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RBG's Passing May Help Biden and Democrats

3 min read

I have the utmost respect for Ruth Bader Ginsburg and was beyond distraught at the news of her death yesterday. Nonetheless, the election is 44 days away and is the most consequential one ever for the soul of America. RBG would not want us to avoid thinking about how to use her passing to help us get rid of the man she called unfit and whose dying wish was that a new president should be the one to choose her successor. So:

Loss aversion is a concept in psychology that argues people are more motivated by the fear of loss than by the prospect of gain. (Disclaimer: this is not my field and I never heard the term before today. But it makes a lot of sense.) Here is Psychology Today’s explanation of how it works:

In a nutshell, loss aversion is an important aspect of everyday economic life. The idea suggests that people have a tendency to stick with what they have unless there is a good reason to switch. The loss aversion is a reflection of a general bias in human psychology (status quo bias) that make people resistant to change. So when we think about change we focus more on what we might lose rather than on what we might get.

So how does this apply to the open Supreme Court seat? Leonard Steinhorn, a history professor at American University in DC, explains in an article for Political Wire (behind a paywall).

His basic argument is that conservatives already have a 5-4 (now 5-3) majority on the Supreme Court, so while they would like a sixth seat, they have already gained much of what they want. While the prospect of Trump appointing yet another radical conservative to the Court excites them, it is not as likely to motivate them to greater efforts at reelecting him, since he’s already given them what they want.

Liberals, on the other hand, are (quite rightly) afraid of losing all the advances we’ve made since the Warren Court declared segregation unconstitutional in 1954. Loss aversion — the fear of loss — is a stronger motivator than the prospect of gain, especially when the gain has already happened.

But now, with the passing of a liberal legend who inspired so many young and old, there’s a palpable sense not just among liberals but moderates and independents that the rights of women and minorities encoded in the law since the 1960s may be in jeopardy. Those suburban women who have been fleeing the GOP but haven’t yet identified with the Democrats? This may push them blue. Those younger voters and African American voters who sat out the last election because Hillary Clinton didn’t motivate them? This may make them reckon with the consequences of not aligning with the Democrats. [emphasis added]

This is not meant to be a panacea. If Trump and McConnell get their way (which is likely but not a given), conservatives will get a 6-3 majority on the highest court. For a President Biden and a Democratic Senate to overcome that would mean adding four more justices to the Court to get a 7-6 liberal majority. That’s not impossible, but it will be a very hard sell. That prospect is not, IMO, strong enough to move conservatives to work harder for Trump out of their own loss aversion. (I could be wrong, of course.) What is much more likely is that loss aversion is going to drive Democratic turnout to even greater heights — just what we need to beat back the inevitable charges of a stolen election. See the bolded text above in the Steinhorn quote.

In short, it’s hard to come up with a more powerful example of why people should vote for Biden and for Democratic Senate candidates than the unholy glee with which Trump and McConnell are greeting RBG’s passing.

We may lose the battle over RBG’s seat on the Court. But it may help us win the war.

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