America’s Unhealthy Obsession With the Supreme Court

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Americans’ growing preoccupation with the culture wars has meant a greater focus on the two branches of government where these often symbolic battles are most fought and noticed: the presidency and the Supreme Court. A byproduct is the relative neglect of the third branch, Congress.

This has led to poor governance. Not long ago, the Republicans passed a tax reform bill, in part because they thought voters would like it. Six months later, the bill is losing popularity. The benefits of the bill are not generally transparent, the economy is doing fine anyway, and even diehard Republicans don’t seem so excited.

If you think that exercising the “power of the purse” is one of the most fundamental roles of Congress, this reflects relative voter indifference toward the legislative branch. The incentives are weak for either party to try again to improve the U.S. tax system, and so it will remain distortive and overly complex.

In contrast, the culture wars are generating much more excitement, with President Donald Trump himself at the center of many of those conflicts. These culture wars are about symbols and rights and responsibilities more than economic policies. Most of all, they are about who and what should have higher or lower status — with white men, women, religious groups, various minorities and of course immigrants regularly in the mix. The Supreme Court, it turns out, often holds forth on these matters — see, for example, its recent decision upholding the “Muslim travel ban” — and so is a good focus of attention for voters who have strong views on these issues.

Evidence also shows that the Supreme Court was a significant factor in electing Trump. In one poll, 26 percent of Trump voters said the makeup of the court was the most important issue. And among voters who viewed the Supreme Court as the most important factor in their choice, 56 percent opted for Trump. So another Supreme Court vacancy will be good electoral news for the Republican Party if it motivates their voters and gives them a concrete achievement to talk about.

I would prefer to see the electorate give up some of its current fascination with the Supreme Court and the presidency and take a stronger interest in Congress. For one thing, a change of focus might encourage Congress to check the powers of the president when it comes to trade, foreign policy and immigration. More generally, as Congress is not dominated by a single person, a greater interest in Congress could bring about a greater interest in the substance of policy.

In contrast, an interest in the presidency so often leads to debates about personality and leadership styles. Former President Barack Obama recently complained that, during his tenure, the Democratic Party took too much interest in him and his political struggles and forgot about representation in Congress. He still views that as a major problem facing Democrats today.

A related negative trend is that American voters seem to be losing interest in issues of state and local government, treating them as extensions of national-level emotive and symbolic disputes between the two major parties. Daniel J. Hopkins details this shift in his new book, “The Increasingly United States: How and Why American Political Behavior Nationalized.” Yet state and local government accountability remains crucial on many practical, concrete issues that determine the quality of our actual lives, such as schools, traffic and local development.

Why, in an age of remarkable advances in information technology, has our political attention become so centered on a relatively small number of leaders, and so focused on symbolic rather than technocratic issues? Congress, frankly, is often boring and faceless. The culture wars are neither — and cable news and the internet can beam them right into our living rooms and smartphones. It’s never been easier to pick a rhetorical fight with someone without risking a face-to-face confrontation. Furthermore, social media encourages outrage about “the other side,” fueling a seemingly endless political cycle of outrage and indignation.

Discussions of the next Supreme Court nominee can play a welcome role in informing the public and may even help prevent bad candidates from getting confirmed. But the coming mania over Trump’s pick, which he said he will announce on Monday, reflects not America’s civic-mindedness but rather its unhealthy obsession with personalities, especially those on the court and in the White House. Our institutions might function better if we paid more attention to Congress.

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