The Polarized Court

First of all, polarization isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Imagine (horror of horrors) a Supreme Court whose members voted en bloc with Ruth Bader Ginsburg. What’s left of the Constitution would disappear in no time.

So, hurrah for polarization when it means that the likes of RBG and her allies on the Court are opposed by — and sometimes defeated by — the likes of Clarence Thomas and his allies on the Court. As of now, Justice Thomas’s allies are (with certainty) Justices Gorsuch and Alito, (sometimes) Chief Justice Roberts, and (one hopes) Justice Kavanaugh, who replaces the too-often compromising Justice Kennedy.

It is therefore my earnest hope that the Court will be, if anything, more polarized than it has been in recent years and decades. How polarized is that? According to Richard L. Hasen, a professor of law at the University of California,

[t]he trend toward presidents choosing more ideologically reliable court appointments began with Democratic president Bill Clinton, following two surprises under Republican president Ronald Reagan. The conservative Reagan appointed perennial “swing” justices Anthony Kennedy and Sandra Day O’Connor (Bartels 2015). Reagan chose Kennedy after the Senate rejected Judge Robert Bork, a more conservative nominee on some key issues (Epstein & Segal 2005).

The days of ideological surprise from appointed justices appear to be over. Today, presidents place “near-exclusive focus on ideological compatibility and reliability” (Bartels 2015, p. 177). Devins & Baum (2017) argue that although both Democratic and Republican presidents have increasingly taken ideology into account in the last four decades, there has been more dramatic movement on the Republican side since the Reagan administration—the first to consider conservative ideology the paramount criteria for selecting nominees. They further contend that the Federalist Society, a private organization of conservative and libertarian lawyers, judges, and activists, has played a central mediating role in the cultivation and choice of Republican judicial nominees (Devins & Baum 2017). This trend has only accelerated in the Trump administration….

Today no one doubts that the Supreme Court is growing more polarized in its decision making. The Court has long been divided into two ideological camps, liberal and conservative, in a bimodal distribution with a center fluctuating in size. While the Court long has been polarized on the basis of ideology [see Clark (2009) on the ways this polarization has been measured over time], it used to boast a larger center and fewer justices at the poles. Ideological polarization has increased in the last 50 years (Gooch 2015)….

For the past few decades and until recently, the Court featured four generally conservative justices, all appointed by Republican presidents; four generally liberal justices, all appointed by Democratic presidents; and swing justice Anthony Kennedy, who often sided with conservatives but sometimes sided with liberals on issues such as same-sex marriage (Bartels 2015, p. 172; Devins & Baum 2017; Hasen 2016)….

… Gone are justices appointed by Democratic presidents who sometimes voted conservatively (Kennedy-appointed Justice Byron White voted against abortion rights) and justices appointed by Republican presidents who sometimes voted liberally (Ford-appointed Justice John Paul Stevens voted in favor of abortion rights) (Bartels 2015, Devins & Baum 2017). Today, each justice’s ideology is better defined and aligned with the political party of the appointing president. Justices are more likely to be ideologically in line with the interests of their nominating president’s party and less likely to drift ideologically (or “evolve”).

Those observations, which will surprise no one who is more than a casual observer of the Court, are from Hasen’s “Polarization and the Judiciary“, Annual Review of Political Science, May 2019 (forthcoming). (Literature cited in parentheses is listed at the end of the paper.)

Hasen goes off course when he ventures into quantitative measures of polarization on the Court:

Bartels (2015) notes a “polarization paradox” whereby the percentage of 5–4 (or other one vote margin) Supreme Court decisions has been increasing at the same time that the percentage of unanimous opinions is increasing. Figure 2 shows both of these increases from 1971 to 2016 (Epstein et al. 2015, Washington University Law 2017). Note the sharp drop-off in one-margin decisions and sharp rise of unanimous decisions following the 2016 death of Justice Scalia, a temporary period of a 4–4 evenly divided partisan Supreme Court.

In fact, the Court wasn’t evenly divided during the interregnum between Scalia and Gorsuch. The only reliable conservative votes were those of Alito and Thomas. Kennedy and Roberts were swing votes, as discussed later in this post. Breyer, Ginsburg, Kagan, and Sotomayor formed a solid “liberal” bloc.

Moreover, Hasen’s figure 2 looks odd. Here it is:

Neither of the lines in Hasen’s figure 2 resembles, in shape, the results I derived from the Stat Packs at SCOTUSblog, which cover the 1995-2017 terms:

Unanimous decisions include all cases in which there was no dissenting vote, including per curiam decisions, even where the majority opinion was accompanied by one or more concurring opinions. Given the similarity of the two graphs with respect to unanimous opinions, that must be the definition used by Epstein et al. (the source of Hasen’s figure 2).

I am especially struck by the disparity between Hasen’s figure 2 and my graph with respect to the trend (or lack thereof) in decisions with a one-vote margin. (All such decisions during the 1995-2017 terms were by a 5-4 vote.) There is no “polarization paradox”. To the contrary — and as one would expect — there is a strong (though not perfect) negative relationship between unanimous and 5-4 decisions:

Color me unimpressed by Professor Hasen, at least on the evidence of “Polarization and the Judiciary”.

Just how polarized is the Court — or, rather, how polarized has it been recently? Quite polarized.

In “U.S. Supreme Court: Lines of Succession and Ideological Alignment“, I draw on the SCOTUSsblog Stat Packs to summarize the degree of disagreement among the various justices in non-unanimous cases during each of the Court’s past 13 terms. (The use of non-unanimous cases highlights the degree of disagreement among justices, which would be blurred if all cases were included in the analysis.) The statistics yield an index of polarization (P) for each justice, by term:

P = maximum percentage of non-unanimous cases in which a justice disagreed with any other justice during the term


A slight upward trend over the past 13 terms? Perhaps. But trend or no trend, it’s clear that there has been a great deal of polarization among most of the justices. Roberts joined Kennedy in the middle during the past four terms, but there have been (at least) seven highly polarized justices on the Court. In the past two terms, it has been Alito, Gorsuch, and Thomas (on the right) against Breyer, Ginsburg, Kagan, and Sotomayor (on the left).

I relish the hope that Kavanaugh will shore up the right. Now, if Roberts would only revert to his 2005-2013 form….

Misplaced Blame

George D. Montgomery laments “What the 2016 Election Has Done to My Family” (American Thinker, July 17, 2018):

… Trump Derangement Syndrome and the resulting “Resistance” are bad enough, with hundreds of administration posts unfilled and Democrats in Congress, the Department of Justice, and other agencies providing true obstruction of the president’s agenda.

What’s worse is that my own family has been torn apart.  I’m sure this has played out in many other families across the country.

The first indication of how bad it could get was when my sister declined to attend the Thanksgiving dinner I had prepared following the election in November 2016….

Alas, she held me personally responsible for getting Trump elected….

We have since managed to keep a cordial and mostly respectful relationship….

The situation with my other sister is worse.  Here you have an intelligent, educated  (master’s degree), and otherwise rational individual who has been completely unhinged by Trump’s election.  She too blames me personally and has sent me harassing and disparaging emails and texts in spite of my repeated requests that she stop.

Apparently, she is unable to logically accept the reality that Trump will be president for another two years (at least).  And like many progressives, she feels compelled to share the misery she must be experiencing in her own life, so she is directing her outrage at me, impugning my character, intellect, and morals.

The final straw came when her latest text “congratulated” me since “we now kidnap children and put them in cages,” among other accusations.  I had already stopped responding to her provocations; now I have blocked any future calls, texts, and emails.

Sounds like a personal problem to me. The election didn’t cause his sisters to lose their minds. Persistent rage signifies an underlying psychological disorder.

Not everyone is lucky enough to be born with a sunny, conservative disposition.

Related reading:
Jeffrey Lord, “Unmasked: America’s Real Fascists“, The American Spectator, June 26, 2018
Gabrielle Okun, “Study: Conservatives Are Happier Than Liberals“, The Daily Signal, July 13, 2018

Related post and page:
The Left and Violence

The Dual Life of a Conservative

I suspect that many conservatives who write about politics lead two lives, as I do. One life is the life of intellectual engagement. The other life is the business of life itself: marrying, raising children, working, paying bills, taking the car in for service, buying groceries, and the thousand other things that make the years seem to roll by so quickly.

I suspect that I’m a typical conservative in that my mundane life isn’t politicized; for example:

I don’t choose the companies that I patronize because they support or oppose divestiture of Israeli bonds or oil-company stocks, unisex bathrooms, “green” energy, or any of the other causes du jour. I choose the companies I patronize because they deliver good value for the money I spend or invest there.

I certainly don’t patronize a grocery chain because of its owners’ politics. Why would I waste money at Whole Foods just because its founder, John Mackey, is supposed to be some kind of libertarian?

I didn’t send my children to private schools (of the right kind) so that they could avoid the left-wing indoctrination that prevailed in the public schools where they grew up.

I listen to music and read books composed, performed, or written by persons whose left-wing views are widely known and often evident in their works. Though I won’t tolerate outright preachiness (shut up and sing), I enjoy that which is good on its own merits and disregard the politics of those who create or present it.

I watch most of the shows presented by PBS on Masterpiece, despite the subsidies it receives directly and indirectly from the federal government. Again, it’s a matter of quality over politics. For the same reason I eschew bombastic “conservatives” like Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, and Rush Limbaugh, whose shtick is as boring to me as that of any left-wing commentator.

I have absolutely no interest in the political leanings of the people I meet, and recoil when they insist on exposing their leanings (as leftists are wont to do). I take people as they come; that is, I evaluate them on the basis of their demonstrated competence, honesty, reliability, sense of humor, and likeability.

Most importantly, my marriage remains strong and happy despite the disparity between my wife’s political views and mine.

In daily life, then, my conservatism reveals itself as non-ideological and pragmatic. Non-ideological because conservatism isn’t an ideology, it’s a disposition. Pragmatic because the conservative disposition prefers the demonstrated value of a person or thing to the symbols of virtue or “correctness” which may attach to that person or thing.

Related posts:
More about Conservative Governance
The Authoritarianism of Modern Liberalism, and the Conservative Antidote
Economically Liberal, Socially Conservative
The Internet-Media-Academic Complex vs. Real Life
Rescuing Conservatism
If Men Were Angels
Death of a Nation
Libertarianism, Conservatism, and Political Correctness

Society, Polarization, and Dissent

One definition of liberty is the “right or power to act as one chooses.” This seems to be the usual view of the matter. But it should be obvious that liberty depends on restraint. Acting as one chooses covers a lot of ground, including acts that prevent others from doing as they choose (e.g., murder and fraud). Liberty is therefore a matter of mutual restraint, where there are agreed limits on what one may do.

Society — true society — consists of people who, among other things, agree as to the limits on what one may do. That shared view isn’t imposed by regulation, statute, or judicial decree — though such things will arise from the shared view in a true society. Rather, the shared view arises from the experience of living together and finding the set of customs and prohibitions that yields peaceful, willing coexistence and its concomitant: beneficially cooperative behavior. Liberty, in other words.

Some of the customs and prohibitions of a society will seem arbitrary and foolish to an outsider. But it is the observance of those customs and prohibitions that binds a people in mutual trust and respect. Peaceful, willing coexistence and beneficially cooperative behavior depend on mutual trust and respect.

Customs are positive acts — the ways in which people are expected to comport themselves and behave toward each other. A good example is the degree to which emotion is openly expressed or suppressed, which varies from the reserve of Japanese to the exuberance of Italians. Consistent failure to observe a society’s customs brands one as an outsider, someone who isn’t to be trusted. Such a person will find it hard to make more than a menial living, and is unlikely to have friends other than renegades like himself.

Strict prohibitions are like those found in the last six of the Ten Commandments: do not dishonor your parents; don’t commit murder, adultery, or theft; don’t lie maliciously; and don’t covet what others have. (The last of these is dishonored regularly by “social justice warriors” who liken redistribution by force to Christian charity.) The violation of prohibitions calls for prosecution by those who have been entrusted by society to enforce its norms. Punishments — which will range from execution to public shaming — are meant not only to punish wrong-doing but also deter it. Rehabilitation is the responsibility of the wrong-doer, not society.

The United States has long since ceased to be anything that resembles a society. And therein lies the source of political polarization. Governance is no longer based on shared customs and a common morality that arise from eons of coexistence. Governance and the rules on which it is based are imposed from outside of society. Those who use “society” when they mean government are ignorant and evasive.

Those of us who remember something that resembled a society bitterly resent the outsiders within (to coin a phrase) who seek to impose on everyone their version of customs and morals. It is a corrupt version that has no roots in society; it is meant, instead, to destroy what is left of it.

The path to total destruction began in the late 1800s, with the rise of the Progressive movement. Progressivism then and now is corrupt at its core because it seeks to replace the evolved social, economic, and political order with “science.” Scratch a Progressive and you find a fascist with an agenda to be imposed by the force of government.

What is the legacy of Progressivism? This:

  • the income tax and Social Security, which together with a vast regulatory regime (also a product of Progressivism) enable the central government to control the economy
  • direct election of Senators, which robbed the States of a check on the actions of the central government
  • the Federal Reserve System, which helped to bring about the Great Depression, the Great Recession, and several other economic downturns
  • public education indoctrination by psychobbable-spouting leftists
  • identity politics
  • persecution and prosecution of business success (a.k.a. antitrust action)
  • control of the production of food and drugs, with consequences ranging from wasteful labeling regulations to murderous delays in the approval of medications
  • abortion
  • Prohibition (the only Progressive “reform” to have been rescinded)
  • left-wing economic theories (income redistribution, pump-priming)
  • the theft of private property and deprivation of freedom of contract through the empowerment of labor unions, which inevitably became thuggish.

There’s more, but that’s enough to bring down any civilization. And it has.

Perhaps — because of population growth and economic and political ambition — it was inevitable that America would be transformed from a collection of interlocking societies into a vast geopolitical entity ruled by Progressives and their intellectual heirs. But whatever the causes, the transformation is almost complete…

Except for those Americans who do remember something like a true society, those Americans who know instinctively what a true society would be like, and those Americans who want to preserve the bits of true society that haven’t yet been destroyed by the fascists in Washington, their enablers in the media and academia, and their dependents throughout the land.

That’s the real polarization in America. (As opposed to the false one between leftists at one pole and faux conservatives, who simply want to move left at a slower pace.) And the polarization will not end as long as dissent remains alive.

Which is why the left is killing dissent. First they came for the students; then they came for the Christians; then…

It’s Official: Kennedy Is Now a Member of the Court’s “Liberal” Wing

Anthony Kennedy’s authorship of the majority (5-4) opinion in Obergefell v. Hodges confirmed his conversion to the Supreme Court’s “liberal” wing. And I have the numbers to prove the conversion, which occurred in the Court’s October Term 2014 (OT14).

The following analysis is based on the frequency of the justices’ disagreement with their colleagues in non-unanimous cases. (The use of non-unanimous cases highlights the degree of disagreement among justices, which would be blurred if all cases were included in the analysis.) To illustrate the statistics, I’ll take Justice Kennedy’s record in the non-unanimous cases of OT14 as an example:

  • Kennedy disagreed with his former allies — Roberts, Scalia, Thomas, and Alito — a total of 125 percent of the time. His average disagreement with each ally was 31 percent (125 percent divided by 4).
  • Kennedy disagreed with the four “liberals” 81 percent of the time, for an average of 20 percent.
  • Dividing the second average by the first one, I find the ratio of the two averages, which is 0.65 in this case. That is, Kennedy disagreed with his former opponents (the “liberals”) only about two-thirds as often as he disagreed with his former allies.

In sum, the higher the ratio, the more often a justice has agreed with his supposed allies; the lower the ratio, the less often a justice has agreed with his supposed allies. A ratio of less than 1 means that a justice has moved to the other side of the Court’s ideological divide — as Kennedy did in OT14.

The following table summarizes the ratios for each justice in each of the last ten terms, from OT05 through OT14. Justices are grouped by wing (leaving Kennedy in the conservative wing, for purposes of this post) and then listed in order of seniority (the Chief is always first, by virtue of his office). Green and  red shadings indicate the most “agreeable” and most “disagreeable” ratios for each wing and each term. Trends are simple linear estimates of each justice’s performance in OT15, given his or her record in preceding years. (Right-click to open a larger image in a new tab.)

Supreme Court_ratios of disagreements among justices_OT05-OT14
Derived from statistics reported and archived by SCOTUSblog. Specific sources are listed at the bottom of this post. Justice O’Connor’s truncated participation in OT06 is omitted.

The year-to-year variations in mean ratios suggest that some terms are more fraught with ideologically divisive cases than others. I therefore normalized the year-to-year results by dividing each justice’s ratio for each year by the mean ratio for that justice’s wing. The following table gives the normalized ratios. (Right-click to open a larger image in a new tab.)

Supreme Court_normalized ratios of disagreements_OT05-OT14

Kennedy’s unsurprising but definite lurch to the left is a less compelling story than the degree of cohesion among the the “liberal” justices in OT14. Look again at the first graphic and focus on the range of ratios for OT14:

  • 4.27 to 5.15 for the “liberals”
  • 1.32 to 1.80 among the four conservatives (counting Roberts as one despite his wobbliness).

I take this as evidence that the conservatives tend to think carefully about the cases before them; whereas, the “liberals” are bent on finding clever words to justify their predictable positions. That was certainly true of Kennedy’s fatuous opinion in Obergefell v. Hodges, which the dissenters exposed as a sophomoric flight of fancy.

The left’s cohesion on the Court is of a piece with its (generally successful) political strategy: Agree on a goal, stick together, sing the same tune, ignore the facts, and (usually) win.

*     *     *

Related posts:

The Court in Retrospect and Prospect
The Real Constitution and Civil Disobedience
A Declaration of Independence
First Principles
The Constitution: Original Meaning, Corruption, and Restoration
The Unconstitutionality of the Individual Mandate
Does the Power to Tax Give Congress Unlimited Power?
Does Congress Have the Power to Regulate Inactivity?
A Declaration of Civil Disobedience
Questioning the National Debt
Rethinking the Constitution: “Freedom of Speech, and of the Press”
A Balanced-Budget Amendment and the Constitution
The Repealer
Abortion and the Fourteenth Amendment
Obamacare: Neither Necessary nor Proper
Our Perfect, Perfect Constitution
Constitutional Confusion
Reclaiming Liberty throughout the Land
A New Constitution for a New Republic
Restoring Constitutional Government: The Way Ahead
“We the People” and Big Government
How Libertarians Ought to Think about the Constitution
An Agenda for the GOP
Wrong for the Wrong Reasons
The Court in Retrospect and Prospect (II)
The States and the Constitution
Posner the Fatuous
Getting “Equal Protection” Right
The Writing on the Wall
How to Protect Property Rights and Freedom of Association and Expression
The Principles of Actionable Harm
Judicial Supremacy: Judicial Tyranny
Does the Power to Tax Give Congress Unlimited Power? (II)
The Beginning of the End of Liberty in America

See also U.S. Supreme Court: Lines of Succession for term-by-term and justice-by-justice rates of disagreement in non-unanimous cases.

Sources of statistics about disagreements in non-unanimous cases, by term (in ascending chronological order):;


“We the People” and Big Government: Part 1 (continued)

Incorporated into this post.

The Court in Retrospect and Prospect

SCOTUSblog has published its final tally of the frequency with which the nine justices of the U.S. Supreme Court disagreed with each other in the 53 non-unanimous cases that were decided in the recently ended term. The tally indicates that Kennedy, the so-called swing justice, generally aligns with the Court’s “conservative” wing, so I placed him there, in company with Alito, Roberts, Thomas, and Scalia. The Court’s “liberal” wing, of course, comprises Breyer, Souter, Ginsburg, and Stevens.*

I then ranked the members of the Court’s two wings according to a measure of their net agreement with the other members of their respective wings. Thus:

090724_Supreme Court disagreement_2


Alito, for example, was in disagreement with his four “allies” (in non-unanimous cases) a total of 72 percent of the time (see graph below), for an average of 18 percent per ally. Alito was in disagreement with his four “opponents” a total of 272 percent of the time, for an average of 68 percent per opponent.  By subtracting Alito’s average anti-“conservative” score (18 percent) from his average anti-“liberal” score (68 percent), I obtained his net average anti-“liberal” score (50 percent). Doing the same for the other four “conservatives,” I found Alito the most anti-“liberal” of the “conservatives. He was followed closely by Roberts, Thomas, and Scalia, in that order. Kennedy finished fifth by several lengths.

I applied the same method to the “liberals,” and found Breyer the least anti-“conservative” of the lot, with Souter and Ginsburg close to each other in second and third places, and Stevens a strong fourth (or first, if you root for the “liberal” camp). (The apparent arithmetic discrepancies for Thomas, Breyer, and Stevens are due to rounding.)

Thus, if you are a “conservative,” you are likely to rank the nine justices as follows: Alito, Roberts, Thomas, Scalia, Kennedy, Breyer, Souter, Ginsburg, and Stevens. (However, I would place Thomas first, because he comes closest to being a libertarian originalist.) I carried this ranking over to the following graphic, which gives a visual representation of the jurisprudential alignments in the Court’s recently completed term:


It is hard to see how Sotomayor’s ascendancy to the Court will change outcomes. She may be more assertive than Souter, but I would expect that to work against her in dealings with Alito, Roberts, Thomas, and Scalia. Nor would I expect Kennedy — who seems to pride himself on being the court’s “moderate conservative” — to respond well to Sotomayor’s reputedly “sharp elbows.” Even Kennedy found himself at odds with Stevens 60 percent of the time. And it seems likely that Sotomayor will vote with Stevens far more often than not — in spite of her convenient conversion to judicial restraint during her recent testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

* It would be more accurate to cal Alito, Roberts, and Scalia right-statists, with minarchistic tendencies; Thomas, a right-minarchist; and the rest, left-statists with varying degrees of preference for slavery at home and surrender abroad. (See this post for an explanation of the labels used in the preceding sentence.)