Dear Commons Community,
Today the Senate will be voting to confirm Brett Kavanaugh or not for a seat on the Supreme Court. Four senators were still undecided — Democrat Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and the Republicans Jeff Flake of Arizona, Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. Regardless of how the vote goes, it is clear that the confirmation process was a “national disgrace.” David Brooks in his New York Times column this morning examines how Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings have become “America’s nadir” and that they represent “the complete tribalization of national life”. Below is his entire column.
A most sad commentary on America!
A Complete National Disgrace
The Kavanaugh hearings as American nadir.
by David Brooks
Over the past few years, hundreds of organizations and thousands of people (myself included) have mobilized to reduce political polarization, encourage civil dialogue and heal national divisions.
The first test case for our movement was the Kavanaugh hearings. It’s clear that at least so far our work is a complete failure. Sixty-nine percent of Americans in one poll called the hearings a “national disgrace,” and the only shocking thing is that there are 31 percent who don’t agree.
What we saw in these hearings was the unvarnished tribalization of national life. At the heart of the hearings were two dueling narratives, one from Christine Blasey Ford and one from Brett Kavanaugh. These narratives were about what did or did not happen at a party 36 years ago. There was nothing particularly ideological about the narratives, nothing that touched on capitalism, immigration or any of the other great disputes of national life.
And yet reactions to the narratives have been determined almost entirely by partisan affiliation. Among the commentators I’ve seen and read, those who support Democrats embrace Blasey’s narrative and dismissed Kavanaugh’s. Those who support Republicans side with Kavanaugh’s narrative and see holes in Ford’s. I can think of few exceptions
These hearings were also a devastating blow to intellectual humility. At the heart of this case is a mystery: What happened at that party 36 years ago? There is no corroborating evidence either way. So the crucial questions are: How do we sit with this uncertainty? How do we weigh the two contradictory testimonies? How do we measure these testimonies when all of cognitive science tells us that human beings are really bad at spotting falsehood? Should a person’s adult life be defined by something he did in high school?
Commentators and others may have acknowledged uncertainty on these questions for about 2.5 seconds, but then they took sides. If they couldn’t take sides based on the original evidence, they found new reasons to confirm their previous positions. Kavanaugh is too angry and dishonest. He drank beer and threw ice while in college. With tribal warfare all around, uncertainty is the one state you are not permitted to be in.
This, of course, led to an upsurge in base mobilization. Persuasion is no longer an important part of public conversation. Public statements are meant to mobilize your mob. Senator Cory Booker can’t just sort through the evidence. He has to get Spartacus-like histrionic in order to whip Democrats toward his presidential candidacy. Kavanaugh can’t just dispassionately try to disprove the allegations made against him. Instead, he gets furious and stokes up culture war rage in order to fire up the Republican base.
This leads to an epidemic of bigotry. Bigotry involves creating a stereotype about a disfavored group and then applying that stereotype to an individual you’ve never met. It was bigotry against Jews that got Alfred Dreyfus convicted in 1894. It was bigotry against young black males that got the Central Park Five convicted in 1990. It was bigotry against preppy lacrosse players that led to the bogus Duke lacrosse scandal.
This past month we’ve seen thousands of people convinced that they know how Kavanaugh behaved because they know how “privileged” people behave. We’ve seen thousands of people lining up behind Kavanaugh because they know that there’s this vicious thing called “the Left,” which hates them.
This is a complete pulverization of the actual individuals involved in this case — a retreat from complex particularity to simplistic group prejudice.
The core problem behind all of this is a complete breakdown in the legitimacy of our public institutions. The Supreme Court is no longer a place where justices dispassionately rule on the Constitution. It’s a place where they cast predictable party-line votes. Therefore, senators no longer deliberate on nominees. They cast predictable party-line votes. The members of the public no longer reason with one another. They fall into predictable party-line formation and then invent post-hoc, bad-faith rationalizations to give cover to their ideologically driven positions (Drank too much! Bad temperament! Bad yearbook entry!).
It’s clear that we need a new sort of environmental movement, a movement to police our civic environment. That environment isn’t polluted by a vague condition called “polarization.” It is polluted by the specific toxic emissions we all produce in our low moments. Those emissions have to be precisely identified, classified, called out as shameful.
It’s also clear we have to set up more forums for personal encounters between different kinds of people. You detoxify disputes when you personalize them. People who don’t have regular contact with people they disagree with become intellectually dishonest quickly.
Finally, the good trends have to be fenced off from poisonous politics. American society is taking concrete action to make sexual assault intolerable. But this movement will not succeed if it becomes a pinball in the partisan politics of personal destruction.
The Kavanaugh hearings were a look in the mirror, and a vivid display of how ugly things have become. What are we going to do about it?