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Suburban Women Could Decide the Size of the Supreme Court

Francis Wilkinson
·5-min read

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Even if Democrats win the presidency and the Senate, while maintaining their majority in the House, they will still find much to argue about. But this time the debate may be more about procedure than policy.

Adding a public option to Obamacare, for example, may prove less controversial than killing the filibuster to enable such a proposal to pass the Senate. Likewise, Democrats’ expansive legislation bolstering voting rights and securing election systems, which passed the House last year, will engender broad enthusiasm in the wake of an election in which Republicans worked relentlessly to undermine voting.

The question isn’t whether Democrats will support such legislation; it’s whether the anti-voting-rights majority on the Supreme Court will gut it — and whether Democrats will conclude that the court should be expanded to enable popular policies to take effect. When such a debate comes to the fore, suburban women could decide it.

The left wing of the Democratic Party demands structural change. Activists have been agitating for some time about the anti-majoritarian elements of the U.S. political system that blunt popular action. They will want statehood for the District of Columbia and possibly Puerto Rico. They will want the filibuster gone from the Senate.

And they will want the Supreme Court — and possibly other federal courts — expanded to counter what they perceive to be a democratic absurdity: a 6-3 majority on the court appointed by presidents from a party that has won the popular vote once since 1988. “Expand the court,” tweeted Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez after Justice Amy Coney Barrett was sworn in.

AOC has powerful company. Senator Elizabeth Warren has made “big structural change” her calling card. “People have been getting messages that make them think: Why is a minority of the country in charge?” noted Democratic consultant Bill Carrick, a longtime adviser to Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, in a telephone interview.

Still, the lever of party power remains moderate senators such as Feinstein. If Democrats take control of the Senate, it will be because other moderates from purplish states — backed by moderate, educated voters in increasingly Democratic suburbs — join their ranks. The filibuster is not going anywhere until these senators say it is. The composition of the high court is not budging without their buy-in. And the District of Columbia will remain disenfranchised until they decide otherwise.

Consequently, it might matter a great deal what the much-heralded suburban women of the resistance have to say about big structural change. It’s hard to exaggerate the Republican collapse in the suburbs. Many moderate suburban women have been politically activated by President Donald Trump — and by a political party that would allow someone like Trump to lead it. According to a Gallup poll released this week, Trump’s job approval among suburban women has sunk to 30%.

The resistance women of the suburbs are well represented in states such as Arizona, Colorado, North Carolina and Virginia — states that are either already represented by moderate Democrats or soon might be. I asked Lara Putnam, a historian at the University of Pittsburgh who has been studying resistance groups since 2016, how such women might approach questions of democratic structure in the aftermath of a Trump defeat.

“My sense is that in many policy areas (health care reform, prison abolition, police abolition, ICE abolition) there is a much broader range of positions and priorities across the new (largely) suburban grassroots,” she emailed. “But on structural reforms in support of small-d democracy, including very much court rebalancing, new grassroots folks are likely to be all in.”

If, as Putnam and coauthor Theda Skocpol wrote in 2018, such women are indeed “passionate about procedural democracy,” they could make the difference in whether senators such as Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona or Mark Warner of Virginia join the push for structural change.

An ABC News/Washington Post poll in September found that Americans oppose expanding the Supreme Court by 54% to 32%. For most Americans, however, the debate over the court is brand new. A decisive Democratic victory on Nov. 3 would highlight the contrast between popular will and the structural barriers to realizing it. If a corrupt, impeached and rejected president who gained office despite losing the popular vote has nonetheless appointed more than a third of the Supreme Court’s justices, it’s easy to make a case that something is out of whack.

Moderates, in the Senate and out, will determine whether such a case is ultimately persuasive. Unlike Republicans, whose radicalized base drives the Trump train, Democrats have a large and growing moderate constituency that the party must balance with a young, left-leaning cohort demanding big structural change in a hurry. Suburban women — organized, vocal and at the center of the party — could put the brakes on such change. They could also be the ones to accelerate it.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Francis Wilkinson writes about U.S. politics and domestic policy for Bloomberg Opinion. He was previously executive editor of the Week, a writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.

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