The winner of the 2016 election will likely be able to nominate a number of Supreme Court justices. (photo: Tannen Maury/Landov)
Sean Wilentz | Rolling Stone | Reader Supported News | December 28, 2015
Every four years the political parties describe the impending presidential election as a historic event – and every once in a while it’s true
ore than 150 years ago, in 1858, as the national crisis over slavery heightened, Abraham Lincoln famously remarked that “a house divided against itself cannot stand,” and that the “crisis” would be “reached and passed” only when the house divided would “become all one thing or all the other.” Now, the long conflict over social equality, political democracy and American government that began during the Progressive era, followed by the New Deal and the Great Society, is reaching its inescapable conclusion. If the Republicans win the presidency in 2016, they will also almost inevitably control both the Senate and the House of Representatives, giving them virtually unfettered command over the entire federal government to go along with their domination of the great majority of the state governments. The Republican president could easily be in a position to appoint new justices to the Supreme Court for an unstoppable right-wing majority that would last for a generation to come. Bush v. Gore, Citizens United and Shelby County v. Holder (the 2013 ruling that greatly weakened the 1965 Voting Rights Act) would be merely the prelude to tilting political and social power. If, however, the Democrats win the presidency in 2016, they will almost certainly take back the Senate and make gains in the House – and the Democratic president will likely be able to appoint new justices to the Supreme Court that will eventually comprise a liberal majority. Between these two stark alternatives, there is no middle ground. In 2016, the country will become either one thing or the other.
How did we arrive at this decisive moment? Two powerful historic developments have driven American politics over the past half century. The Republican Party has been transformed by a conservative movement that has pushed it ever further to the right. The Democratic Party, stunned by the conservative counterrevolution, has struggled to reinvent itself and its politics, while facing the increasingly formidable resources of the right. These shifts are responsible for the polarization and dysfunction that have gripped American government since the 1990s. But they began in 1968.
Amid that year’s turmoil, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy crushed liberal hopes and paved the way for the election of Richard M. Nixon. Although at the time Nixon seemed to represent a moderating force inside the Republican Party, his triumph, in retrospect, set in motion what has proved to be the Republicans’ unending radicalization.