What are we to make of the political knife-fight over the Brett Kavanaugh nomination?
One thing to note is the centrality of sex in the uproar. This does not surprise me. Of the utopian dreams of the 1960s, only the sexual revolution has attained cultural dominance. To a great degree, we as a society believe in the promises of that revolution: that sex can be safe; that men and women can enjoy sexual freedom to the same degree and in the same way; that sex need have nothing to do with children; that sex is purely private. These promises are backstopped by abortion, the constitutional status of which fuels the urgency surrounding the Kavanaugh appointment.
Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony before the Senate on Thursday had little evidentiary weight, but it carried a powerful cultural charge. It accords with the #MeToo movement and with women’s anger about sex, which is flowing into politics.
At one level, the rage is directed at men. We have betrayed the sexual revolution by making sex dangerous rather than safe. We have failed to ensure that men and women enjoy sexual freedom to the same degree and in the same way. We have exploited the promise that sex will be kept private, using it to our advantage. Countless women have implied, or said outright, that it does not matter whether Ford’s story is accurate. She is speaking a larger truth, which society must reckon with.
But the rage has a larger dimension, gathering up a range of grievances. Over the last two generations, social status has come to be defined more and more narrowly in terms of elite education, professional status, and wealth. These are zones of intense competition. Something similar has happened in the once heavily regulated arena of male-female relations. These days, the male-female dance is riven by fears of exploitation, betrayal—and, now, retribution. In this context, Ford speaks for the many, for those who feel they’ve been cheated, sidelined, used, ignored, insulted, excluded, and otherwise mistreated by the few who, like Kavanaugh, seem to sail through life unscathed.
The Democratic senators on the Judiciary Committee and in the liberal commentariat sense the power of this rage. Their hope has been to use it to kill Kavanaugh’s appointment to the Supreme Court, or at least to raise the stakes for the midterm elections.
This is an understandable tactic. The rage over sex is perhaps the most powerful in our body politic today. An older rage revolves around race—a rage among blacks over their exclusion, and a corresponding rage among some whites over black empowerment at the expense of their old privileges. But over the decades, our political system has domesticated that rage by slotting it into reliable partisan camps. The powerful were never swept up into the rage over race. They managed it, limiting its destructive power to urban riots in black neighborhoods and punishing its expressions among poorer, less powerful whites. All of this is why Ta-Nehisi Coates, for all his radical posturing, sounds like an establishment figure. He plays a well-established role in our economy of racial rage.
The new rage is different. I’m willing to bet that hostility toward Kavanaugh increases proportionally with socio-economic status. It is an elite rage of law professors and management consultants. It’s the rage of the powerful, which is always more dangerous than the rage of the downtrodden. It finds articulate, well-placed leaders who can draw upon fully theorized narratives of oppression. They position themselves to speak for all who resent exclusion or exploitation, actual or perceived. They draw upon an intersectionality of rage.
For this reason, the decision by the Democrats to turn the Kavanaugh hearings into a theater of rage was a dangerous ploy. Perhaps I am even over-stating the element of calculation in the decision. Because this rage affects the powerful, Dianne Feinstein, Kamala Harris, and the others may themselves be animated by it—rage’s instruments, rather than its masters. If so, the situation for the Democrats is more perilous still.
Donald Trump raises the emotional stakes of political debate. This has been the key to his political success. But his success has come at a cost. Trump’s politics of rage unsettles establishment Republicans. Staid suburban voters who are moderate conservatives see Trump as a destabilizing figure in our body politic, putting a hard ceiling on his support.
In this context, Democrats have much to gain by presenting themselves as the responsible adults, the ego to Trump’s id. Dianne Feinstein and most other Democratic leaders are ultra-establishment figures with no interest in upheaval. Soon they will pivot back to playing the “responsible party” against Trump and Republican “extremism.” But the rage on display during the Kavanaugh hearings will not be easy to contain. It is fueling Leftist populism, which is on the rise. It highlights the Left’s own destabilizing politics of rage and destruction.
Ever since Trump’s ascent, the strongest arguments against him have focused on his temperamental unfitness for the presidency and his polarizing effect on our society. These are arguments for establishment competence and sobriety. In the aftermath of the rage-driven strategy to derail Kavanaugh’s appointment (quite different from the quiet, procedural tactics of Mitch McConnell, which derailed Merrick Garland’s appointment), these arguments are harder to make.
The Democrats may imagine that they, like Trump, will benefit from the politics of rage. But the Democrats’ power flows from their monopoly on the “responsible center.” The last season of leftwing rage came as the 1960s crashed to a close, and it did great harm to the Democratic Party. This time is different, in that both sides are drawing upon reservoirs of rage. But in my estimation, the Democrats will suffer more than the Republicans, because the Democrats have long been the establishment party. The politics of rage are far more likely to undermine than to renew the Ivy League–Goldman Sachs–Silicon Valley liberalism that has stood astride our politics since 1945, for rage always upsets the calculations by which establishments maintain their grip.
R. R. Reno is editor of First Things.