“The only consensus,” declared The Washington Post about Thursday’s Judiciary Committee hearings, “was that the Senate—and the nation—had hit a new low.” In The Weekly Standard, Jonathan Last added, “It’s impossible to look at the Ford-Kavanaugh hearings and not see America as a nation in decline.” A lot of respectable people believe that. It’s the kind of sentiment you hear from nonpartisan journalists and anti-Trump conservatives, the people who represent the supposedly thoughtful center in today’s Washington.
But it’s nonsense. Claiming that Thursday’s hearings reflect “a new low” and “a nation in decline” implies that, in some previous era of American history, the Senate Judiciary Committee would have treated Brett Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford more fairly than they did this week. In fact, for the vast majority of American history, Blasey Ford would have received no hearing at all. The Senate Judiciary Committee would not have bothered to inquire into her allegations of sexual assault because it would not have pretended that sexual assault was disqualifying for a seat on the Supreme Court.
By 1991, things had progressed enough that the Judiciary Committee was willing to publicly interview Anita Hill. But at that hearing, conducted by a Judiciary Committee that included no women, Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania told Hill, “You testified this morning that the most embarrassing question involved—this is not too bad—women’s large breasts. That is a word we use all the time.”
Thursday’s hearings do not reflect a Senate in decline. They reflect a Senate in crisis. That’s entirely different. The Kavanaugh hearings have thrown the Senate into crisis because women are now powerful enough to disrupt the amicable, male-dominated consensus that in previous eras silenced them altogether. But they are not yet powerful enough to get justice. That’s not just true in the Senate. That’s true in the nation as a whole.
The increase in partisan polarization, likewise, does not reflect a nation in decline. It reflects a nation in crisis because one political party is no longer totally dominated by white men—leading the other political party to more nakedly defend the privileges of white men. When women and people of color were less represented in either party, and white male privileges were thus less threatened, both found it easier to be civil. This isn’t a new story. American politics grew more tranquil after Reconstruction, once both parties agreed that Southern blacks should not be permitted to vote.
Reasonable people can question the way Senate Democrats handled Ford’s allegations when she first came forward. But the notion—which is attractive to people in the respectable center—that there was some calm, polite, collegial way to arbitrate her charges is a myth. They could have been buried calmly and politely. But they could not have been arbitrated calmly and politely, because Ford’s charges are dangerous. They’re dangerous to conservative hopes of achieving a majority on the Supreme Court, and they’re dangerous to the many powerful men whose careers would be ruined were they accountable for their abuse of women. Kavanaugh and the Republicans on the Judiciary Committee know that. And they have learned from President Trump that when women, or people of color, endanger your status, it doesn’t work to play nice.
On Friday, two women who say they are survivors of sexual assault confronted Senator Jeff Flake in an elevator. Their actions constituted a violation of Senate norms; they weren’t civil at all. But the episode didn’t reflect an institution or a nation in decline. It reflected an institution and a nation in crisis—the kind of crisis that always comes when people long denied justice challenge the well-mannered consensus on which that injustice rests.