The Counterdemocratic Difficulty

Huq, Aziz Z | January 22, 2023

Since the 2020 elections, debate about the Supreme Court’s relationship with the mechanisms of national democracy has intensified. One important thread of that debate focuses critically on the possibility of a judicial decision flipping a presidential election or thwarting the will of national majorities respecting progressive legislation, and pushes concerns about the Court’s effect on national democracy. A narrow focus on specific interventions, however, does not exhaust the subtle and consequential ways in which the Court influences whether and how the American democratic system thrives or fails. A narrow focus is partial because it construes democracy as merely the aggregation of specific acts or moments, not a complex system made up of electoral institutions, the rule of law, and parties disposed to accept electoral loss.

This Article offers a new analysis of the relation between judicial power and the quality of American democracy. This account is nested in a wider, systemic perspective accounting for both political and economic forces. Drawing on recent empirical work in political science and economics, this Article situates the Roberts Court at the nexus of three intersecting “long crises” of American democracy. The first is the democratic deficit embedded in the Constitution’s original 1787 design. The second is a sharp increase in wealth inequality since the 1970s. The third is the more recent reemergence of a sometimes violent “white identity politics” as a rift starkly bisecting the electorate. The fragility of American democracy arises from an untimely confluence of these three forces, which until now have been unfolding along separate tracks at different tempos.

The Roberts Court arbitrages between these three counterdemocratic dynamics in ways that impose considerable pressure on the inclusive norms and representative mechanisms through which democracy works. Four lines of precedent merit attention in understanding the convergence of the “long” crises of democracy. These (1) guarantee economic capital, but not associations, a political return; (2) gerrymander civil society by rewarding hierarchical, but not egalitarian, mobilization; (3) facilitate a pernicious form of white identity politics; and (4) undermine electoral and nonelectoral foundations of democratic rotation.

Through these lines of jurisprudence, economic, social, or cultural capital is parlayed into disproportionate political power. This doctrine hence entrenches such power into a form of durable incumbency. These decisions, in other words, “encase” extant distributions of economic and sociocultural power from democratic challenge. Drawing out these elements, this Article maps out the “counterdemocratic difficulty” of judicial review as presently employed.