Will #MeToo Be The Senate’s Waterloo?

Something decisive will occur in the Senate this week.  Not just a nomination hearing, but a political drama crystallizing in the minds of Americans the nature of a political party, and an institution.

In a hearing set for Thursday, the Senate Judiciary Committee will consider whether Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh is a person of respectable character.  They will hear from a California psychology professor, Christine Blasey-Ford, who has come out of nowhere with a believable claim that in 1982 Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her when she was 15.  Kavanaugh denies it.  Despite the perturbation the allegations are causing, Senate Republicans are intent on shielding the nominee.  Determined to treat whatever is disclosed in tomorrow’s hearing as irrelevant to his confirmation, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell anticipates that, after hearing from the two parties in a non-judicial setting, the committee will vote on the confirmation the very next day.

On the way to that vote, America will see how its leaders behave.  How do senators treat a woman whose personal story threatens the plans of President Trump and the Republican Party?  How considerate are they in sorting out this very unsavory #MeToo story, which the recent openness of women in discussing sexual assault is empowering?  To what extent have senators reckoned with the implications of sexual equality, or how badly are they out of step with the times?

President Trump and the Republican leadership in Congress have dug in their heels, exploiting their every institutional advantage in an effort to mute a damning social narrative and push Kavanaugh through.  Trump’s White House has become Kavanaugh’s sanctuary.  He has been holed up there like a wanted man, arming himself with the latest in dis-ingenuity.  Kavanaugh’s proxies have spread out on the news circuit, broadcasting doe-eyed astonishment that anyone could fail to see Judge Kavanaugh as squeaky-clean.  Meanwhile, Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), chair of the judiciary committee, has announced that an outside interlocutor, Rachel Mitchell, a sex-crimes prosecutor from Arizona, will spare Republicans members the embarrassment of figuring out how to talk with Dr. Ford.  A brilliant fix for a hearing where the goal is to avoid hearing anything she says.

Ultimately—and this is what the president and Senate don’t seem to get—, Dr. Ford’s challenge to Kavanaugh’s confirmation isn’t about legalities.  It’s about whether Kavanaugh is acceptable to society.   It’s about whether Brett Kavanaugh, who is rumored to have put his hand over a girl’s mouth while attempting to overpower her, is a socially respectable being.  Is he a gentleman?  Today, American society is ostracizing harassers of women because their behavior is anathema to equality.  The buzz surrounding Kavanaugh is alarmingly loud.

Over the centuries, the Senate has often exemplified dignity.  It has upheld courtesy as an ideal, as a source of inner order, as the secret of its prestige.  Tomorrow, members of the Senate Judiciary Committee will be called on to receive “an inconvenient rememberer” courteously.  Yet, as #MeToo comes knocking, a blinkered and insensitive Senate cowers.

RELATED ARTICLES:
Caitlin Flanagan, “I Believe Her,” The Atlantic.
Caitlin Flanagan, “The Abandoned World of 1982,” The Altantic.

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The Rebel Angels

Senator Mitch McConnell (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)
In Paradise Lost, Satan (a.k.a. Lucifer) is the leader of the forces Milton describes as ‘rebel angels.’  Satan is the most glorious of angels, but he can’t stand the idea of serving God.  He chafes at the idea of obedience.  He actually persuades many other angels, who look up to him, to wage war against God, famously declaring ‘Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven.’  God puts up with Satan as long as he can but, finally angered, he quells the rebel angels by turning every last one of them into snakes.  Unfortunately, Satan, a sibilant snake, still has the gift of speech.  And, though much reduced in his status, cosmically speaking, he still has the capacity to make trouble for earthlings, which he does when he successfully tempts Eve to eat of the apple, destroying the good thing Adam and she have had going in the Garden of Eden.

Milton’s fable of the fall of Lucifer aptly encapsulates the dynamic playing out in the Senate.  The Senators, though immensely powerful, resent the President’s authority—in fact, they resent the President personally.  They simply loathe the President, and this loathing has eventually driven them to forget their duties, and their proper place in the scheme of things.  Discontent, they disdain the glories of their rightful position and their great capacity, as Senators, to effect what contributes to the betterment of our country.

Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, in particular, has warred against the Senate’s limited role in the selection of Supreme Court nominees.  He has militantly declared he will not do his duty, nor does he want other Republican Senators to do theirs.  He seeks to prevent the President from placing Merrick Garland on the high court, claiming that the next President will better represent ‘the people’s will.’  More recently, McConnell has disgraced himself by subjugating his own judgment on the matter to the judgment of two lobbying groups.  He falsely claims that history gives his acts legitimacy.  These are the marks of a man no longer content with dimensions of his own authority.

In truth, both the President and the Senate, as constituted, represent the people’s will.  The Senators are each delegated to express the will of their states, just as much as the President represents the people’s will nationally.  In straining to control all that happens in our political cosmology, the Senate’s ‘rebel angels’ are undermining their own prestige and the Senate’s once-illustrious reputation and authority.

Collectively, the Senate’s exercise of ‘advise and consent’ might confirm Judge Garland as a fit selection for the Supreme Court.  But wouldn’t that be a triumphant outcome, given that we live in a fallen world?  We are, as much as in Milton’s time or in Lucifer’s, ‘sufficient to stand and free to fall.’

Image:
1992 photograph of Senator Mitch McConnell by Laura Patterson,
from this source.

The Next Political Football: Medicaid

Last week’s Supreme Court ruling on the Affordable Care Act has placed a spotlight on the expansion of Medicaid benefits that the legislation envisioned.  Reactions to the Court’s ruling, which gave states the right to opt out of the expansion, again illustrate the state-level differences in our political culture.  Already a number of states, notably Florida, have declared their states will not be going along, while others (including California, New York, and Illinois) have embraced the measure.

THIS INTERACTIVE MAP on the PBS News Hour website allows you to see where each state stands with respect to the plan and the number of eligible recipients who will be affected in each.

Readers may also be interested in the maps below, showing the US House and Senate votes that led to the passage of the health reform bill.  Click on the maps to see larger maps and full legends.

https://i1.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/5/54/111th_Congress_roll_call_165.svg/256px-111th_Congress_roll_call_165.svg.png

US House vote on March 21, 2010,
by congressional district, showing yeas and nays by party.

https://i0.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/9/92/111th_Congress_1st_session_Senate_roll_call_396.svg/256px-111th_Congress_1st_session_Senate_roll_call_396.svg.png

US Senate vote on December 24, 2009, by state.

Maps courtesy of Kurykh on Wikimedia Commons.


RELATED:
Susan Barsy, Progress Isn’t Popular, Our Polity.
Susan Barsy, A Decision We’ll All Feel, Our Polity.
Susan Barsy, The Map of Federal Benefits, Our Polity.
Susan Barsy, Help Understanding the Budget, Our Polity.

Progress Isn’t Popular

YESTERDAY WAS a great day for majorities.  A majority of the Supreme Court upheld the majority of the Affordable Care Act, a complex but very necessary piece of legislation that majorities in Congress had passed more than two years back.

Besides the great satisfaction that comes from watching the various branches of our government working in the intricate ways our forefathers envisioned, yesterday’s events furnish an opportunity to reflect on the great courage required of leaders in our contentious democracy.  I hope every congressman and senator who voted for the passage of the ACA will feel more comfortable taking credit for this landmark legislation.

I’m sure the Affordable Care Act is imperfect and that down the line it will need to be tweaked.  But the complex provisions of the law are complex for the very reason that they represent an accommodation: an accommodation of many powerful private interests, institutions and professions, as well as a dizzying range of individual, programmatic, and social needs.  The health-care reform act will affect us all, and it will shift around the burdens of health care in our society; but it marks a path toward a healthier society, so far the only one a majority of our legislators has managed to agree to.

A minority of Americans will continue to rail against our national institutions, and will try to convince the rest of us to hate a measure likely to confer broad benefits on us, both individually and as a society.  May their cries fall on deaf ears, and may they remember that the very foundation of our system is a respect for majority rule.

RELATED:
Susan Barsy, A Decision We’ll All Feel, Our Polity.
David Brooks, Modesty and Audacity, New York Times.