Waiting for Susan Collins to make the speech in which she announced her support for the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh was very dramatic because it made me think of the two different paths the nation might be headed down if she took one side or the other. If she opposed Kavanaugh, it would be a setback for Trump, though some commentators have said it would increase the turnout of conservatives for the midterms, while if she supported Kavanaugh, it would be a victory for the #metoo movement, which has taken central stage in national politics without the apparatus of being a movement, and might lead more and more women to take part in the midterms. Now, her vote determined, we face a rough few weeks of campaigning on, among other things, whether our sons or our daughters are more in danger. All this comes about because the Senate is so broken that it can’t even manage to get an objective investigation into whether a nominee has committed a criminal offense, the Democrats saying the FBI was curtailed by the White House, and the Republicans saying that the investigation was good enough. I don’t think either Chris Coons or Jeff Flake had this in mind just a week ago when they insisted that the FBI look into the matter. They expected a definitive finding. (Chris Coons was wrong when he said on “Meet The Press” today that the Senate confirmation process was a job interview and not a trial and so a credible accusation is enough to deny an appointment. But it is a trial, whether conducted in a faulty manner or not, because it reaches a conclusion of guilt or innocence. Either the reputation of the nominee is ruined by turning him down or his reputation is merely tarnished because he has been accused but approved anyway. We needed a definitive investigation.)
I want to deal with the question of what will happen to the country now that the conservatives have a clear majority on the Supreme Court. Susan Collins thinks that Brett Kavanaugh is a centrist, much like Merritt Garland. I think of him as a right wing conservative who is result oriented in his decision making and whose principles, like those of Antonin Scalia, are deeply indebted to conservative Catholic philosophy. So let us say that he votes for decisions that radically weaken Roe v. Wade or collective bargaining rights or favor religious groups that want their beliefs to trump social policy decisions of the Congress or of state legislators, such as a prohibition against tradesman discriminating against gay clients, then what will happen? How will the nation have been transformed?
To answer that, I turn to an insight offered to me by my late wife, Jane Heidt, some thirty or forty years ago when people first discussed overturning Roe v. Wade. Her insight was that a rollback of what she thought of as progressive decisions by the Supreme Court would have an impact only on Southern and Plains states. Northern states and Far Western states had enough state laws guaranteeing abortion rights, as well as various social welfare programs and employee rights, that very little would change there. People in Mississippi would have to come North for abortions but there could be philanthropic organizations that funded such trips, even as, I add, that abortion is likely to become less and less contentious an issue as we move to a day when a next week pill will be delivered by Federal Express a day after it is ordered. It will be the case that the lives of gays and unionists will be curtailed south of the Mason Dixon line, though even that may not happen given that professional athletic associations and other cultural organizations will not travel to places which discriminate. It should be remembered that there are very few Republican Senators north of the Mason Dixon line and that noteworthy southern cities, such as Charlotte and Miami, are already liberally inclined.
What is more important than the actual political impact of a conservative Supreme Court, is the cultural divide it would betoken. At the heart of our nation is a regional divide between the North and the South that was so deep at the time of De Tocqueville that he maintained that it was founded on the geographical differences between the regions: the North was a place of small, independent farmers because the soil was so rocky that it was difficult to clear, and so farmland was precious, while Southern land was readily cultivated, and so would lend itself to large plantations and, I might add, an economy where labor was the most expensive of the means of production, and so became the area which allowed slave labor. Yes, Southerners think that their present prosperity may have something to do with the Civil Rights Movement freeing up labor from being an exploited commodity, or that it is the result of air conditioning, which make life in the South more livable. But regardless of whether you prefer a political or technological explanation, the finally New South is challenged by an electorate that looks back to the good old days and that has been mobilized by Republicans, and especially by Trump, to vote as a bloc against Northern and Far Western views, which they regard as the corrupt and venal and perverse concerns of those who come from those parts.
How will we overcome this faultline? Or maybe not, given that we existed as a nation half free and half slave for all of our history, given the failure of post-Civil War Reconstruction, up until the mid Sixties. One solution is that demographic trends will finally bear fruit and Hispanics and Blacks and transplanted Northerners will vote in sufficient number to make red states purple. Maybe that will happen in Texas this time around, though don’t count on it, because Ted Cruz preaches the old time gospel of the perfidious leftist Northerners. But it may also be that educated white women have come so far in challenging in number the white women who do not have college educations that their views will prevail.
We are in the midst of a great cultural upheaval where college education is no longer the domain of the elites but has a transforming effect on large swaths of the population. According to the Pew Center, four out of ten Millennials, which means workers between the ages of 25 and 29, have Bachelor’s degrees. The number is slightly higher for women Millennials and slightly lower in the South, And that is not to count those who have degrees from technical colleges or community colleges. Education makes people look at evidence and try to adduce principles. It gives confidence in there being an objective world and not just one of emotional responses to situations that do not clarify themselves. Or at least that has been the view ever since Dewey claimed that even purely technical education would lead to intellectual enlightenment. However it works its magic on even semi-somnambulant or otherwise inattentive students, education leads people to be more articulate about their opinions, to cite such facts as they come across as proofs of their opinions, and so, maybe, on the whole, though apparently not at Georgetown Prep, to treat girls with some delicacy, a revolution as great, perhaps, as that which took over France when courtly love came into fashion in the Twelfth Century.
But that is in the future. For the moment there is the very bitter taste of what happened in the Senate over the past several weeks and how to respond to that unseemly display of behavior, full of rancor and misogyny and excuses for boys being only boys. As for myself, I can only say that I never knew anyone who acted the way these frat boys did however much I am amazed at how smart Brett Kavanaugh was to get into Yale Law School despite the amount of time, as numerous witnesses claim, that he spent getting and being drunk.
There are numerous ways in which people can respond to the recent ugliness in the Senate. They can translate it into their traditional political concerns and so double down on the party and ideology that they previously sided with, or even reverse field and become converts to the other side because they suddenly feel their own sons or daughters threatened. Or they can find it all too ugly for words and retreat from politics altogether and concern themselves with other matters, such as church or work or friendship circles, all of them more pure than the morass of politics. Or, thirdly, they can find that issues other than had concerned them previously are relevant to their political identities, whether that is respect for women, or due process, or whether politicians who are rough and tumble earn their respect. I don’t know how this will play out at the polls, but it should, because in a democracy that is where we bring our deepest and most freshly thought out social concerns, and these levels of consciousness are not deeply probed by the polls. We shall see what happens in the month till the midterms: whether anger coalesces into partisanship on one side or the other; whether there is a general cultural insight into the plight of women; whether the usual drivers of politics, such as health care or immigration or the personality of the President, are in the ascendant; or whether something else entirely captures the public fancy. We shall see.