Less than an hour after the news that Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg had died, progressives already were using terms like “political fairness” and words like “reason” to describe what should happen next.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell couldn’t be so hypocritical that he would press for an up-or-down vote on a Trump-nominated court replacement this close to a presidential election, could he? After all, he blocked Barack Obama’s pick to fill a Supreme Court vacancy eight months ahead of the presidential election, how could he allow one this time, with six weeks until the election?
Progressives already knew the answer as they asked those questions aloud. Of course, McConnell would do it. It would be more shocking if he didn’t. Senate Republicans would give him the votes necessary to put a conservative justice on the high court. Democrats would be expected to do the same if things were reversed.
The fallout from Ginsburg’s death has exposed American politics for what it is in 2020. It is not a place for issues or discourse or even crafty political spin. Doing that requires someone to listen. Instead, politics now is a place where there is nothing but shouting — on television, on podcasts and talk radio, on social media with people you sort of knew in high school.
Poll after poll shows there is basically no one undecided anymore. There is no one left to convince.
So politics is just about one thing: winning.
This is not a new phenomenon. America has been heading in this direction for a while. Away from a place where convincing the broad middle, amenable to arguments from both sides, made sense. And toward one where getting out your partisans is what matters most.
In 2004, George W. Bush’s central reelection strategy was not to bring in new voters, but to energize his base. His campaign tried to do this by putting questions to ban same-sex marriage on the general election ballots of swing states, including Ohio. (He won.)
In 2012, Barack Obama, a person whose entire political persona was about uniting red states and blue states, spent his 2012 campaign driving out blue voters, with a base-driven effort from the beginning, while also destroying Mitt Romney. (Obama won.)
In 2016, Trump and Hillary Clinton, the two most unliked presidential nominees in American history, may have had no other practical choice but to trash their opponent hoping that would fire up their respective partisans as opposed to appealing to an ever-shrinking middle.
Today, Americans have picked sides.
When strategists talk about winning coalitions for either Biden or Trump, it is largely within the frame of simply convincing their own side to just vote — versus the battle of some subgroup which might swing one way or the other. Yes, Biden has made polling inroads among white seniors and Trump has improved his standing among Latinos, but if the presidential race is close and there are so few undecided then the race is won by focusing on getting your people out to vote.
There really are so few undecided. In the latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll released Sunday, only 3 percent said they were unsure about who they are voting for president. That number has been unchanged all year. There’s no middle to win.
The lesson is clear: In an age of deep polarization there is only one thing partisans should be focused on: winning at all costs. Because, really, there are no costs to acting cynically. Not anymore.