In the US, the death of Justice Antonin Scalia has added fuel to the fire in a raging Republican primary.
This week, Syrian troops pounded the ancient city of Aleppo, Turks targeted Kurds, and North Korea announced it was up to new mischief. LinkedIn’s share price fell by 43% on a single day, while Twitter’s stock fell to “a new all-time low.” Money fled to bonds and the yield on Japanese ten-year bonds fell to -0.04%. This means that investing $10,000 in Japanese bonds today will get you $9,996 in ten years. Clearly, expectations for the global economy are no longer rosy.
This global political and economic turmoil is unsettling American voters. They feel threatened in a world that seems more dangerous and uncertain. Americans are anxious and angry about the hollowing out of the middle-class, the gradual disappearance of the working-class, the rising costs of health care and the whittling down of their pensions. For the last three decades, inequality in the US has been rising radically. It is now reminiscent of the eras of the Gilded Age and the Roaring Twenties. Unsurprisingly, deepening divisions in society are causing ferociously fractious politics.
Now, there will be more acrimony. Antonin Scalia, the Supreme Court’s longest service justice and a dyed-in-the-wool conservative with a razor sharp wit, passed away in his sleep on February 13. The political battle to appoint his successor has broken out while his corpse is still warm.
Republicans are going ballistic because President Barack Obama, their bête noire, will nominate Scalia’s successor. They are crying foul and asking him to leave this choice to the next president. They have promised rearguard action in the Senate where a supermajority of 60 is required to confirm a presidential nomination.
Scalia was a legal giant. This author ran into him at an eminently forgettable event in Washington, DC. Scalia was far from forgettable though. He was warm, witty and vigorous. He advised this author to return to the world of law after parrying a repartee.
Unsurprisingly, Scalia’s closest friend in the Supreme Court was Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the leading bleeding heart liberal on the bench. Ginsburg paid tribute to Scalia by calling him “a jurist of captivating brilliance.” She observed: “We disagreed now and then, but when I wrote for the Court and received a Scalia dissent, the opinion ultimately released was notably better than my initial circulation.”
With Scalia dead, the bonhomie between political opponents in Washington, DC is extinct. Not only have Democrats and Republicans drawn daggers, but both parties are experiencing civil war. Candidates are slaughtering holy cows. Bernie Sanders declared that the US made a mistake in deposing Mohammed Mosaddegh in 1953. Hillary Clinton responded with claptrap because she is a card-holding member of the American establishment. The Republican debate in South Carolina was a bloodbath. Everyone summoned ghosts from the past, and John Kasich declared that the borders of Iraq “were drawn after World War I by Westerners who didn’t understand what was happening there.”
Other Republican candidates went further. Donald Trump declared that George W. Bush made a mistake in invading Iraq. He accused the former president of lying about weapons of mass destruction. Trump went on to cross the Republican Rubicon by accusing Bush of incompetence in failing to protect the US from attacks on September 11, 2001.
The Bush family have been the patron saints of the Republicans. Papa Bush was Ronald Reagan’s faithful sidekick before ascending to the throne. Bush Jr. worshipped the ground Reagan walked on. Apart from the presiding deity of Reagan himself and safely dead saints like Scalia, Trump’s broadsides reveal that nothing in the Republican church is sacred anymore.
What makes the likes of Reagan and Scalia sacred is the memory of American greatness. The US was the big boss after World War II. Mistakes like Mosaddegh did not matter. Vietnam was more serious and caused a real crisis of confidence. The 1979 Iranian Revolution shook up things as well, but with his smooth manners, perfect hair and a sunny smile, Reagan reassured the nation.
Unfortunately, the trouble is that many of today’s realities are rooted in Reagan’s decisions. Conservatives worship Reagan but fail to observe that he ran big deficits. They forget his draft dodging and other unfaithful acts. To borrow words from Scent of a Woman, Reagan was a snitch who sold fellow actors down the river in the era of McCarthy’s witch hunts. Then, Reagan was an informer for the FBI, and Director J. Edgar Hoover passed some taxpayer money to the Gipper in brown paper envelopes. As this author pointed out last week, Reagan still gets away with supporting apartheid South Africa and playing dog-whistle politics with supporters of the Ku Klux Klan.
In 2016, it is clear that Reagan’s trickle-down economics has failed. His policies favored Wall Street and benefited the financial sector inordinately. Bill Clinton was Reagan’s political stepchild and signed the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act in 1999, removing the Glass-Steagall Act of 1939. Warnings of Byron Dorgan and others were ignored. Clinton appointed a former CEO of Goldman Sachs as treasury secretary and bankers became the new kings of Washington, DC.
Not all transpired as per plan. Banks speculated wildly and lost their shirts. The Great Recession of 2008 followed. Taxpayer money bailed out banks, which proceeded to pay multimillion-dollar bonuses to their failed executives. Quantitative easing by central banks has further benefited those with assets, such as these overpaid executives.
As prices of assets have risen, so has inequality. Those without assets have struggled to find decent paying jobs and are hurting.
Inequality in the US is making the wealthy more powerful. In a historic decision, Scalia significantly augmented their power. As Reagan’s appointee to the Supreme Court, he was one of a majority of five that prohibited government from restricting political expenditures by corporations. This iconic case of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission has allowed those with money to spend unlimited amounts on election campaigns. This was a case where the justices decided on party lines. Republican appointees opposed limits on election expenditures, while the four Democrat justices wrote dissident opinions.
Scalia’s consistent conservative record has made him a saint for the Reagan faithful. Jeb Bush called him a “lover of liberty” and commended him for being a judge who “did not try to legislate from the bench.” Marco Rubio declared that Scalia did not treat the constitution as a “living and breathing document” but interpreted its “original meaning.”
Scalia’s theory of originalism gelled well with the desire of American conservatives to return to the halcyon days of the Founding Fathers. Scalia wanted the legislature to make laws and believed his job was interpreting the laws as they were written. If people wanted to ban abortion or do away with the death penalty, they had to persuade their fellow citizens to pass a law instead of look to the court.
Scalia, a devout Catholic, fathered nine children. Clearly, he did not countenance the idea of contraception. Yet Scalia was a complex man. In a strange way, his approach to the US Constitution is more akin to Martin Luther than the Vatican. Scalia was far from fanatical, though, and went on to declare that he was “a faint-hearted originalist.” As he once memorably and pithily remarked, “I am a textualist, I am an originalist. I am not a nut.”
Still, many Republicans see Scalia as the last badass godfather of the Reagan era. Now that he is dead, a crazy gang war has begun.
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*[This article was updated on February 16, 2016, at 05:06 GMT.]
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