Last week, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell issued what surely must rank among the most hypocritical statements ever uttered by a senior senator. Were he to become majority leader again after the 2022 midterms he would, the Kentuckian stated, be “highly unlikely” to preside over a confirmation of a Biden-nominated Supreme Court justice.
McConnell is no stranger to hypocrisy. Remember, he was the Senate leader who conjured a precedent out of his nether regions in 2016 in refusing to hold confirmation hearings for President Obama’s nominee Merrick Garland, and in claiming it was too close to an election and that the voters should have a say. And he was also the Senate leader who, a presidential election cycle later, then did a spectacular U-turn and rammed through Amy Coney Barrett’s hearings and confirmation vote just days before last year’s Election Day, when more than half the country had already cast early votes.
McConnell was also the leader who twice marshaled his caucus to oppose voting to convict Donald Trump, after the House had impeached him. The second time around, he did so despite publicly averring that Trump did, indeed, bear moral responsibility for instigating the January 6 insurrection. And he’s the same leader who, after acknowledging that the ex-president bore blame for the most dangerous insurrection in modern U.S. history, then promptly turned around and appeased his base by saying that he would “absolutely” support Trump in 2024 if he were the party’s presidential nominee, and that he would oppose a bipartisan commission to investigate the insurrection.
In other words, McConnell is no stranger to the art of shameless double-talk. He has spent years consolidating his power at the expense of the integrity of basic civic institutions, and he has thought nothing of undermining the country’s democratic culture to appease his increasingly extreme base. Where Trump was bluster and bombast, McConnell is a political beast of a different species, a wily, deeply cynical operator who uses the levers of power in as ruthless a manner as any Senate leader in modern history.
So, why is his statement on a potential Biden Supreme Court nominee any different from his past statements and actions? On one level, it’s not; it’s simply more of the same amoral politicking. But on another level, it’s exponentially worse than what has come before. If McConnell in 2016 was a caterpillar feeling his way toward a new, anti-democratic, ruling philosophy, McConnell in 2021 has completed his metamorphosis into a malignant moth. In that, he is marching lockstep with the ever more anti-democratic trajectory that the GOP — the party of mob attackers, conspiracists, QAnon adherents, white supremacists and voter suppression advocates — as a whole has now embarked upon.
What the Senate minority leader — whose 50 senators represent 43.5 percent of Americans, and whose Senate caucus hasn’t represented a majority of the country’s population in a quarter century — is basically saying is that a minoritarian political party has an absolute right to stymie the political majority. He is averring that the GOP has a God-given free pass to impose on the entire country ever more extreme legal interpretations of everything from abortion access to environmental regulations to voting rights, no matter where the voting public stands on these issues.
McConnell seems to have long viewed his legacy as being about securing a conservative hold on the judiciary for decades to come. Now that he has a 6-3 Supreme Court majority and has planted conservative flags up and down the federal judiciary, he is getting more audacious still, looking to use the wave of GOP-passed voter suppression laws to secure a congressional majority again and then to basically neutralize the ability of Democrats to have any say in who presides over the country’s powerful court system. After all, a 6-3 conservative majority on the Supreme Court still occasionally pushes back against GOP excesses; witness the recent refusal to overturn the Affordable Care Act and its unwillingness to entertain Trump’s challenges to state election results in 2020. But if the Republicans could move toward a 100 percent conservative court, well, at that point nearly anything would be possible for GOP operatives. The courts would, at that point, simply be both a rubber-stamp for Republican social and economic priorities, and a reliable blocking mechanism for any and all progressive policies pushed at a city, state and federal level by Democrats, centrists and left-of-center groupings.
In the sort of fractured, frequently stalemated and increasingly antagonistic political environment that has come to be the default in the U.S., the courts occupy a central role in the political process. They shape cultural norms, economic relationships, access to the ballot, and more. They determine what rights vulnerable, marginalized groups have or don’t have. And they set limits on what government can and can’t do on big-picture issues, such as immigration, health care provision, gun control and efforts to tackle climate change.
McConnell’s shot across the bows on future Supreme Court nominees is the action of a man increasingly comfortable with the idea that howsoever a party rigs the game is legitimized simply in pursuit of power. If you can’t win free and fair at the ballot box, modern GOP thinking goes, then limit access to voting. And if even that fails and the GOP doesn’t win power despite a constricted voting environment, then Republicans seem intent on doing an end-run around the electorate and its priorities by stacking the courts with uber-conservatives.
As the ultimate player of this toxic game, Mitch McConnell is now, in his own anti-charismatic way, the U.S.’s most dangerous practitioner of might-is-right politics. His legacy may well be the conservative judges whom he has helped elevate to positions of power around the country and all the way up to the Supreme Court. But, if he succeeds in regaining Senate control in 2022, he may also leave a legacy of the thorough destruction of democratic norms in a country that, rightly or wrongly, likes to consider itself the world’s most durable democracy.