What a year it has been. “Trump wins and the Resistance begins,” might sum it up. Into this maelstrom steps our annual “What would the Declaration say?” reflection. We could turn in three directions: toward Trump; toward “the Resistance”; toward the people who fall outside his devoted followers and fierce opponents, who wish to make some contribution to the commonweal in the midst of low-intensity civil war.
The old Democratic playbook on Republican Supreme Court nominations will no longer work for the Gorsuch confirmation hearings. Democrats used to spend much of their time talking about the importance of precedent and demanding that nominees follow it. The point, of course, was to protect one particular precedent above all—Roe v. Wade—and more generally keep alive the precedents favoring liberalism that were minted in the Warren and to some extent Burger and even Rehnquist eras.
But this approach no longer fits the times. One reason is multiplication of precedents that the Democratic base wants overruled. Citizens United is the best example. Hillary Clinton was even going to make its overruling a litmus test of her judicial appointments. But there are others too. Senator Schumer has already complained in the context of this nomination about Shelby County v Holder, which found a portion of the Voting Rights Act unconstitutional. And few cases enraged the left like Hobby Lobby, which held that closely held corporation had religious freedom rights under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. More generally, given that liberals have not been a majority on Court in several generations, there is growing body of precedent they do not like.
And much of the Democratic party too is changing to become more openly radical. Thus, its base is not satisfied with simply standing on past precedent while hoping that the Court will drift their way. It wants the Court to be a more active partner in progressive social change.
This creates a dilemma for Democrats. The very important advantage of prioritizing precedent is that that appears to make them adherents of following the law, where the law is defined as the past case law of the Supreme Court.
It has been a disorienting year for classical liberals. The presidential candidate of the more classically liberal of the two major parties took some positions wildly at odds with classical liberalism, like opposition to freer trade, enthusiasm for government intervention in corporate decision making, and hostility to some civil liberties. He won the Presidency in part because of some of those positions.
But then the same candidate announced the nomination of a substantially better cabinet from the classical liberal perspective than those Hillary Clinton would have appointed. It is through these generally decent appointees that he must largely govern, not by twitter.
He also shows every sign of following through on his commitment to appointing a justice sympathetic to enforcing the constitution as written and thus better implementing a charter broadly reflecting the classical liberalism born in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, although not of modern libertarianism. Once again the relative success of classical liberalism is made even clearer if potential nominees are not evaluated against a standard of utopian perfection, but compared to the result-oriented justices(s) that Hillary Clinton promised to appoint.
Here then are a few classical liberal resolutions for this strange era.
Some already seek to delegitimize Donald Trump’s decisive victory in the Electoral College, on the grounds of his failure to win the popular vote. But in the close elections where the results of the Electoral College and the popular vote diverge, the popular vote result has no electoral significance because the candidates did not try to win the popular vote. If they had tried to get the highest popular vote, they would have campaigned entirely differently. Donald Trump would have campaigned more in Texas to increase his vote and Hillary Clinton would have campaigned more in California. They would have run their television advertisements in different places. And perhaps fewer citizens would have voted, because many more would have thought their vote was unlikely to change the large national count.
Given the less than 200,000-vote margin separating the candidates, we cannot be certain who would have won the popular vote had the candidates been aiming for a popular majority. As I said in a similar discussion of Bush v. Gore, “paying attention to the popular vote this context is like suggesting we should pay attention to the total number of runs a team got in the World Series rather than the number of games won.”
A second myth to delegitimize the Electoral College and thereby Trump is to claim that the Electoral College advantages the small states.
The Progressive apoplexy over Donald Trump—which is justified on myriad grounds, many of them other than those his critics are articulating—ought not obscure this decisive fact: Trumpism is a disease of Progressive constitutionalism. Its symptoms include an inflamed presidency and Supreme Court—and embrace of the former and a reaction against the latter.
There has been a lot of discussion in the blogosphere about what candidate would be better for the rule of law—Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. At City Journal I recently pointed out that both candidates pose some legal dangers.
But whoever is elected President, there can be no doubt that a Republican Senate would be best for originalism and thus the long-term prospects of the rule of rule. Begin with the election of Clinton, because that is the far more probable outcome and thus should be counted most heavily in the calculus. She would nominate justices who are outright hostile to the meaning of the Constitution. At the Presidential debate she said nothing about wanting justices who would follow the law, just judges who have empathy and who would follow her litmus tests of being in favor of Roe and against Citizens United. That latter comments were too much even for the Washington Post.
Even more importantly, she comes from a progressive movement that is dedicated to transforming the Constitution without going through the amendment process. As I said in my City Journal essay:
Clinton appointments to the Supreme Court would endanger constitutional governance in a variety of ways, but one of the most substantial is the creation of rights nowhere to be found in the actual Constitution. Sadly, the stage has been set for great expansion of such rights by Justice Anthony Kennedy’s Obergefell opinion. It, of course, constitutionalized same-sex marriage. More importantly for the future, it destroyed the doctrinal restraints on substantive due process—the Court’s minting house for new rights.
Previously the Supreme Court had sharply restricted the rights that could be found in substantive due process. In Washington v. Glucksberg, the Court rejected the argument that the right to assisted suicide could be found in the Constitution. The Court read its precedents to require strict objective criteria for the identification of a specific fundamental right: it must be “deeply rooted in this Nation’s history and tradition.” By that strict standard, the right to assisted suicide was a non-starter, because laws against the practice had long existed.
But same-sex marriage could hardly be termed a right “deeply rooted in the Nation’s history and tradition” either. In effect, Kennedy said so much the worse for Glucksberg. One reason he gave is that the right to abortion declared in Roe v. Wade itself had itself not met the Glucksberg test. But the right of abortion had persisted in Planned Parenthood v. Casey not because Roe was substantively correct, but only because it was a precedent. Thus, Roe hardly should be taken as generative model for substantive due process.
It is a theme of fiction: when someone dies, people line up to steal from him or her—estranged relatives and strangers alike. The deceased cannot protect himself. This is a reason that we should expect that death may be a time for the state to work some injustice too.
Thus, we should begin with a healthy suspicion of a tax levied at death. Hillary Clinton’s recent call for a 65 percent federal tax on large estates signals to Bernie Sanders supporters her Leftwing bona fides, but it should signal to the rest of us her lack of a sense of justice. When one adds in taxation from states like New York, the government could then confiscate more than four-fifths of a decedent’s property.
To be sure, our basic intuitions about justice are often hard to justify, but there seems to be a large difference between taxing people’s income at a reasonable rate and taking a large portion of their assets. We think of income as a flow, into which the government may dip, whereas assets constitute a fixed bedrock that is wholly our own.
Our difference in intuition about assets and income might suggest that all estate taxes are unjust. But one plausible justification for sound estate taxes is that they can be a proxy for other uncollected income taxes.
Presidential debates neither are nor ought to be midterm exams. The people who administer midterms do not necessarily possess political wisdom (see “Wilson, Woodrow”), and the people who excel at taking them may be better at demonstrating technical detail than prudential judgment (see above). Thus questions that make a candidate stumble—and that can win the journalistic brass ring for the moderator, namely, instigating news—tend not to be as valuable as those that prompt reflection and reveal a mind at work.
According to Livy’s History, the Roman consul Publius Decius Mus sacrificed himself to the gods by “leap[ing] upon his horse and dash[ing] into the middle of the enemy” in a ritual that secured victory for his embattled army. One hopes the polemicist using Decius as a pseudonym in a much discussed broadside against Never Trumpers, having anonymously expressed an opinion with which somewhere north of 40 percent of Americans agree, is safe. The republic almost certainly will be.