The Kavanaugh saga and what it means for American politics

12 Oct 2018


Last week Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed to the Supreme Court by a narrow 50-48 vote, following a contentious confirmation process. The new, staunchly conservative justice has shifted the court’s balance of power for a generation, and pundits worry that the judge could critically undermine trust in America’s highest court.


While Kavanaugh’s ascension to the court seemed inevitable at first, it was rocked by a credible allegation of attempted rape by Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, which was then followed by more accusations from different women. But, despite fears by those in the White House that Ford’s heart-wrenching testimony would sinks Kavanaugh’s nomination, the judge survived after he gave a highly emotional, angry and unprecedently partisan defence to the Senate Judiciary Committee.


One of the things that this process demonstrated was the ability of Republicans to effectively create two sides to any argument. While Ford showed her vulnerability and sense of civic duty during her testimony, the GOP were quick to point out lapses in her memory and other perceived flaws in her account.


The conversation around this betrays a lack of understanding among the public about what makes an accuser credible or not. Many expected Ford to remember not just her attempted rape, but all the other events surrounding it. However, as Ford herself remarked, our minds block out many details of our past, encoding only the most important details in our hippocampus.


However, while I personally have a very hard time believing Dr. Ford was anything other than truthful, maybe this is the wrong conversation to have. In any case, it is not the conversation that the power-brokers in this situation had.


The complete disregard for the traumatised Dr. Ford was best epitomised by the behaviour of Donald Trump after he encouraged a baying crowd to laugh at his ridicule of her. There are surely uncomfortable parallels between the laughter elicited by the president and the laughter of Kavanaugh that Ford says she most clearly remembers.


Trump then (remember the president once called for the execution of a wrongly accused 15 year old) argued that Kavanaugh’s actions at 17 should not affect whether or not he gets confirmed. We then saw the ‘party of family values’ argue that even if Kavanaugh did this he should still get the Supreme Court seat. They whipped a moral panic about false accusations against men, despite the fact that the number of occurrences of such events is dwarfed by the number of real and credible allegations of sexual assault and harassment.


We have yet to see what effect this will have on the midterms - it may help Republicans who are struggling to hold in conservative states and it may equally help Democrats in liberal areas, particularly in the Sun Belt. However, anyone who thinks this will have a transformative effect on voting would be wise to look at the rigidity of polling over the last year, in spite of the many twists and turns in American politics.


Growing partisanship in the USA means that accusations of serious wrongdoing are less damaging against those seeking higher office (who are supposed to be held to a higher standard), than they are against ordinary citizens – who cannot use their party identification as a ‘get out of jail free’ card. While, it is untrue to say that serious scandals, such as Trump’s ‘Access Hollywood’ tape, do not affect races, it is true that it does not affect the voting intentions of the majority of the electorate. It turns out that ‘doing the right thing’ and stepping aside after major scandal is not the political necessity we once thought. Instead, it was simply a fragile, political convention that could not withstand a class of politicians sorely lacking in self-respect.


Nevertheless, a record-breaking number of women are running for Congress this year and if these weeks have taught us anything it’s the importance of representation of under-represented groups. Indeed, it was 11 men on the Senate Judiciary Committee that single-handedly advanced Kavanaugh’s nomination to a vote and, one cannot help but feel that a more representative media could have covered this saga better. Instead, we got liberal talk show host Bill Maher blaming “social justice warriors” for this situation, condemning the examination of Kavanaugh’s high school behaviour and, saying that it is scary that we have to “automatically believe” women.


This ignores the fact that over 90% of rape allegations are true and, it is telling that the conclusions that Maher reached are the same conclusions that so many reached. Personally, what I took away from this was not a disdain for the MeToo movement (which I believe is deeply needed and long overdue), nor was it a fear that this has further divided an already splintered country. Instead it is the message this has sent to boys and men across the country.


Just as when Trump remarked “when your famous they let you do it”, I fear that millions of men and boys will get the message that they too can do what Kavanaugh is alleged to have done to Ford. The message that has been sent is that if you have a prestigious education you can get away with this, if you were young you can get away with this, and if your accuser doesn’t immediately come forward and isn’t the ‘perfect victim’ (i.e. introverted, innocent and, chaste) you too can get away with this.


In an attempt to juggle competing interests and improve their chances of re-election, supposed moderates, such as Susan Collins, Joe Manchin and Jeff Flake, have inflicted immeasurable damage on American democracy and have selfishly undermined the MeToo movement.

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