The Last Week Tonight host on how undemocratic institutions led to the expected appointment of an ultra-conservative
After three weeks away, John Oliver returned to Last Week Tonight to reflect on the death of supreme court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the travesty of Donald Trump’s nomination of her successor.
Trump announced on Saturday his pick of Amy Coney Barrett, an extremely conservative judge known by some as “the female Antonin Scalia” to replace Ginsburg, setting the stage for a likely confirmation vote whose “impact could be dire”, Oliver explained.
“In recent years, key cases have been decided by just one vote,” he explained, “from upholding the Affordable Care Act, to preserving Daca, to striking down an incredibly restrictive abortion law. Should those issues come before the court again, they could now easily go the other way” for decades, as Barrett is only 48.
“And there is clearly no point holding on to hope that conservatives might choose to respect the precedent they set by refusing to even consider Merrick Garland in an election year,” Oliver added, “because that was always in bad faith, as was obvious at the time.”
The long-held dream of conservative dominance in the courts was echoed by the Utah senator Mitt Romney, who justified Republicans reversing stance on election-year confirmations as “appropriate for a nation which is, if you will, center-right, to have a court which reflects center-right points of view”.
“What the hell are you talking about, Mitt?!” exclaimed Oliver. “Set aside the notion that a court that gutted the Voting Rights Act is a ‘liberal court’. Since when is this nation naturally center-right?” More Americans say in polls that they align with Democrats than Republicans, Oliver pointed out. A majority support the right to abortion, and support for Roe v Wade has reached an all-time high. Nearly 60% of Americans say the winner of the upcoming election should fill Ginsburg’s seat.
“Look, this has been a very dark week for a lot of people,” he added. “The supreme court is about to lurch to the right for the foreseeable future, and if things seem hopeless right now, it’s because, to be completely honest, they basically are.”
And though we got to this “pivotal moment” with “a little bit of bad luck and bad timing”, Oliver continued, the rank wrangling of the supreme court disproportionately rightward has been a long time coming. That’s in part due to the court-packing leadership of the Republican party by the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, but “there is a whole system beneath them that has enabled them to do what they have done,” Oliver said.
Oliver ticked through examples of the “deeply undemocratic nature of America’s institutions” that have allowed a minority of voters to have outsized power over American government, and for Republicans to inaccurately declare a popular “mandate” for conservative policies: the winner-take-all nature of the electoral college skews the presidential election toward white voters in less populous areas; the Senate, which gives two votes to every state, favors rural, Republican-leaning states; the territories of Puerto Rico and DC, which have large populations of black and Hispanic voters, don’t have representation in the Senate at all.
The Senate has been called “affirmative action for white people”, as the average black American has only 75% of the representation of the average white American, and the average Hispanic American just 55% as much. “And it’s clearly not great when the best thing you can say about your representative democracy is hey, at least black people got above three-fifths this time,” Oliver joked.
Basically, when Barrett is confirmed, “a president who lost the popular vote will have picked a quarter of the federal judiciary, and a third of the supreme court. And his choices will have been rubber-stamped by a Senate Republican majority representing 15 million fewer people than the Democratic minority,” Oliver continued. “And if that sounds absurd to you, it’s because it clearly is.”
For those wondering what could be done, Oliver offered a few ideas beyond the immediate priority of Democrats’ regaining congressional power in the election, such as granting statehood to Washington, DC and Puerto Rico, abolishing the electoral college – an idea which, in the 1960s and 1970s, enjoyed bipartisan support in Congress and is supported by 61% of Americans today – and instituting term limits for supreme court justices.
Those steps would help address “the unavoidable truth here”, Oliver said, which is “that the system is already rigged. And it’s rigged in a way that has allowed a party without popular support to drastically reshape an entire branch of government for the foreseeable future by appealing almost exclusively to white voters in some of the least populous regions of the country.
The likely appointment of Barrett marks the end of “a generational battle, and the heartbreaking thing is: we lost,” Oliver concluded. “And that hurts. It’s going to hurt for a long time, for a lot of people, in ways that are going to take awhile to fully comprehend. But the next battle has to start right now.”
News – John Oliver on Amy Coney Barrett’s likely confirmation: ‘It’s going to hurt for a long time’