Demanding more from politics

What the Kavanaugh hearings showed is the tendency to be satisfied with the 'politics of personal destruction.'

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
Protesters confront each other on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court as inside Judge Brett Kavanaugh is sworn in.

By now, the confirmation battle for the United States Supreme Court has been picked over countless times by countless news organizations seeking to make sense of an event that so dramatically highlighted the political split in America. In this week’s cover story, Henry Gass looks at the issue through a wider-angle lens, examining how that split has opened avenues for politics to play a more overt role in the judiciary. 

Yet amid all the fallout, I walked away from watching the hearings with one overwhelming impression that feels overlooked amid all the rancor and perhaps worth pausing to consider. In the end, maybe a process that each side said the other had made brazenly political was, in fact, not nearly as political as it seemed. Maybe the greatest point of contention was actually the genuine sincerity of both sides. 

There is every indication that both sides in the Kavanaugh hearings were acting from a genuine belief that they were doing what was essential for the health of the country. Neither side, however, could believe that the other honestly thought that way. One side couldn’t imagine how you could harm a family and ruin an exemplary legal career based on uncorroborated accusations from more than three decades ago. The other couldn’t imagine that 21st-century America is still not believing survivors of sexual assault and still handing power to the same old patriarchal white power structure. On the issue of sexual crime – like immigration, like abortion, like LGBT rights, like the Trump administration itself – America is actually two very different countries that see the world in two very different ways.

Politics could be one of the ways the US seeks to find a path forward. What the Kavanaugh hearings showed, however, is the tendency to be satisfied with the much easier “politics of personal destruction.” After all, it is easier to attribute malign intent to your opponents than it is to struggle with the realization that they, too, are good people and yet happen to see the world completely differently.

During the testimony of Judge Brett Kavanaugh and his accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, on Sept. 27, senators were civil so long as there was the possibility of determining guilt. But once it became clear that the hearing would offer no clear winner, it descended into vitriol. 

All the Washington actors “spoke in the language of contempt toward their adversaries,” wrote John F. Harris for Politico. “The insults and assertions of bad faith ... flowed like second nature.” 

The politics on display, he added, held that “the best way to defeat an argument was to say that it flowed from the defective character of the person making it. The opposition was wicked, deceitful – not just wrong-headed but wrong-hearted.”

The need of the moment is for a politics precisely the opposite. And it begins with citizens embracing the idea that politics is not a cudgel by which we force the other side to agree but the instrument by which we do the hard work of finding common purpose. 

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