Kavanaugh, Politics, and the Conservative Project

I think Susan Collins had no good choice here.  Her vote to confirm buys her a credible and well-funded challenger, but a vote the other way would likely have created a primary challenge from the right.  It seems to me that while Collins has rarely deviated from conservative orthodoxy with respect to her actual votes, she has carefully cultivated a reputation as a moderate (chiefly by claiming to respect reproductive choice for women).  This and incumbency has so far protected her politically, but Democrats (especially women) in Maine will now do everything they can to replace her.  This challenge comes in 2020, when Democrats will also show up in force to vote against Donald Trump if he runs again.  I think she had a better chance to win a challenge from the right and keep the seat by voting no on Kavanaugh but supporting his just-as-conservative replacement.

Joe Manchin faced a similar problem except that he depends on some level of support from conservatives to keep his seat where Collins depends on marginal liberals for hers.  I would suggest to Senator Manchin that (like in Maine) a “right thing to do” vote against Kavanaugh would have kept enough conservatives in his corner as long as he votes to confirm Trump’s next choice.  And as in Maine voting to confirm Kavanaugh will alienate Democrats he needs to win.  It’s too late for a primary challenge from the left, but to win he needs every vote he can get, and many women will now stay home.

More generally, the angry tone of the debate on Kavanaugh surprised me.  I get that Republican politicians now believe that anger motivates their base most effectively.  Trump no doubt won because he was able to tap into white heterosexual male resentment (and white female resentment on behalf of the males in their lives to some extent) against shifting social norms and the associated shifts in power and privilege.  This is a cultural fight, and the Kavanaugh case created a favorable battlefield for the GOP, at least in the short run.  Part of what makes the base angry is that women no longer tolerate what was previously a normatively acceptable male claim to power over women’s bodies. Channeling this anger through a woman who claims a right to her own body and to challenge a male who abused that right comes easy to them.


But I wonder if men like Lindsey Graham could achieve more long-term success by tapping into this feeling of resentment in a way that does not create new resentment on the part of women (as well as men like me who feel uncomfortable with privilege earned not through good works but through an accident of birth).  They tried to challenge Blasey-Ford by not really challenging her story – something happened to her though Kavanaugh was not responsible – but doing so in such an angry tone came across to my ear as more misogynist than necessary.  The male deserved a presumption of innocence, Republicans argued, and those supporting his story a presumption of truthfulness because they made statements under oath.  The woman, however, not so much.  Whether or not clearly stated, the angry tone sent the message that because some women have made false sexual assault accusations any such claim by a woman should be treated with skepticism.  Framing the affair as a liberal conspiracy to delay a vote until after the mid-terms just said “you’re lying” in a less direct, but not exactly subtle, way.

Recent polls suggest that this is working, but I’m not so sure.  I learned through my work in Democratic politics this year that the high levels of enthusiasm we’re seeing on the liberal side comes from heretofore less active Democratic women joining the fight.  Again and again I met women who had never participated in party meetings, canvassing efforts, phone bank parties, or marches in their lives but began to participate after Trump won even when they had to organize new social groups to channel this activism.  They did this because of Trump’s open misogyny.  And I don’t believe this expansion of the liberal electorate has peaked – every angry assertion of male privilege creates new female activists. I also believe that asserting male privilege in an angry tone promotes unity among liberal groups that might otherwise work at cross purposes (I’m looking at you, fellow Bernie supporters).

This of course won’t matter if the angry tone also expands the conservative base and promotes unity on the right.  But nothing promotes complacency like the feeling of winning (see the 2016 election for an example), and nothing gets people off the couch like righteous anger on fundamental emotional issues.

Finally, placing Brett Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court will have long-term negative effects for the Conservative project.  I believe Christine Blasey-Ford told the truth.  I also believe that Brett Kavanaugh was a young white male of privilege with an alcohol problem who attacked and demeaned women as a way to achieve status among other young white males of privilege (see the Underground Hoya for examples).  I doubt Blasey-Ford and other classmates were the only women he treated this way.  Others will tell their stories, whether or not Democrats take control of the House Judiciary Committee and investigate further.  And at least a few of the forty-odd people who reached out to the FBI during the truncated reopening of Kavanaugh’s background check will make their stories public.  Women who would otherwise have been satisfied with incremental change in male-female power relationships will angrily demand an accelerated shift in this dynamic.

A key part of the Conservative Project has always been to secure long-term control over American society through control of the court system as a bulwark against future electoral losses.  Judicial support for voter suppression laws and corporate intervention in the political process will help Republicans hold on to power even as demographic changes, including a growing wealth gap, energize more liberal constituencies.  Until now, conservatives have moved this project forward in a less than overt way, but the Kavanaugh affair has brought new exposure to organizations like the Federalist Society.  It’s also made the Supreme Court (and likely lower courts as well) salient as a political issue in ways they have never been.  There’s a lot of reasons for this, but the angry tone struck by Republicans during Kavanaugh’s confirmation process didn’t help.

Conservatives have a lot of ways to keep liberal constituencies on the sidelines, up to and including collaboration with foreign governments to influence and even hack elections.  They’ve demonstrated a willingness to take whatever action necessary to protect their wealthy donors, corporations, and white privilege.  But they may soon find that they have awakened a heretofore lazy American opposition to conservative rule.  Let’s just hope I’m right.

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