Erica Etelson

Erica Etelson

Erica Etelson is a member of Better Angels and author of the forthcoming book, Beyond Contempt: How Liberals Can Communicate Across the Great Divide (New Society Publishers.)

Dispatch: One Year After the Kavanaugh Hearings

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A year ago today, Christine Blasey Ford went public with a sexual assault allegation against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. I can’t recall in my lifetime a controversy steeped in such bitter divisiveness. It felt like the nation underwent a collective root canal on a very raw nerve.

Whether one believed Ford or Kavanaugh was easy to predict along party lines, and I was no exception. I’m a progressive feminist who was already in a bad way by the time the Kavanaugh hearings took place. Watching what I saw as belligerent counterattack against Democratic Senators was, for me, the low point of a long season of despair.

For blue Blues, it was another infuriating example of impunity for a powerful white man protected by powerful white men. For Reds, as I understand it, Kavanaugh was the victim of a partisan smear campaign facilitated by the liberal media leveraging #metoo furor. They saw the media displaying extreme bias against Kavanaugh, presuming him guilty and putting the onus on him to prove his innocence. Some felt that, even if the allegations were true, that Kavanaugh shouldn’t be denied a seat on the high court based on bad teenage behavior.

Who was right? I wouldn’t dream of relitigating that here until we’ve all had at least a decade to cool off. What I want to revisit instead is polarization. Public opinion survey data tell an interesting story.

Prior to Ford’s allegations, 14% of Democrats and 76% of Republicans supported Kavanaugh. After the testimony, 76% of Democrats, 8% of Republicans (and 47% of Independents) said they believed Ford. At that point, 13% of Democrats and 84% of Republican voters wanted Kavanaugh confirmed. In other words, Democrats opposed Kavanaugh before and after hearing from Ford, and Republicans liked him even more in light of Ford’s allegations.

Independents’ opinions were relatively stable, dropping only a small amount (to 43% support for Kavanaugh) after hearing testimony about Ford’s allegations. And while there was a significant gender disparity, it was nowhere near as extreme as the partisan gap.

This data reflects either confirmation bias or the biggest coincidence of all time. Reds and Blues watched the Kavanaugh hearings through partisan lenses.

Most Democrats opposed Kavanaugh before they ever heard of Ford, leaving one to wonder how many would have believed Ford had the nominee been more to their liking (i.e. a Democrat.) Republicans liked Kavanaugh before they ever heard of Ford, and their consensus strengthened after Ford came forward, with many undecideds moving to the support column.

There are couple of reasons this could have happened: There were probably undecided Republicans who hadn’t been following the nomination until Ford’s accusations turned it into the top news story, at which point they tuned in and took a position. There were also probably those who had been following the nomination and felt ambivalent until they perceived Kavanaugh to be under attack, at which point their partisan loyalty kicked into high gear.

There’s little doubt confirmation bias was exacerbated by polarized media spin. If we were already predisposed to believe Ford or Kavanaugh and everything we read and watched leaned into a one-sided narrative that filtered out inconvenient facts and contradictions, then it’s little wonder we dug our heels into our respective trenches. And to the extent that Reds perceived mainstream media as having it in for Kavanaugh, they did what humans always do when they feel their tribe is under attack—defend.

I personally believed Ford quite strongly. If I had a say, I’d have wanted the FBI to conduct a much more thorough investigation that included interviews of Kavanaugh’s college roommate and classmates with knowledge of Deborah Ramirez’s allegations. At the same time, unless I was a fly on the wall of that suburban Maryland bedroom, I can’t have one hundred percent certainty. I believe it’s possible for a reasonable mind to have disbelieved Ford—an alien from another planet who dropped in to render a verdict free from confirmation bias. What’s tragic is that the partisan quality of the affair precludes us from ever reaching a consensus about what happened.

Now that new allegations and evidence of Kavanaugh’s behavior at Yale have surfaced, a fair and just resolution will be more likely if we remove our partisan lenses.

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4 thoughts on “Dispatch: One Year After the Kavanaugh Hearings”

  1. I don’t see the new allegations shedding any more light on the controversy. For Kavanaugh supporters they are still “old news”. There is no more proof than there was before. Allegations are simply that. Democrats, or Kavanaugh opponents, will point to the incomplete FBI investigation. His supporters will point to the “inability” of the FBI investigation to confirm the allegations. There will be no definitive exploration of the facts. I personally believe that a non-biased and comprehensive investigation by the FBI may have provided a basis for determining the fitness of Kavanaugh for the Supreme Court, not necessarily so much on what his behavior had been, but on the truthfulness of his testimony before the Congressional committees. Notice the “may” in my previous sentence. More likely, whatever was reported, Kavanaugh would have been confirmed. The limited investigation, ordered by the administration, simply made it easier for “wavering” Senators to justify their votes for confirmation.
    In order to have any movement toward a discussion of “fitness” for the Supreme Court, we have to have some generally accepted criteria. But more than that: does a 50-50 vote for confirmation with the vice president casting the deciding vote allow any nominee to be considered fit? Too many Republicans will agree with that, and see Democrats as sore losers; until a possible 2020 election outcome puts the tie-breaking vote in the hands of a Democratic vice president. Do we really want to have a country with this erratic hyper-partisanship?

  2. Justin Naylor

    Thanks Erica! In your experience, what is the best way to get ordinary people who haven’t thought much about these things to resist confirmation bias? Is it the same for reds and blues?

    1. Erica Etelson

      Justin, I’m not an expert but I think awareness is key, along with listening to the other side, either through media consumption or talking to each other through Better Angels. When I started reading conservative POVs on Kavanaugh and Ford, I became aware of some things I hadn’t known before — ultimately, it didn’t change my belief in Ford’s story but it did show me that it’s good to hear from all sides.

  3. David Ludescher

    Erica,

    I would say what is truly tragic about the entire Kavanaugh proceedings is how partisan politics, on both sides, as infiltrated nearly every aspect of government. This partisanship now extends to even Supreme Court nominations. As a body, the Senate has never conducted itself so poorly, nor shown itself so incapable of being the august body it was intended to be.

    While the divisions among the American people are dramatic, the divisions are less dramatic than the divisions within the Senate. After all, how many Democratic senators voted for confirmation? How many Republicans voted against confirmation? What did they teach Americans about how to have a civil conversation? Is it any wonder that Americans have followed the lead of their representatives?

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