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A bobblehead of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is left outside the Supreme Court in Washington, DC, as people mourn her recent death. | Jose Luis Magana/AFP The political fandom around the late justice vaunted her to superhero status. That flattens her legal legacy. In the hours after Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death, the liberal internet was ablaze with social media tributes to her legal legacy, endearing memes, and flattering portraits of the octogenarian. As a sense of dread about the future of the Court and the country settled in, branded merchandise of the late justice began to sell out, from Funko Pops to screen-printed tees, on small Etsy and Amazon shops and in larger, corporate retail stores. This impulse toward political merchandise is likely driven, in part, by grief or a desire to retain memorabilia that would capture this historical moment. For some, buying something can be a comforting activity — a habit those with disposable income have indulged in quarantine. The onslaught of posthumous RBG consumerism is a sign of what the political merch industry relies on: the American desire to believe that these purchases can stand in place of political action. This latest wave of Ginsburg-mania is distinct from the fawning over Fauci prayer candles and “It’s Mueller Time” tees. While Dr. Anthony Fauci and former special counsel Robert Mueller rose to fame amid crises, Ginsburg’s decades-long legacy leaves Americans with more to grapple with — including the pitfalls of political fandom and how valorizing a public figure, even in death, threatens to flatten their life’s impact. There’s a significant amount of capital that goes into the political merch industry, which thrives in the lead-up to an election season or a highly anticipated political event, such as the Mueller hearings. And while some on Twitter took aim at the e-commerce platform Etsy and its sellers, which have become a comedic shorthand for profit-driven “girlboss feminism” in the wake of Ginsburg’s passing, the snarky social media quips directed at consumers haven’t stalled purchases. Some are using this opportunity to sell RBG-branded items, such as a commemorative RBG yard sign ($21.59) or a knit collar pattern ($2), where all proceeds would be donated to Democratic Senate candidates. Marie Lucia, an Etsy seller from Knoxville, Tennessee, was compelled to find a way to raise money for Democrats, while honoring Ginsburg’s memory. “The night Ruth died, I was thinking, ‘What would she want us to do?’” Lucia told me. “Would she want us to grieve or be politically active? That’s why I thought it would be nice to make a memorial sign and donate everything we made from it to Senate candidates, which is where we need the most help.” Ok guys, here are the first RBG items in our etsy store. 100% of all proceeds + shipping will be donated to Dem senate candidates. If you make a purchase please leave me the your choice in the notes section. #RestInPower #RBG— Lucia - Sanity in the South (@ResistSister111) September 20, 2020 Lucia only has two Ginsburg-related items in her shop, which primarily sells Biden-Harris yard signs and other pro-Democrat merchandise. However, this isn’t her full-time gig; she described it as a side hustle that will likely end after the 2020 election. “There’s a lot at stake right now and it’s important to be involved,” she said. “I make a living designing wedding gowns, but with these political items, I feel like I’m making a difference.” But while independent sellers like Lucia also have the ability to politicize their products and donate to a cause they support, that commitment is unlikely among larger retailers, like the Funko corporation. The perils of political consumerism occur when these purchases completely replace political action; when the meme replaces the nuanced reality of the second woman to sit on the Supreme Court. Ginsburg, in the last decade of her life, did not seem to oppose the commodification of her image among zealous young liberals, even though she did not profit from it. (She told NPR’s Nina Totenberg in 2014 that she kept “quite a large supply” of Notorious RBG T-shirts on hand.) The feminist blogosphere in the mid-2010s vaunted Ginsburg into political celebrity-dom, alongside then-presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton. The online moniker, “The Notorious R.B.G.,” was popularized by a fan Tumblr made by a New York University law student in 2013, and from there, the memeification of the justice’s image took off. A cottage industry of Ginsburg-related bumper stickers, enamel pins, coffee mugs, and books popped up for liberal mainstream consumption. But in 2020, the era of branded resistance merch and girlboss-as-political identity feels like it has reached its expiration date, even as the larger-than-life image of Ginsburg continues to be a pop culture rallying point for ardent liberals. The meme feels somewhat outdated and relies on what some say is a problematic premise. Jeffrey Melnick, a historian at the University of Massachusetts Boston who has researched Black-Jewish relations, recently published a Twitter thread on the branding of “Notorious RBG,” and how it is reminiscent of a type of minstrelsy popular in the 20th century. “The whole meme is just seen as this cute and funny image, of ‘look at this old Jewish lady and put a crown on her,’” he told me. “But what is the meaning behind this joke? The premise is similar to what blackface minstrel performers have relied on — that it’s funny for a small white woman to be cast in the place of a Black rapper.” [I'm a scholar of Black-Jewish relations and finally have to say that I'm really uncomfortable with the whole minstrelized aspect of the whole "Notorious RBG" thing]— Ask Me About Our Faculty Staff Union! (@melnickjeffrey1) September 20, 2020 Melnick, who said he received an “unsurprising” amount of pushback online, was concerned by the amount of “hero worship” around the late justice. Uncritical idolization of a figure, he said, prevents people from taking a hard look at the work Ginsburg has done and the work that lies ahead: “I think people should really reckon with her work and not rely on these easy, comforting memes and images that portray her as the scrappiest, most down-to-fight justice.” During her life, the consumerist cult of RBG fueled a frenzied sort of political fandom, one that made it difficult for Americans to imagine a Court without her presence: “The more Ginsburg’s persona was revered, the more she appeared to be literally irreplaceable,” the New York Times’s Amanda Hess wrote in August. In the week after her death, more people began to vocally challenge the supporters that blindly lionize Ginsburg and whether she even deserved her progressive superhero status — citing moments like her calling Colin Kaepernick’s decision to kneel during the national anthem “dumb and disrespectful”; her defense of Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh; and her concerning lack of Black clerks. No religion should determine law, whether it’s abortion or Indigenous rights. Yet, RBG upheld a fifteenth century papal bull that said Indians barely possess faculties that distinguish them from animals.— Nick Estes (@nickwestes) September 20, 2020 Indigenous people have also pointed to her decision in Sherrill v. Oneida as a sign of her anti-Native sentiments, a case in which the Court decided that the Oneida tribe did not have native sovereignty over parcels of lands they purchased from New York state. The complex reality is that Ginsburg was deeply committed to incrementalism, Vox’s Ian Millhiser reported, so much so that “her preference for gradual change was sometimes confused with conservatism.” She was indeed a talented and necessary liberal force on an increasingly conservative Supreme Court, but the “Notorious RBG” persona misleadingly casts her as a radical and irreplaceable force for good. In hindsight, it’s ironic that Ginsburg’s public profile was elevated by her Supreme Court defeats, namely her dissent in the 2013 case Shelby County v. Holder, which invalidated a key portion of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. As Melissa Gira Grant wrote in the New Republic, “the meme was never the big problem with the false idea of Ginsburg as liberal or feminist savior, but it pointed to one — the brand-driven, girl-bossed, leaned-in conception of women’s freedom in which it incubated.” The future of the women’s rights movement, Grant argued, should not have relied on the “life chances of one woman in considerable power.” As President Donald Trump and Republicans prepare to find a replacement for Ginsburg’s Supreme Court seat, some might argue that there are larger issues to focus on than the consumerist tendencies within political fandom. Yet these criticisms neglect how many well-intentioned Americans purchase items they might not necessarily need — simply to prove a point or display their party loyalty. As I previously reported for The Goods, Americans, regardless of their political party or socioeconomic standing, seem to “take pride in wearing hacky tag lines or garish emblems that seemingly portray their values.” For some, these consumerist tendencies — even donations garnered through an Etsy purchase — stop short of actual organizing. But in times of crisis, people appear more willing to open their wallets for a cause they support. After Ginsburg’s death was announced on Friday, ActBlue reported that Democratic donors gave more than $100 million, breaking several hourly donation records the site has received since it first launched. It seems that Ginsburg’s imperfect legal track record hasn’t trumped her social influence, at least among Democrats. But the many RBG knickknacks that seek to commemorate her death, as these products championed her in life, should serve as a warning — that Americans should be wary of placing their political faith into one influential figure. Will you help keep Vox free for all? The United States is in the middle of one of the most consequential presidential elections of our lifetimes. It’s essential that all Americans are able to access clear, concise information on what the outcome of the election could mean for their lives, and the lives of their families and communities. That is our mission at Vox. But our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources. Even when the economy and the news advertising market recovers, your support will be a critical part of sustaining our resource-intensive work. If you have already contributed, thank you. If you haven’t, please consider helping everyone understand this presidential election: Contribute today from as little as $3.
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What the Supreme Court Fight Means for the Senate Majority
The struggle over Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s replacement on the Supreme Court could help propel Democrats to the brink of a Senate majority in November’s election. But whether it lifts them over that threshold could turn on the terms of the confirmation fight. Given the nature of the states that will decide Senate control, the Democrats’ path to a majority may be much easier if they can keep the debate centered on economic issues—particularly the survival of the Affordable Care Act—rather than social issues, especially abortion.The reason: The confirmation fight is likely to further weaken the position of endangered Republican senators in Colorado, Maine, and Arizona—states where polls show a solid majority of voters support legal abortion. But even if Democrats flip all three, they will still likely need to win one more seat to take the majority. And in the next tier of states where they could possibly flip a seat, the politics of abortion will make that more difficult.What the confirmation fight could do is “give the Democrats a path to picking up two or even three Senate seats but make it harder in those other four or five states,” says Matt Mackowiak, an Austin-based GOP strategist.In the latter group—which includes North Carolina, Iowa, and Montana—voters are much more closely divided on abortion and, in some cases, lean toward the GOP. A confirmation fight focused on abortion is also likely to further diminish Democratic Senator Doug Jones’s already modest reelection chances in Alabama, a state with a clear anti-abortion majority.By contrast, the prospect that another Trump Supreme Court nominee could vote to overturn the ACA and its popular protections for those with preexisting conditions may create a broader set of opportunities for Democrats. Support for those protections are more consistent across party and regional lines than attitudes about abortion. And Democrats, as in 2018, have already invested heavily in ads reminding voters that all of the GOP incumbents (except Maine’s Susan Collins) moved to eliminate those provisions when they voted to repeal the ACA in 2017.[Read: Is this really the end of abortion?]“The president is in such a rush [to fill the seat], because he’s in a hurry to overturn the Affordable Care Act,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told The Atlantic’s editor in chief, Jeffrey Goldberg, referring to a Supreme Court hearing scheduled just days after the election on a Republican lawsuit to overturn the ACA. Trump “wants to get a justice in there in time for that so they can hear the arguments and vote on it. People have to know what this means to them,” continued Pelosi, who spoke with Goldberg this week at the virtual Atlantic Festival. “And what it means to 150 million families in America is that no longer will they have the protection of the Affordable Care Act when it comes to a preexisting medical condition.”Likewise, when asked yesterday about Amy Coney Barrett, one of the leading contenders for the open Court spot, Biden immediately zeroed in on what a new justice would mean for health care—even though Barrett is considered the most likely of Trump’s potential picks to vote to ban abortion. “I think we should focus on what this is going to mean for health care, what it’s going to mean to once again have to say if you’re pregnant [that] it’s a preexisting condition, to be able to charge women more for the same procedure as men. It’s wrong,” Biden told reporters.Historically, conventional wisdom in both parties has been that fights over the Supreme Court energize Republican voters more than Democratic ones. But operatives say the incredible surge of grassroots donations to Democratic candidates since Ginsburg’s death suggests that any GOP advantage on the issue has evaporated. As a result, most operatives I’ve spoken to aren’t expecting the confirmation fight to dramatically change the landscape in a year when the electorate’s divisions have been so deep and durable. “I have been saying for probably a year now that it will probably be record turnout since women got the right to vote,” says Glen Bolger, a longtime Republican pollster. “Does this increase that? I don’t know. Who said, ‘I’m not voting—oh, there’s a Supreme Court opening? Yeah, I’m voting.’ If you are still on the couch, I don’t know that this is the thing that gets you off it. I don’t know if anything does at this point.”Even if the Court fight doesn’t fundamentally upend the election’s dynamics, small tremors could have a huge effect given how tight many of the key Senate contests remain. Each party sees one principal potential benefit for their candidates.The biggest Republican hope is that a highly partisan confirmation fight will help GOP Senate candidates consolidate their party’s traditional voters, who in some races are supporting them at slightly lower rates than they are Trump, polls suggest. The theory is that a pitched battle over the Court will encourage voters to retreat to their traditional partisan corners. That would especially benefit candidates in crucial states that lean Republican already, such as North Carolina, Montana, Iowa, and Georgia. “If everybody goes to their own sideline, that is going to help those Senate candidates,” Bolger says.North Carolina Senator Thom Tillis would be the most likely beneficiary of such movement, given how consistently he’s trailed his Democratic challenger, Cal Cunningham, in polls. In those surveys, Tillis has almost invariably run behind Trump, including among Republican voters: Last week’s New York Times/Siena College poll showed Trump winning 89 percent of self-identified Republicans in the state and Tillis just 80 percent. The same dynamic might benefit Joni Ernst in Iowa: This week’s Des Moines Register/Mediacom poll found Trump winning 90 percent of Republicans there compared with Ernst’s 84 percent.In other states, polls show less room for further Republican consolidation. For example, a recent Quinnipiac University survey showing a surprise dead-heat race in South Carolina found Republican Senator Lindsey Graham already drawing 92 percent of Trump voters against Democrat Jamie Harrison. This week’s University of Georgia survey found GOP Senator David Perdue winning that same share of Trump voters against Democrat Jon Ossoff. “There’s not a lot left” for Perdue to squeeze out among Trump supporters, notes Trey Hood, a University of Georgia political scientist who supervises the poll.[Read: How to lose a swing state]Democrats also see opportunity in the fight, but with a different set of targets: less ideological swing voters exhausted with the level of partisan conflict in Washington. The most recent state polls show GOP Senate candidates trailing among independents in Arizona, Maine, and North Carolina; running even in Georgia (with a large number undecided); and leading only narrowly in South Carolina. In Iowa, Ernst already trails among independents by 15 points, an even bigger deficit than Trump faces among them.Anna Greenberg, a Democratic pollster working in multiple races, says the GOP’s attempt to push through a nominee is likely to alienate independent voters, given how Congress has been unable to agree on a relief package for Americans suffering economically or physically from the coronavirus outbreak.For those voters, “it’s another example of how deeply craven and political Washington is, and how deeply craven [Senate Majority Leader Mitch] McConnell is,” she told me. “It’s not that hypocrisy arguments are going to be all that powerful; people expect politicians to be politicians. But I think this idea that Rome is burning and we’ve got to do this thing right now couldn’t be a more political thing to do in a moment of ongoing crisis for the country.”The GOP’s rush, she says, “just reinforces that sense of intense partisanship, especially for independent voters who are longing for a return to normalcy … It’s exactly what independent voters don’t want.”Biden more closely reflected swing voters’ mood a few days ago when he urged Republicans not to escalate the partisan wars by rushing on a nominee, says Charles Coughlin, a veteran Phoenix-based Republican consultant. “Biden was like: ‘Don’t do this, this is not who we are,’ and I think that’s where most of the country, most of those middle-road voters, want to be,” Coughlin told me. “They don’t want to be in this highly charged atmosphere.”No issue in the confirmation process seems more likely to charge the atmosphere—or heighten interparty conflict—than abortion. For many liberals, the principal threat of appointing another conservative justice is that it will finally provide Republicans enough votes to overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision legalizing abortion. On a national basis, an argument over abortion is a clear winner for Democrats: In 2019 polling by the Pew Research Institute, 61 percent of Americans said abortion should remain legal in all or most cases. And the issue creates greater internal fissures for the GOP: The share of Republicans who said it should remain legal (37 percent) was more than double the percentage of Democrats who said it should not (17 percent). Josh Schwerin, the communications director for the Democatic super PAC Priorities USA, says the group’s research has found that a majority of the voters who switched from Barack Obama in 2012 to Trump in 2016 oppose overturning Roe.But that advantage isn’t consistent across the key Senate races. State-by-state polling results from 2018 and 2019, provided to me by the nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute, show 56 percent or more of adults favoring abortion rights in Colorado, Maine, and Arizona, where Republican incumbents are endangered. Strong abortion-rights majorities of at least 55 percent are also evident in Michigan and Minnesota—where the GOP harbors longer-shot hopes of dislodging Democrats—and in Alaska, where an independent candidate remains within range of GOP Senator Dan Sullivan. In all of those states, white evangelical Christians, traditionally the constituency most focused on installing conservative justices, comprise just 15 percent or less of the population.But in Iowa, only a slim 52 percent majority favors abortion rights. Support dips to 49 percent in North Carolina and Georgia; 48 percent in Texas, Montana, and Kansas; and 47 percent in South Carolina. Evangelical Christians represent nearly one-fourth of the population in Kansas and South Carolina, one-fifth in North Carolina, and just below that in Georgia and Iowa. In all of those states, Mackowiak says, “these cultural issues are net unhelpful to the Democrats.” Support for legal abortion falls even further, to the low forties, in both Kentucky and Alabama.[Read: Trump takes away a lifeline for swing-state senators]Comparable state-by-state data isn’t available on the ACA’s protections for patients with preexisting conditions. But the 2018 election results suggest that defending those provisions was an effective argument for Democrats virtually everywhere. National polling earlier this year by the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation reported that not only did 95 percent of Democrats and 83 percent of independents consider it “extremely” or “very” important to preserve those protections, but so did 71 percent of Republicans. More recent Kaiser polling, conducted in partnership with “The Cook Political Report,” found that voters in Florida, North Carolina, and Arizona all gave Biden big leads over Trump on the issue of protecting patients with preexisting conditions—a measure of how widely Democrats lead on that concern.Likewise, a new poll from the nonpartisan Commonwealth Fund, released today, found that voters in 10 battleground states prefer Biden over Trump on the issue. The Democrat led by double-digit margins in almost every state tested—not only in places where Democrats have been competitive, such as Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Florida, but even in states where the GOP has dominated, like Texas, Georgia, Arizona, and North Carolina.Based on their advertising spending, Democrats are betting that health care may be even more relevant right now than in years past because of the likelihood that insurance companies will consider COVID-19 a preexisting condition. “The whole ‘pre-ex’ conversation is arguably more salient in ’20 than it was in ’18, and [the possible upcoming] Court decision adds to that," says J.B. Poersch, the president of Senate Majority PAC, the principal super PAC supporting Democratic senators. Adds Rachel Irwin, the group’s communications director: “A good portion of our advertising so far has laid the groundwork on preexisting conditions with personal stories. Every single Senate race has been hammering [that].”Confirmation hearings for a Trump-appointed justice who may provide the deciding vote to overturn the ACA could provide Democrats an unparalleled platform to “hammer” the message that Republican senators are threatening the law’s protections. With multiple contests now teetering on the razor’s edge, the Democrats’ prospects of winning the Senate may turn on whether they can do so.
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