My heart is breaking today. Not just because of the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg — one of the great pioneers in American legal history — but also for what her death could portend: a further delegitimization of our already fragile political institutions. I hope against hope that the great justice’s passing does not worsen the crisis of our democracy. But I fear that it will.

The United States has grown more disunited for years, with less and less that Democrats and Republicans can agree on. Even basic facts are in dispute in the age of Facebook and Fox News, with roughly 40 percent of the population trapped in an alternative reality bubble where immigration is an existential threat but global warming isn’t. Conspiracy theories and “fake news” have proliferated — and millions and millions of Americans believe them.

President Trump has accelerated those terrible trends. He routinely accuses his political opponents of treason, calls the press the “enemy of the people,” says any election he does not win is fraudulent and claims the civil service is part of a “deep state” plotting against him. He does not even make any pretense of caring about states that didn’t support him. Defending his coronavirus record, he said: “If you take the blue states out, we’re at a level that I don’t think anybody in the world would be at.”

That kind of poisonous talk takes a toll. A Pew Research Center survey last year found that only 45 percent of Democrats and just 38 percent of Republicans say they share any “values and goals” with members of the other party. A new Pew Research Center poll finds that few Biden or Trump voters have friends who support the other candidate.

Serious scholars are worried that if present trends continue, we could see significant unrest and violence far beyond even today’s already alarming levels. Sociologist Jack A. Goldstone and scientist Peter Turchin developed a model tracking social unrest. They predicted a decade ago, based on growing levels of income inequality and self-interested behavior by American elites, that “the U.S. was heading toward the highest level of vulnerability to political crisis seen in this country in over a hundred years,” with those trends “set to peak in the years around 2020.”

What Goldstone and Turchin call the “Turbulent Twenties” are here with a vengeance. Now, they predict, the United States is “headed for still greater protests and violence”:

Inequality and polarization have not been this high since the nineteenth century. Democrats are certain that if Donald Trump is reelected, American democracy will not survive. Republicans are equally certain that if Trump loses, radical socialists will seize the wealth of elites and distribute it to undeserving poor and minorities, forever destroying the economy of the United States. Both sides are also convinced that the other side intends to change the democratic ‘rules of the game’ in ways that will make it impossible for them to compete effectively in future elections.

The Supreme Court has traditionally been the one institution that safeguards the Constitution and upholds neutral “rules of the game.” Its legitimacy, though battered by years of Republican efforts to stack the court to achieve the party’s desired political outcomes, remains intact largely because some Republican appointees such as Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. have put principle above politics. Democrats are hardly blameless for the politicization of the court (Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.) had to apologize for saying that Trump’s appointees would “pay the price” for voting against abortion rights), but their actions have been considerably less harmful than those of the other side.

Two acts, in particular, have done great damage to the court’s legitimacy. First was the 2000 Bush v. Gore ruling, on what amounted to a party-line vote, handing the disputed presidential election to George W. Bush. The second was Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (Ky.) refusal in 2016 to even give a hearing to a moderate judge, Merrick Garland, nominated by President Barack Obama. McConnell excused his obstructionism by inventing a rule that nominees should not be considered in an election year. He held the seat open until Trump could nominate Neil M. Gorsuch.

Imagine how much greater will be the damage if McConnell now flip-flops and tries to force through a replacement for Ginsburg either just before, or just after, an election that his party may well lose. Already two of the five conservative justices were nominated by a president who lost the popular vote. And George W. Bush, who lost the popular vote when he was elected to his first term, went on to nominate two more in his second. Imagine if a sixth conservative is nominated by a president who lost the popular vote by nearly 3 million votes and confirmed by Republican senators who represent 15 million fewer Americans than their Democratic colleagues. Imagine further that this new justice is the deciding vote on abortion rights, the Affordable Care Act — and even the outcome of the presidential election.

The result would be a political crisis that will shake our institutions to their foundations and make our current predicament seem paradisal by comparison. Don’t go there, Sen. McConnell, if you care at all about the republic and not just the Republican Party.

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