The resignation of Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor has opened up the most contentious political battle so far of Bush’s second term.
Conservative groups vow to spend “an initial $18 million” in support of Bush’s nominee. Meanwhile, a coalition of liberal lobby groups boasts a “state of the art war room” and their own bulging war chest to prevent the confirmation of a right-wing nominee.
The showdown is likely to dominate politics for months. The religious right is determined to dramatically extend their influence by taking a majority in the Supreme Court, but this could trigger a massive backlash from millions who completely oppose their reactionary agenda.
The Financial Times, commenting on the fallout if Chief Justice Rehnquist (who is quite ill with thyroid cancer) resigns, wrote: “the politico-cultural battle of the decade will break out on American soil as political extremists clash over the choice of the next chief justice of the United States” (9 June 2005). However, the surprise resignation of O’Connor created an even more explosive situation than had Rehnquist, a staunch conservative, resigned.
O’Connor, a “pragmatic conservative,” has voted with the right on many issues, including the decision to hand victory to Bush in the 2000 presidential election by stopping the Florida vote recount. However, she often sided with the more liberal justices on key questions like abortion and affirmation action, saving the Republicans from a potential backlash. Her resignation opens the prospect of a right-wing Bush nominee shifting the tenuous balance of the Supreme Court decisively toward the ultra-conservative wing of Scalia, Thomas, and Rehnquist.
A right-wing replacement of O’Connor would create a 5-4 majority favoring dramatic new restrictions on women’s reproductive rights. And the fight over who will replace O’Connor is just the first battle in a larger war for the Supreme Court. It remains likely that Rehnquist will step down soon, and Justice John Paul Stevens, a liberal, is 85 and could also retire during Bush’s presidency. In this context, the threat of Roe v. Wade being overturned is a real possibility.
In coming weeks, millions will become acutely aware of this danger. The memory of life before abortion was legalized, when 5-10,000 women died each year from back-alley procedures, will provoke ferocious opposition if Bush nominates a hard-line right-wing judge.
There are also many other important issues at stake. A new right-wing majority on the Court would be much more likely to outlaw affirmative action, expand the use of the death penalty, and weaken the separation of Church and State. The Court could rule on same-sex marriage and anti-gay discrimination in housing and employment. Challenges to the Patriot Act, including the FBI’s ability to repress trade union, anti-war, and other left activists, or the government’s ability to subject “terror” suspects to military tribunals and torture, could eventually reach the Supreme Court. Crucial corporate, labor, and environmental regulations are also at stake.
The Supreme Court has never been a champion of democratic rights or of workers and the oppressed. When controlled by relatively liberal justices in the 1930s-70s, it reflected pressure for change from the organized labor movement, women, and people of color, as well as general social pressure in favor of democratic rights and more enlightened social policies.
Massive movements of working people, minorities, women, and others forced the ruling class to accept a period of “class compromise” and the expansion of rights and conditions for workers and oppressed groups. Looking out for the long-term interests of U.S. capitalism, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of liberal reforms on a number of key issues.
However, this period of class compromise ended by the 1980s. The end of the post-World War II economic boom triggered an offensive by big business to claw back the historic gains working people had won. Accordingly, new appointments by Reagan and Bush Sr. shifted the Supreme Court back to the right.
In this period, unfortunately, the leaders of the labor, women’s and civil rights movements have largely abandoned the task of mobilizing mass, working-class pressure in defense of democratic rights. The Democratic Party, tied to big business interests, has proved incapable of withstanding the advance of the Republican right.
While the Court has already steadily attacked democratic rights, with O’Connor resigning the religious right is pushing for an extreme right-wing takeover of the Court which would dramatically further erode key democratic rights. However, this could trigger an enormous backlash and mass struggles to defend democratic rights, checking their attacks. History shows that the key to defending our rights is mass struggles from below of workers and the oppressed.
Already there are signs of tensions within the Republican Party. Sections of big business are pressuring Bush to nominate a “moderate” conservative, fearing an extreme right-wing nominee will provoke political unrest.
They also warn that a right-wing takeover would severely undermine the Supreme Court’s authority and ability to present itself as a neutral force arbitrating over conflicts in society. Instead, the Court could be exposed as a naked instrument of the Republican right, defending the reactionary ideological agenda of one faction of the ruling class. This would weaken a vital instrument of big business for upholding their rule, and destabilize their political system by leading workers and oppressed groups to rely less on the courts and instead on their own collective action to secure their rights.
A wing of the Republicans also fear such a move could provoke an electoral backlash in the 2006 elections and beyond, not least because a clear majority support a women’s right to choose. However, if Bush fails to nominate an ultra-conservative, there could be a huge backlash from his right-wing religious base, possibly leading to a split in the Republicans at a certain stage.
Building a Fight-Back
It is entirely possible to build a powerful mass movement capable of defeating Bush’s attempt to remake the Supreme Court, as well as his broader corporate, right-wing agenda.
A recent New York Times/CBS News poll showed Bush’s approval rating falling to 42%. Only 19% said the Republican-led Congress shared their priorities. Just 25% support Bush on Social Security! The disaster in Iraq is going from bad to worse, and Bush faces the possibility of a serious economic crisis during his second term. All this underlines that Bush is beatable.
Now is the time to launch a serious struggle against Bush and the religious right! Lobbying Senators with phone calls and emails is completely inadequate. The main women’s, trade union, civil rights, and anti-war organizations need to urgently organize for massive local and national demonstrations to stop the right-wing takeover of the Supreme Court.
This is not just a question of lobbying to put pressure on Senators. Such demonstrations should mark the beginning of an ongoing movement to mobilize the collective power of the tens of millions of working people who want to see the entire agenda of Bush and the religious right defeated.
This means systematic agitation in working class neighborhoods and schools to mobilize for demonstrations, and to explain that the fight against Bush’s court nominee is not mainly a moral battle, as the religious right and many liberals frame it, but part of a broader class battle.
We must expose the hypocrisy of “right to life” politicians who support the murderous war to secure Iraqi oil, or the “family values” of Wal-Mart bosses who profit by keeping working families in poverty. On this basis, protests against Bush’s Court nominee can take on a broader, more powerful character, bringing people into the streets to also oppose Bush’s social security privatization, the Iraq war, and to demand money for jobs, education, and pensions, not war.
Last year, the biggest protest in U.S. history took place when over a million people marched to defend women’s reproductive rights. The ultra-right bid to take over the Court means mobilizations of a similar scale could be built by September, when the struggle will likely come to a head in the Senate.
Unfortunately, the “March for Women’s Lives” was squandered on the electoral aims of John Kerry and the Democratic Party. It was a “respectable” march led by celebrities and politicians. Only vague demands were made of the political establishment, and no further mass mobilizations were organized (beyond electoral campaigning) to back up even these limited demands.
The leaders of the National Organization for Women and other mass organizations need to end their failed strategy of lobbying Democrats and return to the radical traditions of mass struggle that won abortion rights in the first place. As opposed to lobbying efforts, which reduce regular people to so many isolated voices, mass action can bring real pressure to bear on the political establishment. This would dramatically raise the political cost for Democratic Senators who would otherwise capitulate under Republican pressure, and could also force some Republican Senators to back down.
A defeat on the Supreme Court would be a serious blow to Bush and the religious right. However, even if mass mobilizations failed in the short span of a few months to prevent the confirmation of Bush’s nominee, they would still weaken the White House and lay the basis for the development of a more powerful movement on a broad range of issues such as the war, social security, healthcare, or union rights.
On the other hand, if Bush and the religious right are allowed to ram their nominee through without mass demonstrations and serious opposition in the Senate, it would set the stage for stepped-up assaults on women, immigrants, LGBT people, and working people generally.
Unfortunately, instead of mobilizing a real movement, the well-financed organizations positioned to lead the fight against Bush’s nominee are placing their bets on Senate Democrats putting up a firm filibuster – a blocking procedure that requires at least 60 Senators to overcome (only 55 Senators are Republicans).
But the Democrats have an abysmal history of firmly opposing Bush on anything, including recent judicial battles. For instance, in May Senate Democrats buckled under Republican pressure, ending their filibuster against three extreme right-wing court nominees in a rotten compromise.
This kind of capitulation has its roots in the deeply contradictory character of the Democratic Party. While fundamentally subservient to the same corporate paymasters as the Republican Party, the Democrats at the same time attempt to appear as a party for working people, people of color, and women.
The right-wing, big business nature of the Democratic Party was clearly demonstrated in the 2004 elections. Despite Bush’s growing difficulties, the Democrats were politically incapable of defeating Bush because of their failure to boldly oppose the war and offer workers any alternative on jobs, wages, healthcare, etc.
This shows the need for the women’s, anti-war, and labor movements to break with the Democrats and put their resources into building a new political party with a radical working-class program as the only way to deal with the deepening economic and political crisis of U.S. capitalism.
Bush has no popular mandate for his agenda, but passive opposition alone is insufficient. The power of working-class action must be brought into the political equation, by linking the Supreme Court battle with the struggle against Bush’s social security privatization, the Iraq war, and the demand for money for jobs, education, and pensions, not war.
The flash-point battle over the Supreme Court could spark a mass struggle if a bold lead is given. Everyone who understands this must urgently demand that the mass organizations positioned to lead the current fight-back radically reorient themselves toward a strategy of mass demonstrations and an ongoing political movement against Bush’s far-right corporate agenda.