Political parties have fundraising arms in Congress which blast out fundraising emails and press releases, the sensationalism of which are matched only by their crude oversimplification. A lot of them end up in my inbox, because every campaign cycle Nevada has a competitive Senate/House race or three.
Friday I opened one from the National Republican Congressional Committee which repeatedly described Nevada Democratic Rep. Steven Horsford as “radical” and “extreme” and “far-left.” Hmm, drawing on a couple examples off the top of my head, Horsford is a guy who has vilified Medicare for All and protected multinational mining conglomerates. Yeah, dude’s a real Marxist firebrand.
Horsford is also the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus. In that capacity he was on CBS this week condemning the Supreme Court’s ruling to end affirmative action in higher education – a ruling both sweepingly obtuse and eminently worthy of full-throated condemnation.
That’s what the NRCC was taking Horsford to task for in its missive, specifically because he challenged the “legitimacy” of the court (haven’t we all?) and said there are “several of the justices that don’t even deserve to be on the court today.”
Given the walking (seldom) talking ethics scandal that is Clarence Thomas, and the shady Mitch McConnell shenans that account for the presence of Neil Gorsuch and Amy Coney Barrett, that last Horsford quote is not a “radical” or “far-left” accusation as much as an observation Captain Obvious might make.
But something else Horsford said in the CBS interview, something that everyone says all the time, including the media, including myself on occasion, could – and should, I’ll argue – be seen as objectionable: He referred to the “conservative” members of the Supreme Court.
Horsford himself demonstrated why the term “conservative” is inappropriate with the very next words out of his mouth.
“They have rolled back 45 years of precedent…”
How is that conservative?
One of the most prominent exponents of conservatism, a star in his day and, in some circles, still, was 18th century Scottish politician and philosopher Edmund Burke. It’s been years since I’ve spent much time with Burke’s works, but the thing I always remember – and it’s especially appropriate this time of year – was his contrasting (and yet consistent?) positions on the American and French revolutions.
Burke was for the American Revolution, on the grounds that colonists were preserving traditions of society and governance.
He was against the French Revolution, on the grounds that it was overturning traditions of society and governance.
Since Republicans, including and especially those on the U.S. Supreme Court, love to bring out their ouija board and tell everybody what prominent 18th century white guys would do if they were here today, I’ll follow suit and suggest Burke may well have disagreed with the court’s affirmative action ruling. A tradition of society and governance – specifically, the tradition of attempting to reckon with the truth and consequences of the nation’s deep and not so deep past – was established and practiced not just through the 45 years of precedent Horsford cites, but even longer back, to the civil rights legislation of the 1960s, to the Civil War and Reconstruction, perhaps even to the arguments over enslavement at the Constitutional Convention.
Reconstruction seems a particularly useful example, because it was deliberately and violently destroyed by groups led by and working on behalf of former enslavers. The Redeemers, as they were called, were not conservatives. They were reactionary extremists.
Whether they’re in Congress or on the Supreme Court, today’s Republicans don’t deserve to be called conservative. They, too, are reactionaries. Many among them – perhaps even a majority in the U.S. House – are radical, extremist, far-right reactionaries.
And yet we call them conservatives.
It’s not that the term is merely imprecise. By calling the likes of Clarence Thomas or Marjorie Taylor Greene conservative, people, politicians, and the press are legitimizing and normalizing radical reactionary extremism by assigning it a legitimate and normal name.
Using “conservative” as shorthand for the right is ingrained in our public sphere nomenclature and won’t be rooted out anytime soon. While writing and editing I try to be cognizant of it, and try not to use it unless it’s in a quote or some other context that isn’t easily worked around. But as I suggested above, it’s ubiquitous and often hard to avoid.
Wishing for a slam dunk solution to this sociopolitical lexiconic conundrum but having none, I’ll just conclude with this: The current U.S. Supreme Court is many things. Conservative is not one of them.