Undoing Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act has fixated factions of America's right-wing political coalition for years, but on Tuesday, faced with a Supreme Court decision at once sort of agreeing with and still sort of stumping them, conservative pundits drifted to the margins of the ensuing conversation.
The news on Shelby County v. Holder reached the top line of the Drudge Report — major Supreme Court decisions usually do — but on right-leaning opinion sites the decision passed by with almost no fanfare. The Weekly Standard aggregated two items from others outlets, adding no comment; Breitbart News republished an Associated Press story; so did The Daily Caller. The front page of RedState, a reliable stream of unfiltered conservative reaction and discussion, laid empty at noon. The rare exception, as far as established sources go, was National Review, where writer John Fund declared the decision "a victory for civil rights." But you have go looking for Fund's piece, since the site's editors declined to promote it on the magazine's Twitter feed or even link to it on the site's front page. (The magazine's site also had a pointer, under the headline "Understanding the Voting Rights Act," to an old article in National Affairs, which was founded by National Review editor William Kristol's father, focusing on redistricting and how the VRA, "that once-magnificent statute, much changed over four and a half decades, has become a barrier.")
Instead, Breitbart, Twitchy, the Daily Caller (et al) focused on their liberal counterparts — in particular, employees at MSNBC — demonstrating their remorse and anger at the Court's 5-4 decision. Al Sharpton, for example, suggested on-air that the decision "cancelled" the civic ideals laid out in Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech. Melissa Harris-Perry tweeted: "Damn, that citizenship thing was so great for awhile," adding that the "[g]ood news is Section 5 was not struck down wholesale. The key will be 2014 midterms. Need a new Congress for a new formula." (Update: That already looks complex.)
Turns out, that complex twist by the Court — the invalidation of the VRA's Section 4 instead of Section 5 — helped make Twitter the stage for a more nuanced discussion, at least among conservatives. Charles C.W. Cooke of National Review noted: "One can simultaneously think that the court shouldn't have got involved in this and that its opinion was correct," and that he possessed "some sympathy for the Left's claim that this wasn't the court's role." RedState's Dan McLaughlin asked: "If liberals think preclearance requirements are essential to voting rights, why not apply them in all states?" He declared: "If you want to argue racism means the normal rules in any area should be suspended, it's not unreasonable to ask for facts." Meanwhile, the sort of conservatives who wear their heart on their sleeves remained more or less silent about the merits of the split decision, choosing instead to focus on what the media were saying about it. Breitbart's John Nolte, for example, jumped on a comment by NBC correspondent Chuck Todd, concerning the ability of Congress to legislate the Voting Rights Act. In a weird display of self-awareness, Nolte later tweeted: "In normal media environment, VRA would be perfect storm for [Obama]: race, Congress. [Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald is] messing that up, so some in media want him in jail." If true, he would be indicting himself.
To be sure, some on the right greeted the decision with glee, given the ramifications on a slew of Voter ID laws under the pre-clearance requirements, which were the focus of intense worry and fear for both major parties last fall. "With today's SCOTUS decision Texas should be freed from Voting Rights Act Preclearance," Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott tweeted this morning. "Eric Holder can no longer deny Voter ID in Texas after today's SCOTUS decision," he added. For his part, Holder said in a statement that the Justice Department "will not hesitate to take swift enforcement action ... against any jurisdiction that seeks to take advantage of the Supreme Court's ruling by hindering eligible citizens' full and free exercise of the franchise."
But the issues raised by the Voting Rights Act — minority disenfranchisement; the legacy of racial discrimination; the role of the South in American culture — might just be too electrified for conservative opinion-makers to want to grapple with right away, even when their viewpoint is vindicated by the Supreme Court, albeit in a narrowly-decided opinion that struck down a surprising section that neither the left nor the right of the punditocracy seemed to see coming.