The fight over a Supreme Court nomination that we are likely to see begin in a month or so with the reported impending retirement of Justice Stevens could be a major teachable moment for progressives about the underlying belief system of contemporary conservatives and of Republicans who have let themselves get radicalized to an extraordinary degree since the latter stages of the 2008 presidential contest.
As we speak, conservatives all over the country are demanding legal action by states to challenge the constitutionality of health reform legislation (in my home state of Georgia, there's even talk of impeaching the Democratic Attorney General, Thurbert Baker, for refusing to waste taxpayer dollars by launching a suit). Yet the basis for such suits -- typically a denial of the power of Congress to legislative economic matters under the Commerce and Spending Clauses of the U.S. Constitution -- is a collateral attack on the constitutionality of a vast array of past legislation, including the New Deal and Great Society initiatives, not to mention most civil rights laws.
And that questionable proposition is completely aside from other conservative efforts, many of them backed by major Republican officeholders, to "interpose" (to use the term for this strategy when it was deployed by segregationists in the 1950s) state sovereignty to block the implementation of health reform and other federal laws. And beyond that we have the even more radical nullification and secession gestures that have become standard features of conservative Republican rhetoric over the last year or so.
In other words, a debate that revolves around constitutional interpretation is not necessarily one that will help the conservative movement at this particular moment. Indeed, it could actually help progressives raise suspicions that Republicans are contemplating a very radical agenda if they return to power, one that could include (particularly given the stridency of their fiscal rhetoric lately) a direct assault on very popular programs like Social Security and Medicare.
Moreover, we can anticipate that a Court nomination fight will renew noisy efforts by the Christian Right, which has good reason right now to remind the news media and Republican politicians alike of its continuing power in the GOP, to advance its own eccentric views on America as a "Christian Nation" whose founders never intended to promote church-state separation, not to mention their demands for an overthrow of legalized abortion and same-sex unions. At a time when many conservatives are trying very hard to submerge divisive cultural issues and create a monomaniacal message on limited government, a Court fight will unleash cultural furies beyond control.
And finally, if it really gets vicious, a Court fight could cast a harsh spotlight on the drift of the conservative movement towards a general attitude of defiance towards the rule of law. As I discussed in a post yesterday, the downside of the libertarian energy given conservatives by the Tea Party movement is its tendency to treat every major government institution, the presidency, the Congress, and the judiciary alike, with contempt as threats to liberty and "natural rights." As much as Americans love liberty, they also love order and stability. They aren't likely to react well to the spectacle of conservatives screaming for a virtual revolution against a popularly elected government, the social safety net, and constitutional doctrines that have been in place for 75 years.
So: bring on the Court fight, and bring it on with all the rhetoric Tea Party folk and other radicalized conservatives have been using about Obama's "socialism" and the Nazi-like tyranny of universal health coverage! Before it's over, Republicans may wish they had just picked a different fight.
This item is cross-posted from The Democratic Strategist.