It’s uncanny the way perhaps the three most distinguished Supreme Court nominees in my lifetime—Robert Bork, Clarence Thomas and Brett Kavanaugh—have all been brutally slimed. Those nominees who sailed through, and now sit on the court, are all distinguished citizens with admirable careers, but their places in the legal history of the United States are unlikely to be as significant as those of Bork, Thomas and Kavanaugh.
In other words, it strikes me as notable that the best of the best get the worst treatment. I think we’d do well to ponder this.
First of all, it’s not new. Bork and Thomas were quite a while ago, one or two generations, depending on your standard of measurement. The sliming of Judge Kavanaugh is part of a long-standing pattern, not a surprising eruption of some new form of feminism or just part of the current political conflict.
I think the pattern has to do with the failure of the left to win substantive debates on central issues. Not so long ago, the left, usually in the form of pidgin Marxism (“the world is the way it is because of economic and social factors, and if you want to change things, you must change the economic and social structure”) Or, as candidate Clinton put it, “it’s the economy, stupid.”
It may be that there was a period when the left’s model of reality was largely accurate, but by mid-century it no longer explained the world. Politics has increasingly become independent of economics. Do you think the rise of radical Islam can be explained by economic factors? Is jihad a response to social misery? Is totalitarianism created by unemployment? Remember that Hitler’s rise to power came with an improving German economy, not economic crisis.
As it became ever clearer that the left’s view of the world was false, politics changed. For if the left couldn’t explain things, their path to political power led through the politics of personal destruction, the sliming of their opponents. And that brings us around to Bork, Thomas and Kavanaugh. The fury of the attacks on these three Supreme Court nominees was equal and opposite to the distinction they represented. It was precisely their combination of virtue and wisdom that so threatened the left. The leftists had learned that they couldn’t best them in a serious debate, so the only hope was to so besmirch the nominees that the left might prevail in a confirmation vote. It worked with Bork, failed with Thomas, and—excuse the expression—the jury is out on Kavanaugh at this writing. Whatever the outcome, the leftists have certainly used their best strategy.
So the paradox is that, the more distinguished and qualified the candidate, the more intense must be the politics of personal destruction. Politics as usual, the sort of politics my generation was raised to believer in and to practice, are gone, and will be gone until a new left, with new arguments, emerges. Until then, the rightists and/or Trumpists, will prevail by default.
When Clarence Thomas spoke against the sliming at his confirmation hearing, he described it as a “high-tech lynching.” That was at a time when the technology, by our standards, was fairly primitive. Still, it almost derailed him. Kavanaugh faces an onslaught from a well-organized high-tech mob that will seemingly spread any and all rumors to stop him, because if he is confirmed, they are facing the loss of their political domination of the Court for a long time. This is a mortal threat, and they know it.
One more thing about sliming. A lot of it sticks, and follows you to the grave and beyond, into the history books. No matter if the target is defeated or confirmed, he or she will forever encounter people who believe the accusations.
On the other hand, this is uniquely a Washington (and liberal coastal) phenomenon. One of the reasons Justice Thomas so cherishes his time on the road, driving his big bus around the country, is that he has the good fortune to encounter citizens who either do not recognize him, or who are proud to shake his hand. Judge Kavanaugh should remember that; he will actually gain in stature in the eyes of millions of Americans who know why he is being slimed, and don’t like it at all.
Perhaps the backlash against the slimers will eventually compel civility. That’s our best hope for the future. Unlikely, to be sure, at least in the short run, but change is the great constant in human history.