Two years of a devastating pandemic have exposed deep cracks in the U.S. political and economic order. After decades of economic policies that hollowed out the middle class, shocking numbers of Americans lacked the economic means to withstand COVID-19’s disruptive force. But the pandemic also demonstrated that those decades of economic policy are not set in stone. For a brief moment, before collapsing back into familiar patterns of polarization and obstruction, the federal government stepped in with the money to rescue vast numbers of Americans from economic ruin.
The Democrats are, for now, about two Senate votes shy of enacting a series of major reforms, from addressing climate change to protecting voting rights and making real progress in the fight to rein in the outsized political and economic power of the rich. But even assuming that the Democrats manage to enact such measures—overcoming our system’s many antidemocratic veto points, such as the Senate itself—the toughest challenge is still to come. The looming risk is that all such reforms may be unraveled by our archconservative Supreme Court. The Court has made the Constitution a weapon for selectively striking down legislation the justices disfavor. They are highly likely to wield it against laws that aim to repair economic or political inequality.
The Court can do this with near-total impunity today because many Americans accept the idea that the Supreme Court is the only institution with any role in saying what the Constitution means. Congress and other elected leaders, at best, can fill in the few blanks that the courts have left open. Rather than contesting the Court’s power to make highly questionable judgments about the meaning of the Constitution, most liberals today defend the Court’s authority. Their top complaint about the current Court is that it doesn’t have sufficient respect for its own precedents, which today’s majority is fast overturning as it lurches further right.
Mounting an effective challenge to our conservative juristocracy requires understanding how we got here. It is not just that the right out-organized the left. On the contrary, liberals have contributed to conservatives’ success by imagining constitutional law as an autonomous domain, separate from politics. Liberals have likewise imagined that most questions about how to regulate the economy are separate from politics, best left to technocrats. These two ideas have different backstories, but both were at the center of a mainstream liberal consensus that emerged after World War II. For postwar liberals, constitutional law was best left to the lawyers, economic questions to the economists. These two key moves sought to depoliticize vast domains that had previously been central to progressive politics. Together they tend to limit the role of the people and the representatives they elect.
Conservatives never accepted either of these moves. They have a substantive vision of a political and economic order they believe the Constitution requires, and that vision translates easily into arguments in court—arguments against redistribution, regulation, and democratic power. Inspired by their forebears a century ago in the Lochner era, when conservative courts routinely struck down progressive reforms for violating protections for property and contract, today’s conservatives have methodically installed movement judges who reliably advance those goals. And they are succeeding. Witness the litigation over the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Although the law narrowly survived, conservatives outside and inside the courts embraced novel arguments that Congress had transgressed constitutional limits on its powers. Liberals disagreed, offering arguments that the ACA was permissible. But they never made the argument their progressive forbears might have made: that something like the ACA is required to meet our constitutional obligations.
In response to the right’s decisive politicization of the courts, some liberals and progressives have proposed judicial reforms aimed at restoring an imagined past of judicial nonpartisanship. But that golden age is a myth. Constitutional confrontations over rival visions of our political and economic future are inevitable; courts are always engaged in such contests. The problem is not that the judiciary has a vision of constitutional political economy. The problem is that that vision has strayed much too far from the views of the elected branches and the American people.