Leonard Pitts: Can we still be a country?

(AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite) Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., arrives to meet with reporters following a Republican strategy session, at the Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2020. Republican efforts to fill the Supreme Court vacancy created by the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg are likely to move swiftly this week, with President Donald Trump possibly nominating a replacement within days and GOP senators hoping to jump-start the confirmation process.

Ultimately, it comes down to a set of rules.

Meaning norms, practices, guidelines — some written as law, some just respected as customs — to which we all adhere, even when that gives advantage to those with whom we disagree. It’s a covenant pluralistic self-government demands. And it’s one America is in the process of shredding — as seen anew in the Republican Party’s response to the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Understand: that response tells us nothing about the GOP we did not already know. That it is one part thugocracy, one part kleptocracy, and all hypocrisy unencumbered by principle has long been clear to any honest observer. But the events of the last few days offer vivid evidence of just how deep the rot extends.

Republicans like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, you will recall, gnashed their teeth and rent their garments in 2016 when President Obama put forth a nominee to replace conservative icon Antonin Scalia on the top court. Too close to the election, they said. Let the people decide, they said. It was then eight months until Election Day.

Four years later, the liberal icon Ginsburg dies just 46 days short of the election and the same people who thought eight months was too close, the same McConnell who denied Obama’s choice the courtesy of a hearing, now rush to install a Donald Trump nominee. Again, the hypocrisy does not surprise. But the brazenness of it, the absence of even a fig leaf of principle, the plain contempt it embodies, is breathtaking nevertheless.

Once again, the minority party and its minority president with their minority views on hot button social issues like guns and reproductive rights, seek to win power over the majority in the only way they can. By lying. By cheating. By breaking the rules. In this case, the unwritten rule of simple fairness.

This time, though, their shamelessness has ignited visceral fury. Ginsburg’s death has led to a record-breaking spike in donations to liberal groups and candidates. And serious people are talking seriously about packing the court — increasing the number of justices to 11 to enable a presumed President Biden to craft the liberal majority Republicans have connived to forestall.

Granted, equally serious people have warned that this is an arduous and unlikely course, but to focus on the difficulty is to miss the point. Which is that angry Democrats now seem ready to abandon the rules — starting with the one that says packing the court is an abuse of power that ultimately undermines its legitimacy. Franklin Roosevelt’s failed attempt to do so is the exception that, well, proves the rule.

Still, one can hardly blame the Democrats. Having watched the GOP snub the emoluments clause, ignore the extortion of a foreign government, brush aside the Hatch Act and now, conspire to steal the court, who can be shocked they refuse to be bound by rules the other side ignores?

If two teams cannot agree on the rules, they cannot play the game. Similarly, if Republicans and Democrats cannot agree to be bound by the same principles and norms, they cannot effectively govern a country. Or even be a country. That’s the threat this behavior poses.

It is yet another reason it’s imperative the Republicans be not just defeated, but emphatically crushed in November. It can’t be close. It has to be a political massacre, leaving absolutely no doubt America rejects what these people stand for. Until and unless that happens, it is an open question whether we can still be a country.

And indeed, whether we should.

Leonard Pitts Jr.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald. lpitts@miamiherald.com