Democrats will need to defend 21 seats, compared to just 14 for the GOP, and that seven of those 21 Democratic seats are in states that lean Republican, expect the Christian Right to be the party’s primary water carrier in the midterms.
Former Speaker Tip O’Neill liked to say that all politics is local. He was wrong. It’s tribal. The detonation of the nuclear option ensures the always-mobilized theological tribe will turn out in high numbers in 2014. This means America’s secular state will remain in the balance should the secular left tribe do no better than its impotency in 2010.