Why the Kavanaugh Controversy Feels Different

The uproar following last week’s testimony by Christine Blasey Ford and Brett Kavanaugh before the Senate Judiciary Committee has been the most heated and divisive in recent political memory, even by the standards of post-2016 America. Something is different about the accusations of sexual assault against Kavanaugh, the Senate’s all-day public barbecue of both him and his accuser, and the rage that consumed the Internet and news cycle afterward. Political anger from both sides of the aisle seems to have built up behind this moment like a dam, and now it’s escaping with an energy I’ve rarely–maybe even never–seen.

On the Christian right (which is the circle I know best), the reactions fall along a spectrum from hyperbole to hysteria. “Dissolve the Senate,” tweeted one usually bucolic commentator. “If Kavanaugh is not confirmed, it’s the end of the Republican Party. The base will leave and never come back,” wrote another, who is less known for moderation. I’ve seen hot-takes declaring the accusations against this Supreme Court nominee the end of due process and rule of law. And of course, those on the left are acting as if not taking Ford’s accusations as gospel truth is tantamount to enshrining sexual assault as a constitutional right.

Both left and right seem determined that the space between them on this issue will remain a cratered no-man’s land. After I took a mediating position calling attention to how difficult it is to know the facts of the case one way or the other, a conservative Facebook friend memorably told me to “pick a damned side.” Another accused me of secretly harboring pro-choice views. Another told me I was in sin for not dismissing Ford’s story.

Regardless of what you think about the accusations against Judge Kavanaugh, and regardless of whether you believe such claims should keep him from being confirmed to the Supreme Court, I can think of several major reasons why this political furor is uniquely intense:

1.) Social media makes us think we’re all experts. Facebook is almost fifteen years old, and Twitter began over a decade ago. Since then, our cultural and political landscape has undergone tectonic changes, due mostly to the ability of absolutely anyone to publicly express and spread opinions. Both Barack Obama’s 2008 election and Donald Trump’s 2016 victory were due in large part to their massive and effective grassroots followings on the Internet. But in 2018, social media has reached maturity as a force reshaping not only our politics, but our minds.

People have always had strong opinions. But as details continue to emerge about Ford’s claim that Kavanaugh groped and attempted to rape her thirty-six years ago, I’ve watched my social media feeds transform into would-be medical and law school lecture halls filled with self-styled authorities in victim psychology, forensics, lie detection, criminal justice, and constitutional law. Most describe their conclusions as “obvious,” and ignore the fact that their verdicts invariably favor their preferred political party.

Social media has created this illusion of omnicompetence by rewarding those who are quickest on the draw with conclusions based on hearsay, and by creating plausibility structures and feedback loops of “likes” and “shares” among similarly-minded people. You can feel like you’re right even when you’re not. You can get rid of the people who don’t concur with your analysis, or even those who are less certain about it. And most importantly, you bear little to no potential for consequences if you get it wrong. Combined, these make for a mind-bending cocktail of pretension and unwarranted self-confidence which manifests as increasingly insincere and rancorous encounters between the two sides.

2.) Donald Trump set a new tone in politics. It’s difficult to overstate what a turning point the election of Donald Trump two years ago was. Decorum, magnanimity, and most of all the expectation that motives should transcend personal and party interests were voted down. In place of these high ideals, pettiness, personal score-settling, and unapologetic cynicism about the motives of others came to rule the roost. The personal style of Trump–inartful put-downs and unscrupulous poo-flinging, together with a thirst to get even–became standard operating procedure for both parties. And why not? These tactics were decisively vindicated in Trump’s election, and in his ability to hang on to a loyal base ever since. Democrats have heard the message loud and clear, too. And whatever you think about the truth of Christine Blasey Ford’s story, it’s hard to miss the vengeful spirit with which Senator Dianne Feinstein and the rest of her party have made use of those accusations. The basest of motives have always been at play to some degree in American politics. What’s changed in the Trump era is that no one feels compelled to hide them, anymore.

3.) This is a Mexican standoff of culture war issues. I’m not the first to point this out, but both liberals and conservatives see the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court as a potentially watershed moment for some of their core causes. Actually, that’s not strong enough language. For many, a reliably conservative justice replacing swing vote Anthony Kennedy would be downright apocalyptic. As if that weren’t enough, the controversy over sexual assault accusations itself epitomizes several ongoing social crusades for both left and right. The #MeToo movement, perhaps more accurately described as a chain of assault and harassment revelations loosely connected by a hashtag, has already cost many high-profile men their jobs or freedom. If Kavanaugh is in fact guilty, he would represent perhaps the highest-profile abuser yet to meet justice. He would also serve as a loud repudiation of Trump himself, who skated into the White House despite a recording of him bragging that he could grab women’s genitals with impunity. For the left, this would be a resounding moral victory, not to mention an opportunity to take back the Senate next month and block Trump’s effort to shift the Supreme Court in a conservative direction.

For the right, the accusations against Kavanaugh, resting as they do on the testimony of a solitary woman, embody the threat to due process they’ve long sensed in feminism and the #MeToo movement. “If Kavanaugh is not confirmed,” I continually hear, “it would set a dangerous precedent, allowing any man anywhere to be destroyed by unsubstantiated accusations from a woman with a chip on her shoulder.” Female commentators on the right have called women to stand by their husbands, sons, and brothers, characterizing the charges against Kavanaugh as the latest volley in a “war on men.”

And then there’s the biggest elephant of all in the room, a cause which both left and right have placed near the center of their platforms: abortion, specifically the Supreme Court decision propping it up, Roe v. Wade. Christians have loudly speculated since Kennedy retired and Trump got the chance to fill another vacant seat that this could be the end of constitutionally-protected abortion in America, and progressives have taken them deadly seriously. Indeed, both sides have begun treating the process of replacing Justice Kennedy as an existential battle, with the left seeing women’s rights in jeopardy on multiple levels and the right believing millions of unborn lives (not to mention the careers and reputations of men) hang in the balance. Indeed, these values are so lofty that it no longer matters to some whether or not Ford is telling the truth. As one right-wing Facebook friend informed me, “Sometimes lying is okay for very noble causes.” Dragging the highest court in the land to the right is evidently one of those.

4.) The Supreme Court has become far too powerful. In recent years, the highest court in the U.S. has become a super-legislature and cudgel to prematurely end social debates. We saw an early version of this in Roe v. Wade, but the pace of activist decisions has picked up since the beginning of the Obama years, culminating in Obergefell v. Hodges, in which Kennedy cast the deciding vote to redefine marriage for the entire country as the union of two persons of either sex, rather than of a man and a woman. Since Trump took office, the court has issued a similar string of decisions favorable to conservatives, halting the sexual revolution’s more advanced stages, which mostly involve forcing religious people to participate in gay marriage and abortion. In short, the Supreme Court has become the most powerful political institution in America, inhabited for life by appointees chosen in heavily partisan battles, able to essentially end any debate they want to, and checked only by future justices.

With such stakes, it’s little wonder both sides are in a frenzy to keep the balance of the court from shifting in the opposite party’s favor. Kennedy played the wildcard, handing some victories to progressives, others to conservatives. If he is replaced with an ideologue for either side, it will almost certainly spell disaster for the losing faction. This is why Republicans stuck to their guns in not replacing the late Justice Scalia with an Obama appointee, and why they are now outraged that the Democrats are trying similar obstruction tactics (as they clearly are, whether the charges against Kavanaugh are true or not). Too much is at stake. Neither side can afford to lose this fight.

5.) Conservatives gambled everything on this moment. On the religious right, the desperation over this Supreme Court pick is palpable. And no wonder. This is the moment they bet everything on back in 2016. The ceaseless refrain among evangelicals during the filthy campaign between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump was that everyone with a conscience must hold their noses and pull the lever for Trump, odious though he was, because if Clinton were given the opportunity to appoint two or more Supreme Court justices, crucial freedoms in our country would be doomed for a generation.

This Supreme Court appointment is the reward for which even the biggest Christian Trump fans sense they paid dearly. As I’ve pointed out before at this blog, in throwing their fortunes in with one of America’s most notorious playboys and casino moguls, the religious right reversed decades of rhetoric about the central importance of character in candidates, about marital infidelity making politicians unfit for office, and about the Democrats being the party of sleaze and sin. Evangelicals who supported Trump expect something in return for that painful sacrifice.

Even more, there is a weighty sense among conservatives that this is their brief window of opportunity in which to raise some sturdy walls that will protect them when the other side returns to power. The clock is ticking. And if polls are any indication, a large percentage of evangelicals and a majority of Republicans believe that Brett Kavanaugh should be confirmed to the Supreme Court even if he is guilty of sexual assault. This is what political desperation looks like. And this, together with the other four factors I mentioned, is what’s fueling one of the most acrimonious political controversies of my lifetime.

The question we Christians are left with is whether this calculus is accurate. Does a conservative justice justify the sacrifices it’s taken to reach this point? Is this appointment, among all the political battles of these two years, the hill we want to die on? And where does our trust truly lie if the Supreme Court is this supremely important?

 

This was originally published at Patheos.com. You can go there here.


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