April 26, 2021 | Reading Time: 4 minutes
Justice Brett Kavanaugh shows that without democracy conservatism turns into barbarism
Punching down never felt so good.
In Friday’s column, I said the Republicans seem to have frightened David Brooks, which suggests the party has frightened respectable white people, too. I consider the Times columnist to be representative of the conventional wisdom of that great globular middle of American politics. The more these people fear the Republicans, the better.
Today, I want to take this a step further. If I’m right in thinking that respectable white people are less willing to give the Republicans the benefit of the doubt, on account of most of them being okie-dokie with Donald Trump’s attempt to overturn a free and fair presidential election, this is an ideal time to push them, by way of persuasion, to an important conclusion, to wit: conservatism has become a byword for barbarism.
Consider a recent decision by the United States Supreme Court. In Jones v. Mississippi, the court ruled a person convicted of murder while a minor does not have to be shown to be “permanently incorrigible” to be imprisoned for life without parole. In a 6-3 decision, the court’s six conservative justices reversed years of progress in the courts to show mercy toward juveniles who had committed heinous crimes. The AP: “Justice Brett Kavanaugh, writing for the majority, said previous decisions only require a judge to consider ‘an offender’s youth and attendant characteristics’ before imposing a sentence of life without parole. Kavanaugh rejected a more demanding standard.”
The Republicans abandoned democracy after the twin shocks of 2008, Barack Obama’s election and the financial panic. Inside a democratic context, conservatism can be healthy. Outside rule of the majority, though, it becomes barbarism.
In fact, Miller and Montgomery held that life without parole for juveniles was justifiable only in the worst of the worst cases—if the convicted person cannot be rehabilitated or, in other words, is “permanently incorrigible.” Kavanaugh said his opinion was in keeping with those previous rulings, but it was a departure from them. He said Miller and Montgomery didn’t require a more demanding standard, but, um, they did. Only Justice Clarence Thomas was honest. He said the old decisions were wrong anyway.
All this is made worse by the facts of the case. According to Slate’s Mark Joseph Stern, quoting Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s dissenting opinion, Brett “Jones was ‘the victim of violence and neglect that he was too young to escape.’ His biological father was an alcoholic who physically abused his mother, who had severe mental health problems. His stepfather abused him, too, using ‘belts, switches, and a paddle.’ He openly expressed his hatred for Jones. When Jones moved to Mississippi to live with his grandparents, he abruptly lost access to medication he took for mental health issues, including hallucinations and self-harm. Jones’ grandfather beat him, as well.” Twenty-three days after his 15th birthday, young Brett Jones stabbed his grandpa to death.
Jones was convicted after confessing to the murder. He became a model prisoner. His grandmother, the victim’s widow, asked for his release. Jones met the criteria required by Miller and Montgomery. He had demonstrated corrigibility. So the court didn’t only make a return to free and open society impossible for Jones. It handed judgment down on the idea of reform, to wit: that reform, however much a free and open society depends on it, is a delusion. No amount of rehabilitation will change bad people. Brett Jones’ fate was sealed the moment he was born. That he was born into violence and suffering merely means he deserved it. As for jailing him for life, the court is just furthering a process begun by God, the only true source of goodness and mercy. If all that doesn’t sound conservative so much as barbarous, that’s because you’re right.
That Kavanaugh, and presumably the rest of the conservative justices, were dishonest about whether or not Jones was in keeping with Miller and Montgomery suggests they know a ruling allowing juveniles to be put away for life without any chance of getting out is indefensible. They know Jones is going to get flak from legal activists on the right and the left, people who won Miller and Montgomery thanks to former Justice Anthony Kennedy. They know Jones moves in the opposite direction of democracy, but they are going to move that way nonetheless. Why? They can. They have the power. Because they have the power, they must be good. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have it.
The Republicans benefit greatly from the word “conservatism.” It sounds like just another school of political thought in free and fair competition with others. It sounds like a way of thinking about the world seeking to conserve the collective knowledge and traditional values of humanity for the sake of our progeny. But that’s not the case. The Republicans abandoned democracy after the twin shocks of 2008, Barack Obama’s election and the financial panic. Inside a democratic context, conservatism can be healthy. On the outside, it’s not. Outside the rule of the majority, it becomes barbarism.
The Republicans used to worry about their national reputation for cruelty. That’s why the campaign of George W. Bush invented out of thin air the popular concept of “compassionate conservatism.” His politics would be more palatable to respectable white people who did not want to be seen supporting a candidate who’d punch down as president. Punching down, and enjoying it, has become the point of conservatism. This is what we need to press respectable white people into understanding clearly.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.