The Divide Over Kavanaugh Isn’t as Big as It First Appears

Even as voters disagree, many are drawing on the same basic set of values to reach opposing conclusions.

Toya Sarno Jordan / Reuters

About the author: Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic and the author of the Up for Debate newsletter.

Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation battle and the sexual-assault allegations against him have cleaved many Americans into enemy camps. Many critics feel certain that he sexually assaulted Christine Blasey Ford and that he would threaten women and discredit the Supreme Court if confirmed; many defenders feel as certain that he is innocent and that his defeat would encourage future character assassinations.

Observing members of these groups as they commiserate among themselves is unnerving. Confronting the same reality, they reach opposite conclusions—and they suspect that everyone in the other camp has malign or unjust motivations. Absent new evidence that adds clarity to what happened more than three decades ago, Ross Douthat writes, “this is going to be an open wound for years to come, in an already bloodied body politic.”

True. And yet the size of the wound is still to be determined.

This isn’t an effort to minimize the stakes in Supreme Court nominations, to dismiss feelings of anger and righteous indignation at aspects of this one, or to discourage anyone from calling their senators or protesting in an effort to affect the vote. This is about what happens afterward, when rival sides have no choice but to coexist in this country, regardless of an outcome that is still highly uncertain as of Friday afternoon. How much this episode divides Americans depends partly on the degree to which those in opposite camps see themselves as possessing starkly conflicting values. What if many actually agree on more than they imagine?

Many conflicts seem less divisive if familiar, binary frameworks are set aside—if they are instead viewed in terms of “equilibriums” and “limits.”

On abortion, for instance, we tend to think in polarized binaries such as “pro-choice” versus “pro-life” or “secular liberal” versus “religious conservative.” But the abortion debate encompasses tens of millions of people whose views fall at various points in between a total ban and zero restrictions. Some believe access to abortion is too restricted in some states and favor relaxed rules. That is, they favor shifting the equilibrium in a “pro-choice” direction. But ask some of those same people “Should there be any limits on legal abortion?” and they might advocate a limit: that the procedure should be banned in the last trimester of pregnancy unless the mother’s health is seriously threatened.

Whether such a person, who shares significant value judgments with both poles, is seen or sees themselves as “pro-life” or “pro-choice” can turn on whether the issue is framed in terms of equilibriums or limits. By way of further illustration, I once conjured two individuals: one aligns with the #MeToo movement, while the other describes herself as a critic:

Yet digging deeper into their views on sexual harassment, it turns out that they are identical. They both believe workplaces ought to adopt policies that more effectively protect women from sexual harassment, and that there should be robust due-process protections to guard against false accusations. They even agree on the language of their optimal policies. What might explain their different postures toward #MeToo?

The first is focused on equilibriums. She believes that the status quo in American workplaces doesn’t adequately protect female workers, and that #MeToo is likely to improve things by shifting the equilibrium, making it marginally more friendly to working women. The second is focused on limits. She frets that #MeToo is ending careers without adequate due process and enabling big injustices at the extremes. She worries that, left unchecked by opposition, it will spiral out of control.

With that illustrative example in mind, I argued that many Americans would feel less alienated from fellow citizens, and find it easier to persuade or forge useful compromises, “if they recognized that some of the people fighting on ‘the other side’ of a polarizing issue actually hold values and beliefs strikingly similar to their own.” On so many issues—including the Kavanaugh controversy—probing whether a person is thinking in terms of equilibriums or limits tells us a lot more about their values and what motivates their position than knowing with which “team” they align.

So what does the Kavanaugh nomination look like among those who avoid framing it as a binary conflict between Republicans and Democrats, or men and women, or the pro-life and the pro-choice, or the patriarchy and #MeToo (even granting that those binaries best describe some participants and that the stakes remain high regardless of our framework)?

Let’s begin with the way that Sam Harris characterized the controversy in a short monologue delivered on his Waking Up podcast, where he argued that many people whom he respects are confused, in part because they are viewing the matter like a criminal trial:

They’re saying, “Whatever happened to innocent until proven guilty? Are we going to let mere accusations presented from 36 years ago without a shred of evidence completely destroy a man’s life?”

That’s where many are defaulting. “Most people drank too much in college and most of us have things in our past that are embarrassing and that would be mortifying if they were made the subject of a Senate hearing. So where does all this stop?” That’s where the ethical and political ballast is for many. The idea is that we should be abiding by the criminal standard here, and that if we don’t, this could happen to anyone.

Those he describes as asking Where does all this stop? see the controversy in terms of limits. Harris rejects not their values, but their applicability to the confirmation fight. “This is not a criminal trial,” he said. “The question isn’t whether Kavanaugh should be put in jail. The question is whether he should be given one of the most consequential jobs in American society, for life.”

In contrast, Anneke E. Green, a senior director at the White House Writers Group, writes that she is a feminist, that she believes Christine Blasey Ford when she says she was attacked, that Ford has no reason to lie, that she understands from first-hand experience how hard it is for women to share stories that powerful men want suppressed—and that “as much as I admired Dr. Ford’s courage and found her personally to be convincing and sympathetic, it does not change my conviction that uncorroborated and un-investigable accusations from a pre-adult time in a man or woman’s life shouldn’t derail a demonstrably exceptional career.”

Insofar as the Kavanaugh nomination will end in a binary vote to confirm or reject, Harris and Green are inescapably on opposite sides of it. They’ll each advocate vigorously for their preferred outcome, as they should.

But they’ve framed that disagreement as a fight over where the burden of proof lies, or whether the most consequential matter at hand is giving Kavanaugh a lifetime appointment, or the impact on future nominees if confirmation battles can be won with old, unfalsifiable allegations.

Framing the debate in those terms makes it easier for participants to sympathize with one another’s concerns, to live together in relative harmony despite their disagreements, and to cooperate on other matters regardless of the outcome. But when participants see the crux of their disagreement as whether to care more for sexual-assault survivors or for people falsely accused of misconduct, or as a question of their loyalty to rival partisan or tribal or identity groups, all of that gets harder. Despite disagreeing about whether Kavanaugh should be confirmed, Harris and Green aren’t clearly at odds over any core values.

Now observe another way the debate might be construed. Here is Variety reporting Amy Schumer’s message about the confirmation battle:

On Twitter, the Republican pundit Erick Erickson responded as follows: “A vote against him is a vote for saying the truth does not matter.” Both of those messages might be more effective than the framework that I prefer at energizing partisans in the confirmation fight. They posit stark contempt for core values such as anti-bigotry and truth.

But they’re both false.

Almost no one who wants Kavanaugh confirmed—tens of millions of women among them—believes or intends to say that “women don’t matter,” any more than that premise motivated the partisan feminists who defended Bill Clinton amid multiple, credible accusations of sexual misconduct. And almost no one who wants Kavanaugh’s nomination to be rejected believes or intends to say that “truth does not matter.” These are crude caricatures that mislead Americans into believing their divisions are much deeper than they really are, as if being on opposite sides of a high-stakes confirmation fight isn’t divisive enough.

That isn’t to elide the gender gap in public opinion. NPR summed it up as follows:

Men are split on whom they believe: 39 percent say Kavanaugh, 37 percent say Ford. Women are far more on Ford’s side: 52 percent believe her, 27 percent say Kavanaugh.

But that gap disappears when looking at it by party—80 percent of Democratic men believe Ford as do 74 percent of Democratic women. Among Republicans, 77 percent of men believe Kavanaugh, as do 73 percent of women.

Where there is a difference by gender is among independents. Independent men are split 39 percent to 35 percent, siding slightly more with Ford, while a solid majority of women believe Ford, 56 percent to 24 percent.

At least a bit of that gender gap is explained by men who simply don’t care about the issue of sexual misconduct. Rapists and misogynists are among us, as are people so selfish that they only care about issues that affect them directly.

But most of the explanatory factors behind why men and women perceive these issues differently are much less fraught. Why, aside from predatory instincts or self-interest, might men tend to give a bit more weight to conserving norms that limit wrongful accusations and a bit less to shifting the equilibrium so that fewer victims fear being maligned?

Tyler Cowen offers a partial explanation:

There is an asymmetry between male and female perceptions. Most men are not abusers, yet very large numbers of women have been abused. So if a man is an abuser, there is a good chance he has abused a fair number of women.That means many well-meaning men experience sexual abuse as a relatively rare phenomenon. They haven’t done it, and most of their male friends haven’t either. At the same time, most women have abuse, rape, or #MeToo stories, and they experience these phenomena as relatively common and often life-altering.

Probably they also have heard multiple such stories from their female friends. This structural asymmetry of perspectives is crucial to understanding the discourse and the often fundamental differences in opinion.

That is not a substantive defense of any position. Nor is it inconsistent with the view that men ought to educate themselves about women’s perspectives to better grasp reality. But it does suggest an opinion gap rooted in divergent experiential knowledge, not antagonism or a divide in values so intractable as to warrant the writer Jill Filipovic’s admonition, “Divorce your Republican husbands”––hyperbole that doubles as an example of what not to say if you want to avoid Where does all this end? politics.

A vote to confirm or reject Kavanaugh is expected on Saturday. I don’t know whether his supporters or his opponents will wind up furious. I do know that many people in rival camps vastly overestimate the gulf in values between themselves and many on the other side, that the attendant polarization most advantages demagogues—and that the actual divisions in American society aren’t nearly as stark as we often imagine.