Magann: ​Holding the Line

Times may be difficult for the U.S. — and that’s all the more reason to support it.

by Matthew Magann | 10/12/18 2:05am

The Brett Kavanaugh hearings felt like rock bottom. They won’t be, of course — if we know one thing, it’s that scandals will keep rolling in. Still, there’s something deeply concerning about a Supreme Court hearing turned to partisan theater. Every hour came breaking news about scandalous details of high school yearbooks and binge drinking. Not that those things aren’t serious and relevant given the assault allegations against Judge Kavanaugh. But still, reality-television style politics dominated the confirmation process.

The sexual assault dynamic played a key role in the hearings, and understandably so. The #MeToo movement has agglomerated onto the culture war, which Americans on both sides can’t seem to get enough of. Of course, given Christine Blasey Ford’s evident sincerity, her accusations ought to be taken seriously. But scandals and misconduct, even criminal violence, have caught up to politicians plenty of times in the past, and the accusations themselves, concerning as they are, aren’t what made the confirmation process so particularly disturbing. That honor belongs to Kavanaugh’s blatant partisanship. 

“This whole two-week effort has been a calculated and orchestrated political hit, fueled with apparent pent-up anger about President Trump and the 2016 election,” Kavanaugh announced in his opening statement to the Senate. The process, he claimed, looked like “revenge on behalf of the Clintons and millions of dollars in money from outside left-wing opposition groups.” That any judge would make such blatantly political attacks — Kavanaugh also repeatedly called out the Democrats by name — is deeply concerning. For a man tasked with examining laws from an unbiased perspective, Kavanaugh hardly acted impartial.

The Supreme Court is supposed to be a neutral arbiter — the final, impartial judge of constitutionality. Of course, political dynamics have always come into play. But still, Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsberg could remain close friends, united in their dedication to uphold the Constitution (though they often disagreed about what doing so meant). Even in the bizarre world of Trump’s America, the Supreme Court still holds a certain prestige, and the president recognizes it. Trump may say outrageous things and pass outrageous policies, but he still nominated distinguished judge Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. Justice Gorsuch, though heavily conservative and confirmed mostly on party lines, still garners widespread respect. 

Kavanaugh, by contrast, brought politics directly to the Supreme Court. He unequivocally condemned Democrats, accusing them of plotting to undermine his confirmation. Such behavior cheapens the image of the Supreme Court. It further entrenches incivility, grinding away at one of the few respected institutions this nation has left. 

With national unity eroding and winner-take-all politics surging ahead, how can the nation recover? There’s a temptation to jump into the populist fray. Republicans pioneered it when, with a few notable exceptions, they fell in line behind Donald Trump. But some Democrats also want in; look at the number of left-wing populists, some self-declared socialists, who recently won primaries. In conversation, I hear people disparage America and its government as ineffective, even outmoded. The frustrations that lead people to vote for extreme candidates are often legitimate, but those problems cannot be resolved unless Americans stand by this nation’s core ideals.

The United States has faced worse crises before. Tensions over secessionism and slavery led to the Civil War, where Americans turned on each other in horrific bloodshed in order to preserve the union. Then there have been the struggles for civil rights for all those groups unjustly excluded from the republic. And time after time, the fundamental ideals of the United States have triumphed. 

Those American ideals are liberal ideals in the true sense, defined by the conviction that all people share fundamental rights to free expression, free thought, free worship, property, equality and opportunity. Those ideals are what makes this nation great, and they alone will continue to make it great. 

Thomas Paine began his 1776 pamphlet “The American Crisis” with the infamous proclamation: “These are the times that try men’s souls.” Paine did not mean to call the Revolution a period of strife. He meant “try” in the sense of “put on trial”; these times, Paine argued, challenged Americans to stand for what they believed in. “The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country,” Paine continued, “but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.” 

Paine’s words come from the earliest months of the United States, yet they apply especially well today. The country is struggling. Kavanaugh’s confirmation process is just the latest in a string of setbacks. Illiberal ideas lap at both sides of the political spectrum, calling for radical change — but that’s the last thing this country needs. Instead, Americans need to stand up and speak for their values, and vote for those values at the ballot box. We need to reject the mentality of what Paine called the “sunshine patriot,” one who backs down when times get tough. In this era of division, Americans should rally forcefully behind their nation’s liberal values; after all, we need them now more than ever.