The battle over Brett Kavanaugh was more divisive—and stands to be more consequential—than the 2016 election that made his nomination to the Supreme Court possible. While no one can doubt the viciousness of the last presidential election, the contest between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump was a poor proxy for the true cultural and intellectual divides between left and right. By contrast, the contest in the Senate, online, and in person after Christine Blasey Ford accused Kavanaugh of sexual assault cut right to the heart of our profound cultural and moral divide.
Trump and Clinton were an odd couple for a battle of the ages. Despite the fervent hopes and dreams of their partisan believers, they were both far more fixated on personal advancement than on any other political value. Both had shifted positions on countless issues. Both had played fast and loose with law and decorum in their respective climbs to wealth and power. Both had profound problems telling the truth. Consequently, neither one was an avatar for the core differences that animate the left and the right.
That’s not to say that the outcome of the race didn’t matter. Of course it matters who sits in the Oval Office. Of course it matters who’s nominated to sit atop the various executive-branch agencies. It really, truly matters who obtains a lifetime appointment to sit on the Supreme Court. But barring a seismic event like total war or an economic catastrophe, any single presidential election doesn’t define our national life.
We usually place outsized emphasis on elections that define our politics and too little emphasis on the values that define our culture. But it was the nomination of Kavanaugh and the wrenching debate about core cultural and constitutional values that dominated American discourse these past few weeks. It’s a debate that illustrated the fundamentally different ways in which conservatives and progressives view the world, and it unlocked not just an intellectual response but an emotional response that has radicalized otherwise reasonable and temperamentally moderate individuals into believing that the other side hates even the good people in their own tribe.
Kavanaugh is no Trump. Their lifestyles and career paths could not be more different. Kavanaugh is a creature of the Republican establishment. Trump careened into politics from reality television. Kavanaugh played by the rules his entire professional life. Trump’s tax fraud helped enable his rise. Kavanaugh is a family man, married to one wife without a hint of infidelity. Trump, well, is Trump.
While many Republicans may have considered Kavanaugh too safe, too cautious to be the man who replaced Anthony Kennedy, they looked at him and his family and saw themselves. No, not the double Yale credentials, but the person who worked hard, loved sports even more than most, and spent his spare time coaching his daughter’s basketball team.
And so when Ford came forward, it’s as if her allegations landed in two different countries. The good-faith residents of Redworld were skeptical and said, “Prove it.” The good-faith residents of Blueworld believed Ford and said, “Finally, she has a chance for justice.” The presumptions were diametrically opposite, and everything that followed turned on those different presumptions.
At the very heart of “Believe women” or “Believe survivors” is a flipping of the burden of proof. It’s a mind-set that says women almost always tell the truth about sexual assault, and that the failure of the criminal- or civil-justice systems to convict or impose liability on predatory men at anything approaching their rates of predation means that fundamental legal and cultural reform is mandatory. Compounding the injustice, the very process of proving the existence of abuse—especially when claims are subject to cross-examination and public scrutiny—can revictimize the survivor.
The abuse inflicts immense pain. The system inflicts more pain. And true justice is hard to find.
Redworld rejects this view. It treats sexual abuse as a crime like any other crime. Accusers should be heard and treated with respect, but they still have to prove their cases. They’re not “survivors” or “victims” until that proof has been offered. Redworld rejects the notion that women almost always tell the truth and is also concerned for men who face allegations that can and do wreck families and end careers. They do not see men as constituting a predator class or women as a victim class. There are men who are predators and women who are victims, but each case has to be judged on its own merits. Each case stands or falls on its own evidence. And, critically, every accuser bears the burden of proof.
Now, filter everything that followed through those two prisms.
Essays by other women telling their own stories of abuse are heroic examples that support Ford’s reasons for waiting so long to report—or they’re inflammatory and prejudicial as applied to Kavanaugh, damning him for the sins of others.
The Senate’s demand for a prompt investigation and a public hearing was a disrespectful ploy by angry men designed to intimidate and shame a survivor—or it was an effort by the body constitutionally empowered to render advice and consent to test serious claims and expose Ford’s allegations to searching inquiry.
Ford’s demands to set the terms of the investigation were appropriate pleas for respect and professionalism—or they were requests for special treatment that impaired the search for truth.
These diametrically opposed worldviews collided most notably when Kavanaugh testified on his own behalf. Reading much of the progressive commentary in response to his rage and pain, I was struck by the assumption that Kavanaugh’s emotion was inextricably linked to his privilege, connected to his sense of entitlement to a Supreme Court seat that he couldn’t believe was about to be snatched from his grasp.
Paul Krugman wrote in The New York Times that “nothing makes a man accustomed to privilege angrier than the prospect of losing some of that privilege, especially if it comes with the suggestion that people like him are subject to the same rules as the rest of us.” This was the explanation for his rage. Another white man was grasping for power. In Politico, former Yale Law Dean Robert Post declared that “Kavanaugh apparently cared more about his promotion than about preserving the dignity of the Supreme Court he aspired to join.”
Yet that is emphatically not what millions of other Americans witnessed on their televisions. In fact, these Americans are mystified and angered by these takes. I’m still surprised, even days later, by the sheer number of mainly (but not exclusively) conservative men and women who describe watching Kavanaugh’s testimony with deep emotion. They didn’t see a man grasping for power. They saw a man fighting to preserve something far more precious than a Supreme Court seat. They saw a man fighting for his family, for his very honor in the one moment when his defense could be most effective, in the one moment when the eyes of the nation were fixed upon him. I know that’s what I saw.
To this point I’ve not focused on the bad-faith actions and actors that polluted the discourse. The reason is simple. When even good-faith voices find themselves so diametrically, emotionally opposed—unable to step into the other side’s shoes—then we know polarization and division are deeply embedded into the current American DNA.
And we also know that in those circumstances the actual radicals, those who are truly unreasonable, will lash out with ever greater ferocity, placing strains not just on our body politic but also on our sense of public peace. One of the saddest aspects of the entire sad affair was watching both the Ford and Kavanaugh families face threats to their lives. Even more distressing: No one was surprised. This is how we expect political disputes to play out today.
The dispute wasn’t merely over burdens of proof and due process. The debate implicated matters as deep and profound as human nature, the relationship between men and women, and the fundamental, overlapping identities of wife, husband, father, mother, man, and woman. And the conflict unfolded in the absence of a common moral language and a common moral framework. It took place against increasingly different views of the nature and virtue of American culture itself.
It’s in moments like this when choices get truly binary. In the fight over Kavanaugh, there was no third-party option to check. To ask him to step aside was to ask him to surrender his reputation forever, to consent to the stain. To reject him was to flip burdens of proof, to grant immense power to accusers with the mere condition that they meet a de minimis threshold of “credibility”—and since the default is to believe women, the default is that a woman is credible.
It’s in moments like this when we realize that the center is not holding. One side wins a round, and both sides prepare for the next fight—determined to show more resolve and commitment when the battle comes again.
I’d like to end on a note of optimism, in faith that the American people will unite once again. But that faith is flagging, and if America continues to divide, shrewd historians will look beyond any given election to see the reason. They’ll look for divergent values, and when they do, they’ll see the fight over Brett Kavanaugh, a fight that opened wounds that did not heal.