To Republican politicians in Arkansas, it is 1954 all over again. Back then, the U.S Supreme Court had just ordered an end to segregation in the schools, and ambitious demagogues across the South were vowing defiance of a race-mixing federal government. They didn't have time to talk about other problems — low wages, lack of health care, deficient education — even if they'd wanted to.
We're now in the second decade of the 21st century, and Republican politicians are recycling the rhetoric of the '50s. We noted recently that a Republican had announced for Arkansas attorney general by promising to "stand up to the U.S." Not "enforce the law," "protect the environment," "defend consumers" — just "stand up to the U.S." (Which does in fact enforce the law, protect the environment and defend consumers, as well as disallow racial discrimination. A key point, that last.)
Apparently, hatred of America is believed sufficient to win a Republican primary. Last week, another Republican candidate for attorney general announced, and like the first, the biggest plank in the new entry's platform is resistance to the American government. Vladimir Putin would have a chance in this race, if he could show a photo ID.
Since '54, at least, Republicans have regarded the legal system with suspicion. A prominent Republican attorney, Roy Cohn, once stated his own and his party's attitude. "Don't tell me what the law is," he said. "Tell me who the judge is." Of Republicans with law degrees, the highest appointments are given those who're more political fixers than legal scholars. It may be Ronald Reagan's most significant legacy that he changed the nature of the federal judiciary, determinedly appointing adherents of right-wing political views to the bench, regardless of their other qualifications, or lack thereof. The two Bushes continued this practice, while middle-of-the-road Democratic presidents looked for judicial candidates of moderation and some professional competence. The Republican method bore fruit. In 2000, in the greatest exercise of judicial activism in American history, a Republican-appointed majority on the Court snatched the presidency from the hands of the American people and gave it to George W. Bush, who'd received fewer votes than his opponent. More recently, the Court undid the Voting Rights Act, which had empowered black voters across the South, a majority of the justices finding that the act is no longer needed. The decision came as state legislatures across the South, including Arkansas, are enacting legislation to disempower blacks, the elderly, the poor and anyone else likely to vote Democratic. The chance that the Supreme Court will uphold these discriminatory measures is quite good. And such success at the federal level has inspired Arkansas Republicans, who've formed a political action committee to elect more judges from their crowd. The Republicans' judicial candidates will be well financed if not well learned.
In a Republican primary, candidates to be the state's top lawyer don't have to show regard for the law; voters are uninterested. Let us hope that voters in the general election will be more demanding.