What Mitch McConnell Teaches Us About America

The Kavanaugh hearings have shown McConnell’s true colors. Democrats need to take note.

Mitch McConnell at a 2016 press conference. Source: Slate

Saturday’s confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court was a victory lap for several people. One was President Donald Trump, whose ability to nominate anti-abortion justices most likely clinched his election. Another man proud of the Kavanaugh ascension was Senator Lindsay Graham, who has spoken frequently in recent weeks about the idea of Kavanaugh as an aggrieved victim of evil, vindictive Democrats. But the proudest supporter of Kavanaugh’s confirmation has been Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. McConnell praised his own actions in nominating Kavanaugh, decried protesters against the judge as a “mob,” and confidently predicted that anger over the nomination would “blow over.”

In a recent New York Magazine article, Chas Danner described what this victory meant for McConnell’s overall approach to governance and Supreme Court nominees, including Kavanaugh and failed Court nominee Merrick Garland. Danner wrote

with his dream achieved on Saturday, McConnell admitted that his whole stated premise for blocking Garland — that it was, as he once said, ‘about a principle, not a person’ — was bullshit, unless the right to take over the judicial branch by any means necessary was the principle.

But while McConnell is certainly an extremist, he is an extremist in an entirely American mold. McConnell belongs to a body of American thought known as republicanism. This branch of thought, opposed to the democratic approach to governance but not to be confused with today’s Republican Party, has animated McConnell’s entire career. It is the mechanism by which he justifies his actions and the secret to Democrats’ eventual hope of unseating him from power.

The ideology of republicanism is opposed to democracy (or, as it is sometimes referred to, classical liberalism) in a number of ways. Most importantly, the republican ideology asserts that the most virtuous individuals in a country should be elected to run that country the way they see fit without constantly responding to shifts in public opinion. Individuals of wealth, education, and status are elected and then use their skills to solve the nation’s problems. If they perform inadequately, the educated people of the country will come together in a regularly held election to unseat those officials and replace them with new ones. The most obvious example of this ideology in today’s politics is the United States Senate. Senators’ six-year terms and higher minimum age for service point to the institution’s beginnings as a body driven by virtue and status.

The influence of republican ideology can be gleaned from two of the most striking features of McConnell’s career before he became Senate Majority Leader in 2015. One aspect was his studious devotion to his constituents. Back in 2014, millions of liberals around the country wondered why McConnell’s Senate campaign against Allison Lundergan-Grimes was so successful. How could McConnell trounce such a smart, charismatic opponent by ten points more than most polls had predicted?

The answer, according to POLITICO, was a combination of his tenacity and his constituent service programs. McConnell used constituent service programs and the money he secured for Kentucky while in Congress to convince voters that his position in the Senate directly benefited them. Spending the government’s money and his office’s time to help Kentuckians was not an example of a free-market governing ideology, but instead a reflection of republicanism. Elect me, McConnell was saying, and I will use my virtue and skills to serve you.

Another feature of McConnell’s earlier career was his zealous devotion to striking down campaign finance laws. McConnell had filed lawsuits and spoke out against campaign finance legislation in the Senate for decades. His name is attached to the 2003 Supreme Court decision, McConnell v. FEC, that validated a 2002 campaign finance reform law. These actions have usually been interpreted as fulfilling a small-government, laissez-faire ideology. But McConnell was simply following republicanism’s focus on elections and the stakeholders of elections.

Just like the colonial officials who restricted the vote to white, property-owning men, McConnell wanted to ensure that the individuals with the highest economic stake in society had the most influence in its elections. Money spent on campaign finance is a pittance compared with the energy, banking, health care, or transportation sectors. But for those interested in gaining and maintaining political power, campaign finance reform can mean the difference between political success and crushing defeat. McConnell’s focus shows that he knows that dynamic more than most.

Democrats are at a disadvantage against this philosophy. Their approach to governance mandates that the representatives of the people govern according to the people’s will and desires. Senators, members of Congress, and presidents all have to respond to the popular will between elections and change their behavior accordingly. This sentiment is why liberals place such a high priority on petitions and frequent protests. They prioritize influencing and changing the minds and behaviors of elected officials because they believe those officials should be beholden to the people, sometimes to the detriment of focusing on elections.

The disconnect between the two philosophies is certainly a factor in the failed nomination of Merrick Garland and the successful nomination of Brett Kavanaugh. According to McConnell’s theory of governance, the protesters and angry denunciations over Garland from liberals didn’t matter because Republicans won the 2016 elections. Relatively low Democratic turnout did indeed show that the anger of liberals about Garland “blew over” prior to election day.

Protesters headed towards the Capitol in the wake of Kavanaugh’s confirmation should focus on senators like Jeff Flake or Susan Collins, because protesting against Mitch McConnell is a waste of time. McConnell has rarely shown a moment’s hesitation about pursuing power under the threat of popular protests. The only way for his opponents to neutralize his political power is to defeat him in an election and incorporate some of his tactics when they achieve power again, whether in 2018 or 2020. Find out the policies, like zealous constituent support and changes to campaign finance laws, that will ensure political success. Use and manipulate rules in ways that voters will have forgotten about long before the next election. And, most importantly, use the power that elected offices give you. If liberals don’t take advantage of their offices to keep and expand their power, Mitch McConnell surely will.

I’m a writer interested in the intersections of history, ideas, and politics. I publish every week. www.twitter.com/medlinwrites

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store