In order to fully understand what the five Republican appointees on the Supreme Court have been up to when they make decisions that affect our democracy, as they did last week on voting rights, you need to understand what the Republican Party has been up to.
The modern GOP is based on an unlikely coalition of wealthy business executives, small business owners, and struggling whites. Its durability depends on the latter two categories believing that the economic stresses they’ve experienced for decades have a lot to do with the government taking their money and giving it to the poor, who are disproportionately black and Latino.
The real reason small business owners and struggling whites haven’t done better is the same most of the rest of America hasn’t done better: Although the output of Americans has continued to rise, almost all the gains have gone to the very top.
Government is implicated, but not in the way wealthy Republicans want the other members of their coalition to believe. Laws that the GOP itself championed (too often with the complicity of some Democrats) have trammeled unions, invited outsourcing abroad, slashed taxes on the rich, encouraged takeovers, allowed monopolization, reduced the real median wage, and deregulated Wall Street.
Four decades ago, the typical household’s income rose in tandem with output. But since the late 1970s, as these laws took hold, most Americans’ incomes have flattened. Had the real median household income continued to keep pace with economic growth it would now be almost $92,000 instead of $50,000.
Obviously, wealthy Republicans would rather other members of their coalition not know any of this — including, especially, their role in making it happen. Their nightmare is small-business owners and struggling whites joining with the poor and the rest of the middle class to wrest economic power away. So they’ve created a convenient scapegoat in America’s minority underclass, along with a government that supposedly taxes hardworking whites to support them.
This is where the five Republican appointees to the Supreme Court have played, and continue to play, such an important role.
First, wealthy Republicans have to be able to spend as much money as possible to bribe lawmakers to do their bidding, tell their version of history, and promulgate several big lies (the poor are “takers not makers,” government keeps them “dependent,” the wealthy are “job-creators” so cutting their taxes creates more jobs, unions are bad, regulations reduce economic growth, and so on).
The five Republicans on the Supreme Court have obliged by eviscerating campaign finance laws. Their 2010 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, along with the broad interpretations given it by several appellate judges (also Republican appointees), has opened the money floodgates.
Second, wealthy Republicans want to quietly reduce the impact of any laws that might limit their profits, even though they may help struggling whites as consumers or employees. The easiest way to execute this delicate maneuver is to make it harder to sue under such laws.
Here, too, the five Republicans on the Court have been eager to oblige by tightening requirements for class actions and limiting standing to sue. In their recent Comcast Corp. v. Behrend decision, for example, they threw out $875 million in damages that a group of Philadelphia-area subscribers had sought from the cable giant, reasoning that the subscriber plaintiffs hadn’t proven they constituted a “class” for the purpose of a class action.
Third and finally, wealthy Republicans want to minimize the votes of poor and minority citizens – and further propagate the myth that these people are responsible for the economic problems of struggling whites – through state redistricting and gerrymandering, voter-identification requirements at polling stations, and the use of almost any pretext to purge minority voters from voting lists.
The five Republicans on the Court obliged last week by striking down a section of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that sets the formula under which states with a long history of discrimination must ask the federal government or a judge for approval before changing their voting procedures.
The significance of Shelby County, Alabama vs. Holder was made plain Thursday when the Court effectively nullified two cases involving Texas voter laws by sending them back to lower courts to reconsider in light of Shelby. One was a voter identification requirement, enacted in 2011, that a federal judge had rejected on grounds that it imposed a disproportionate burden on lower-income people, many of whom are minorities. The other was a redistricting plan, also rejected by a federal court, in part because it would block minorities from gaining a majority vote in almost all districts.
But now both are effectively reinstated, as are the efforts of several other states to suppress votes.
Supreme Court justices are appointed for life in order to ensure their independence from politics. But when it comes to the core political strategy of the Republican Party, the five Republican appointees are, in effect, an extension of the GOP.