The problem for liberals is that they believe their political power should correspond to their cultural power. At any one time, Republicans are likely to hold more state legislatures and more governor’s mansions than Democrats, and they are slightly more likely to hold the two chambers of Congress and the White House. That is a remarkable paradox and a testament to the almost perverse independent-mindedness of the American electorate: About half of them just don’t care that much what the most influential people in their country say about politics. Indeed, liberals will protest that the proportion is less than half, since Democratic voters pay an electoral price for their tendency to congregate in large metropolitan areas where their votes are diluted. This is a constant source of pain for liberals, but the pain has become acute since Trump’s victory. Hence the complaints about the Electoral College being a “countermajoritarian” institution; the earnest theorizing about whether populous states like New York and California should be given a third senator; and the sudden obsession with gerrymandering and voter suppression, which Democrats believe must be responsible for Republicans’ otherwise unaccountable majorities.
All this helps to explain why Supreme Court nominations by Republican presidents (and to a lesser extent their federal court nominations) have become so rancorous. For many years, the federal judiciary was the one area of political power over which liberals held pronounced influence. The judiciary, though dependent for its members on the political branches, especially the executive, functions in practice more like an arm of cultural power—and the vast majority of its members are drawn from elite universities. It is not subject to elections. Ordinary voters outside the capital, even people who follow politics closely, know almost nothing about federal judges; their decisions seem to come from nowhere.