Editor’s Note: W. Kamau Bell is a sociopolitical comedian and author who hosts and executive produces the CNN Original Series “United Shades of America.” He is on the board of Take Back the Court, an organization that advocates adding seats to the US Supreme Court. The views expressed here are his. Read more opinion on CNN.
Anybody who knows the history of the United States knows that this country requires big, impossible-sounding ideas to make it live up to its promises of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Freeing enslaved Africans: A big, impossible sounding idea.
Giving women the right to vote was – until 100 years ago – also a big, impossible sounding idea. So impossible sounding that at first America only gave it to White women.
Marriage equality becoming the law of the land was a big, impossible sounding idea up until the moment it popped up as a news alert on your phone.
Well, today, saving our democracy is the big and urgent task in front of us. We have a President using the debate stage to riff off some new election conspiracy theories, encourage his base to engage in voter intimidation, give white supremacist and far-right groups a new slogan and making us all afraid that he won’t leave office peacefully. We have the unthinkable loss of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg weeks before the election, and Mitch McConnell determined to overturn his own rule to race a nominee through this month to fill her seat. And we have a Supreme Court in a position to overturn the Affordable Care Act in November and a nation being shaken to its core by social unrest.
But with the stakes this high, there is momentum to finally act – to do big things to save our democracy. And the game plan, if Joe Biden wins the White House and Democrats take the Senate, is clear: we must expand the Supreme Court to make it more representative of America.
And before you toss this idea aside as a load of balderdash and blame it on the fact that I’ve been sheltering in place for too long, hear me out. Actually just hear history out. The Supreme Court’s numbers have changed before … six times, in fact. SIX TIMES! Once with the help of a president named Thomas Jefferson. And it would not even take a constitutional amendment to expand the court. (I know how much some of you hate those for some reason.) It would only take Congress passing a bill. And Schoolhouse Rock taught me that isn’t hard to do.
Why start with something so impossible sounding with all the crises we have on our plates? Because everything that is essential to our democracy – from protecting voting rights to literally ensuring the survival of this planet by combating climate change – depends on it. And just like all the other impossible dreams this nation has made a reality – like landing on the moon and watching “Citizen Kane” on a rectangle you keep in your pocket – the sooner we start working on it, the sooner we get there.
Take Back The Court (disclosure: I’m on the Board of this organization) released a study detailing how legislation granting statehood to Washington DC would likely be struck down by the current majority-conservative court. The inequity of that is evident when you consider that DC is a bright blue Democratic spot that is so Black, proud, and powerful that it earned the nickname “Chocolate City”. A small, overwhelmingly White and conservative group telling a large group of Black folks what to do wasn’t a good look in 1820 – and it’s still not in 2020.
Take Back The Court also has a study showing this Court would likely invalidate H.R.1., legislation which includes essential and common sense provisions to end gerrymandering, register every eligible American voter automatically, reduce the influence of big money in federal elections and prohibit voter purges. If you are against any of those ideas then congratulations, you are against democracy.
This research reflects the landscape before the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the all-but-guaranteed confirmation of President Trump’s nominee, Amy Coney Barrett. It’s even more grim now. Court expansion is the only way we can ensure these policies can survive judicial review. And these are just two of the many republic-altering potential cases that are heading the Supreme Court’s way. Let’s not forget about the Affordable Care Act, reproductive justice and on and on.
Just look at how Senate Republicans handled the last few Supreme Court seats. They wouldn’t give Merrick Garland a hearing, but they were so excited to give Amy Coney Barrett a hearing that some of them were even willing to risk getting the coronavirus. Senate Republicans have stolen the court as part of their effort to destroy democracy itself.
They know they’re a minority party. They know that a truly level playing field would mean that they likely wouldn’t win a presidential election again, at least until they pried the party out of the GOP’s old, White hands. And leading Republicans care about their power much more than they care about democracy, much more than they care about logic, much more than they apparently care about humanity, much more than they care about science, much more than they care about you or me – even if you happen to be a Republican. Don’t believe me? Then why were so many of them so excited to see Trump do his dictator cosplay taking off his mask on the balcony after he was released from the hospital? It didn’t look Jeffersonian. It looked Kim Jong Un-ian.
Conservatives on the Supreme Court know just like Republicans in Congress know and just like the current White House knows that they depend on minority rule for their power. Republicans have lost the popular vote in six presidential elections since 1992 – but they’ve chosen 15 of the last 19 Supreme Court justices (and trying to make that 16 as we speak). And this is all happening in a country that our kids are being taught every day is a democracy. And that teaching is occurring mostly over Zoom (because of the US’s failure to stem the coronavirus pandemic and without adequate support from the government) – again, the GOP doesn’t believe in science or humanity.
The result of all this will be an activist conservative Court that represents a narrow minority of Americans. And the court works hand-in-hand with Republican politicians to sustain their own power and thwart the will of the American people – of course that means turning back DC statehood and expanded voting rights.
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Let me be very clear: The big picture of America doesn’t work well for most Americans. It works best for White men with extreme wealth and privilege. And this is a wealth and privilege that is expanding during the pandemic while many Americans’ lives are collapsing. And White, wealthy and privileged describes the makeup of most of our current Court. The way we get America to be the equitable, just and great place it claims to be — but has never quite been – is by expanding the Supreme Court. It’s been done before and we can do it again.
And don’t worry, even when we expand the Court, rich, White guys will still do just fine. I promise.