Democrats worried about President Biden’s plummeting polling numbers and the party’s prospects in the midterm elections have stumbled on the solution to their problems: nominating and defending Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson. By unapologetically championing racial equality in the form of finally putting an African American woman on the Supreme Court, they have both energized their base and garnered the support of a meaningful majority of the American people.
Over the past year, Democrats have battled waves of bad news in the form of plummeting presidential polling numbers, a stinging electoral defeat in the 2021 Virginia gubernatorial election, and historical headwinds that typically favor the party out of power in midterm elections. Focusing on so-called “kitchen table” issues of Covid relief checks, extended unemployment benefits, eviction moratorium legislation, and a massive, somewhat bipartisan infrastructure bill has failed to move the needle of presidential approval.
The response to the Jackson nomination, however, shows that there is ample reason for hope if the right lessons are learned and followed. The absence of a Black woman on the Supreme Court is not the only modern-day manifestation of centuries of racism and sexism in America. Issues such as voting rights expansion, immigration reform and canceling student debt are all important to and supported by the same constituencies who have rallied to support Judge Jackson.
Over the past year, Republicans have moved with extraordinary velocity to ruthlessly rewrite as many laws at the state level as possible in a desperate and determined effort to restrict democracy and attack anything that does not conform to their notion that America is primarily a straight, white male Christian society. Buoyed by the large numbers of people who voted for Donald Trump in 2020 compared to 2016, they no longer fear electoral repercussions from passing policies that suppress votes, restrict reproductive freedom, target transgender people, and whitewash what children are taught in schools about a country founded by white men who bought and sold Black human beings.
Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer’s decision to step down at the end of the current term forced a political confrontation in this country. Democrats are poised to prevail if they continue to embrace this “KBJ strategy,” with its long-term implications for altering the trajectory of electoral politics in a multiracial nation heading towards the midterm elections. The strategy’s success stems from two essential elements—first, unapologetically taking action to redress America’s racial inequality, and then mounting a forceful defense of those steps by drawing connections to African American history and culture.
To his credit, Biden did not back away from his 2020 campaign pledge to nominate an African American woman to the Supreme Court. Despite the usual conservative criticism about any race-conscious approach to addressing the consequences of racism, the president was resolute about the importance of having such a voice on the court, saying, “It’s long overdue.”
During the confirmation hearings, Republican senators unleashed the full fusillade of racially charged attacks that they regularly use to appeal to their base. Senator Ted Cruz took the lead, chastising Jackson—a person who would have likely been held in slavery at the time of the country’s founding—for speaking favorably about the 1619 Project in a speech where she said, “The America that was born in 1776 was not the perfect union that it purported to be.” Cruz followed up that broadside on by raising the current racial bogeyman—so-called “critical race theory”—including showing off poster-sized images from bestselling author Ibram X. Kendi’s book, Antiracist Baby, in an effort to distort Kendi’s message and achieve maximum alarm and concern among white people.
The second part of Democrats’ KBJ strategy came in the form of Senator Cory Booker’s passionate defense of Jackson. Booker squarely placed Jackson’s nomination in the context of the centuries-long struggle for racial justice in America, saying that when he looked at Jackson, “I see my ancestors and yours.” He went on to note “the challenges and indignities” that people of color still face. And he surrounded his argument with specific reference to African American historical icons—Harriet Tubman and Constance Baker Motley. Booker tied up his remarks with an artistic bow by quoting African American poet Langston Hughes’s poem, “Let America Be America Again,” reciting the line that, “the land that never has been yet, but yet must be.”
Biden’s race-specific nomination and Booker’s racially-proud defense has worked spectacularly. In the most recent poll on the nomination, conducted by Marquette University, two-thirds of Americans think the Senate should confirm Judge Jackson. Notably, the support was even higher— 72 percent—among those polled after the hearings began, showing the impact of making a case and resolutely standing by that decision.
Notably the Economist/YouGov poll found strong majority support for the specific action of choosing a Black woman to become our next SCOTUS justice, with 61 percent approving such a step. Even 52 percent of white working-class men—the demographic least supportive of the Democratic Party—backed the appointment of an African American woman to the bench.
The broad backing for the nomination shows that this is among the most popular moves Biden has made as president since he took office two years ago. The breadth of support is amplified by the depth and intensity of enthusiasm among African Americans. From anecdotal evidence of social media posts bursting with pride in witnessing Jackson’s professionalism, poise, and grace to the millions of views of Booker’s defense of her to polling cross-tabs showing that 86 percent of African Americans want to see Jackson on the court, the move has been a home run on all accounts.
The implications of how well the Jackson nomination has unfolded should be both encouraging and instructive. Naming racial inequality as a current and ongoing pressing problem and then offering a specific solution to redress a prominent manifestation of that inequality has the politically powerful result of infusing enthusiasm among Democrats’ most reliable voters—people of color —while not alienating or driving away white voters.
It is easy to lose sight of the fact that a majority of Americans support steps toward racial justice, but an electoral coalition comprising 71 percent people of color and 40 percent whites elected and re-elected an African American as president and then deposed a white nationalist occupier of the Oval Office. With the way the Jackson nomination is unfolding, Democrats now know that leading on and leaning into the fight for racial equality is not only popular, it may be their best hope in holding onto power in the midterm elections.