By now you've heard not only that Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died over the weekend but that the only reason President Barack Obama is going to nominate a successor is because he's a Kenyan-born socialist whose only reason for living is to destroy America and its exceptionalismism (that's American exceptionalism taken to the next level, as it will be when we finally get a president again who was at least born in North America)!
Or perhaps you fully understand that the only reason all the GOP presidential candidates and Senate Republicans will refuse to even consider Obama's nominee is because they are secret members of the Ku Klux Klan who have opposed the country's first black president because they are racist homophobes in the direct employ of the Koch Brothers, the Bilderbergers, and the International Banking Conspiracy.
In fact, when it comes to the argument over whether a president should nominate a person to the Supreme Court in his last year in office, Republicans and Democrats can marshall all sorts of historical prejudice, most of which has been soaking in partisan hypocrisy like housewives' hands used to soak in Palmolive dish detergent. What is not at issue, however, is that the president has the constitutional right to do so and the Senate has the constitutional right not to act.
I'm less interested in relitigating the recent and distant past when it comes to unspeakable acts of jurisprudential bullshit (hello, Chuck Schumer! hello, Ted Cruz!) than I am in pointing out how perfectly the current situation illustrates why confidence and trust in government has tanked in the 21st century. Before poor old Nino Scalia, the pride of Trenton, had even gone fully cold, Democrats and Republicans were already carping about the replacement process and hurling invective like a troop of howler monkeys playing with its own feces. The parties' handlers in the media—whether actually paid for by GOP or Democrats or simply assuming the mantle of "expert analyst"—went into partisan hyperdrive to walk through just what an outrage it was that Obama would even dare to nominate anyone or that the Senate would refuse to contemplate even a clone of Scalia (well, at least if it was derived using fetal stem cells…).
This sort of display helps explain why partisan identification among Americans is at or near historic lows. In Gallup's latest take on the issues, just 26 percent of us will admit to anonymous pollsters on the phone that we are Republicans. That's one point above the historic low. And just 29 percent of us will cop to being a Democrat, which is the lowest recorded figure in Gallup's decades of asking.
Of course nobody wants to be one or the other.
Look at these idiots, whose lives are completely and utterly consumed by tribal affiliations that are about energizing as looking in the toilet and discovering bloody stool. In a simpler America—an America that was like only about $15 trillion in debt, ISIS referred to an old kids show, Butler University was the country's basketball underdog, and Anthony Weiner was still professing his innocence—Matt Welch and I wrote:
Even with John Boehner (remember him?) gone off to pasture and Harry Reid threatening retirement, I'll stand by that line. It's not just party affiliation, either. As noted, confidence in government (including the presidency, the Supreme Court, and Congress) is well below historical averages:
The presidency is 10 points below average, the Court an even dozen, and Congress a whopping 16 points. That's not because Americans have become bad people; it's because we've become increasingly sentient and understand fully that these institutions are full of malarkey most of the time. The major parties do their best to wave away these long-term trends and act as if the polarization they spew like Mr. Freeze spews icicles isn't their fault.
I come not to defend polarization based on principle nor to bury it. If the Democrats and Republicans, or liberals and conservatives, actually acted out of clearly articulated and heartfelt beliefs, that would be easier to respect. But of course they don't. When George Bush went to elective war, the left called dissent as American as cherry pie. When Obama tripled troop strength in the "not dumb" war in Afghanistan, the left stayed home and the right bitched about his lack of willingness to drop bombs and use drones. When Republicans wanted stimulus (in early 2008, Bush did this, look it up), it was wise or foolish, depending on your affiliation. When Obama did the same a year later, it was wise or foolish, depending on your affiliation. Ad nauseaum.
Both sides have contributed mightily to toxic atmosphere and I'll leave it to their devil's advocates to spend countless hours saying the other side is the real problem. And I'm far less interested in any sort of kumbaya moment than I am a recognition that disagreeing in politics can be an entirely honorable affair if it's honest and open. And if it proceeds from the recognition that politics is a means to an end, not an end in itself. If politics is your life, you don't have one.
I've written before about the problem with low-trust societies: Ironically, they push for more government involvement in everything as a reaction to reduced confidence in government. It's counter-intuitive but there it is. Especially from a libertarian perspective, it's a good idea if government is highly competent and sharply limited in its size, scope, and spending. In fact, the two things go together.
I would submit that the decline in party identification and trust in government we've seen in this century makes total sense when you consider how poorly conservative Republicans governed and how poorly liberal Democrats have governed. Bush delivered not simply the opposite of what he promised (lower spending, humble foreign policy) but was incompetent in significant ways (Katrina, the wars, etc.). Obama may have inspired hope but similarly burned good will by deporting immigrants in record numbers, siccing the feds on medical marijuana shops, being pointlessly hawkish, and shoving a still-unpopular health-care bill through on strictly partisan lines. Each president was more than capably aided by their parties and their zealots.
You know what might actually provide a small respite from all this? If Obama actually did nominate a moderate justice (such things exist, I'm told). Not some mushy-headed centrist, but one who represents not the grim extremes of Washington politics but that large plurality of independent American voters who tend to be socially liberal and fiscally conservative. And if the Republican Senate actually took up confirmation hearings in a spirit of tough-but-fair-vetting (maybe they could also drop the glue-sniffing question, too, since who really wants a SCOTUS that isn't huffed out of its mind all the time?).
But you and me and the NSA all know that's not going to happen. So let's continue apace with Plan B. Not the day-after pill but the different, far-more-controversial political contraceptive Matt Welch and I discussed in The Declaration of Independents. Hell, it's already playing out as we watch party identification numbers fall: Let's continute to evacuate partisan politics as a central arena of meaning in our lives and instead hold the worst elements in check via ad hoc, issue-based coalitions that push back against bad laws and ideas from either side of the aisle while working to build great and interesting and free lives beyond politics. That's where life was always meant to be lived anyway.