The Appointment of Justice Kavanaugh; a triumph of Realpolitik or a symptom of Political Schadenfreude?
On the 6th of October 2018, the US Senate appointed Justice Brett Kavanaugh as a Justice of the American Supreme Court despite multiple allegations of sexual assault against him. For the casual nonpartisan observer of the American political landscape, despite the controversial events surrounding it, the seeming inevitability of his appointment due to the unrelenting determination of the Republican Party raises an interesting question. Was his appointment due to the Republicans party’s emphatic embrace of principles of realpolitik or was it rather merely a symptom of political schadenfreude which characterizes the present-day American political landscape.
It should be noted for the sake of clarity that at the time of Justice Kavanaugh’s appointment there existed no conclusive evidence of guilt or wrong doing of any kind in relation to the allegations of sexual assault and the opinions contained within this article are formulated with no additional information other than that which has been available to the public.
Realpolitik can be explained as politics based on practical and material factors rather than on theoretical or ethical objectives. In other words, a system where practical considerations rather than ideological or moral standpoints govern decision making. Historically, principles of Realpolitik form the probable foundation of countless governmental practices such as colonialism, democracy etc.
At face value, the appointment of Justice Kavanaugh as a Supreme Court Justice despite the allegations of sexual assault levied against him seems to adhere to this principle. The actions of the Republican Party indicate to the casual observer that the necessity to appoint a conservative justice to the Supreme Court and Justice Kavanaugh’s suitability in potentially furthering and cementing the party agenda trumps any potential moral responsibility and accountability they might incur by appointing a possible perpetrator of sexual assault.
Ironically, the leaders of Republican Party who spearheaded his appointment have justified this action on an ideological principle that is diametrically opposed to the pragmatism of Realpolitik. The principle of fair hearing and the presumption of innocence. Sticking to the party line, GOP leader Mitch McConnell described the appointment by asserting that, “the Senate stood up for presumption of innocence by confirming Kavanaugh to Supreme Court”.
However upon closer analysis, their approach to the practical application of the ideological principle of fair hearing hinted at a glorification of the practicality of his appointment over the need for equity, transparency and fairness in the process. For example, the examination of the allegations by the Senate commenced with restrained hearings that only permitted testimony from Justice Kavanaugh and Dr Christine Blasey Ford (one of his accusers). Afterwards, several prominent Republicans while not going as far to regard her testimony as credible did go on to support an FBI investigation into her claims. This raises the fascinating question on why an FBI investigation was not ordered before testimony was heard by the Senate Judiciary Committee. The Senate in turn then decided to order a restrained and potentially inadequate FBI Investigation into the allegations with a clear deadline which again seemed to reinforce the inevitability of his appointment. All the while, these action were taken with a startling disregard of the lobbying of jurists and legal scholars (e.g. a petition of 2,400 Law professors and more significantly the Harvard Law School, Justice Kavanaugh’s Alumnus) to restrain any appointment until a thorough appraisal of the allegations.
Even more damning to any Republican pretense of fairness is the defense mounted by Justice Kavanaugh at his hearing in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee which shattered any pretension of judicial impartiality and should have ideally disqualified him from contention. Within his testimony while giving a passionate defense of his character, Justice Kavanaugh made some startling statements wherein he declares himself the victim of a pro-Clinton Democratic conspiracy asserting that the allegations are a “calculated and orchestrated political hit, fueled with apparent pent-up anger about President Trump and the 2016 election” and that “what goes around, comes around.” Remarkably, Kavanaugh’s performance which led to retired republican appointed Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens to comment on his inappropriateness for the role due to clear partisanship seemingly cemented the support of the GOP. Clearly in a purely realpolitik sense, with his appointment Senate Republicans are making an aggressive play to ward off primary challenges by appearing to support the desires of the conservative base and President Trump.
Therefore, at the very least, the actions of the Republicans in the American Senate superficially seem to be a triumph of realpolitik wherein the practical benefits of appointing a conservative Supreme Court Justice merely outweighed the need to send a message to American people on the gravity of sexual assault complaints and the ethical manner to properly handle such allegations. As an interesting side note, the unanimous Democratic Party line of sanctimonious repulsion and righteous indignation seems to ignore that they have in the past similarly displayed a realpolitik-like indifference and support for party loyalty over ethics. For example, by unanimously voting against the impeachment of Democratic President Bill Clinton, despite clear evidence of wrongdoing.
Thus it would be fair to say that generally in American politics, Realpolitik dictates that voting strictly across party lines despite personal views even in remarkably controversial and incendiary situations, much like the circumstances surrounding Kavanaugh, is the norm and not the aberration.
However the uniqueness of this situation raised some interesting questions. Justice Kavanaugh was selected by the American President out of a list of multiple qualified candidates and due to the Republican majority in the Senate, another conservative candidate chosen to replace Justice Kavanaugh would also inevitably be appointed with perhaps less conflict. Confronted with the undeniable truth of their seemingly unassailable position on this issue which one could argue is ironically established by their capacity to force the appointment of such a controversial candidate, there seems to be room for clear alternatives.
Consider a hypothetical. Based on their position of superiority, the application of Realpolitik in this situation by the GOP could dictate that practically it is more advantageous to maintain a superficial moral high ground and prevent even the potentiality of political disillusionment by replacing the controversial candidate and perhaps appointing a qualified female replacement which serves the dual practical advantage of appointing a conservative Supreme Court Justice and shattering the negative(but persuasive) Democratic Party rhetoric about Republican party.
The Republican Party was faced with a choice.
On one hand, they have the potential that Justice Kavanaugh’s conservative stance in the Supreme Court will harden due to a personal sense of perceived persecution by the Democrats and gratitude to his benefactors the Republicans. His testimony to the Judiciary Committee hinted as much. In the same hand, reports indicate that there is rise of enthusiasm among Republicans following Kavanaugh’s confirmation with regards to the midterm elections and support for Kavanaugh gives crucial political capital for re-election.
On the other hand, reports also indicate that there is an immediate and certain threat of the appointment potentially galvanizing both the Democratic Party base and the apolitical American into supporting the Democrats in the midterm’s elections. So to quote American Political Commentator John Oliver “Why is he the hill Republicans are willing to die on?”
The short answer. President Trump.
Schadenfreude is the experience of pleasure, joy, or self-satisfaction that comes from learning of or witnessing the troubles, failures, or humiliation of another. In 2009, a study conducted established that Political Schadenfreude i.e. the likelihood of experiencing feelings of schadenfreude (joy or pleasure) based on the opposing party suffering harm exists. In simpler terms, if you think of the American GOP as a football team schadenfreude is the tribal joy its supporters experience in the triumph over and failure of their opposition. In 2018, Political Schadenfreude is indisputably a key element of Trumpism and Trump’s America.
A casual study of the Trump Presidential campaign, his subsequent policy standpoints and his general leadership of the Republican Party reveals that Trump and the GOP are sometimes majorly motivated into actions due to a desire to create political schadenfreude. Although, this is partly due to the President Trump’s personality, his early success in the Republican primaries and in the general elections over more qualified candidates sent a clear message to the Republican Party that the creation and exploitation of feelings of political schadenfreude has a significantly larger appeal to the Republican base over moral or ethical considerations.
Consider for a moment the comments by Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham that “I’m getting a lot of credit from people back home for fighting back against what they saw as an outrage”. It becomes clear that there is intensity among conservative voters who are outraged at what they view as Kavanaugh’s unfair treatment by liberal Democrats and the media which is a larger symptom of a toxic ‘we against them’ culture of political schadenfreude in today’s America.
In other words, Trumps ‘Win at all cost (but most importantly) while humiliating your opposition’ rhetoric, far from being an empty campaign slogan has become the actual policy standpoint of the Republican Party. Evidence of this is the dismantling of countless common-sense Obama-era policies with no immediate replacement or apparent logical motivation other than embarrassment of the past administration. Even more evidence of this is his recent mocking of Dr Ford’s Testimony at a rally. Unsurprisingly therefore, the appointment of Kavanaugh is being treated by the White House with the ‘Win at all costs’ political philosophy with multiple reports indicating that President Trump is not willing to consider any alternative to Justice Kavanaugh as his nominated candidate.
Thus the forced appointment of Kavanaugh by the GOP can be seen as a manifestation of its newly imbibed ‘Win at all costs while embarrassing the opposition’ policy to the detriment of the Democrats because when confronted with the reality of a polarizing topic like sexual assault, they uncharacteristically failed to capitulate. It is the climax of an attitude summarized by the comments an unnamed Republican supporter who brazenly said “I don’t care if he’s guilty, I just want him appointed”. This leads to a conclusion. While undoubtedly there exists realpolitik reasons for the Republican appointment of Justice Kavanaugh, the more fascinating element is why those reasons exist, the republican base and its desire for political schadenfreude.
Even more insightful is President Trump’s recent comments when discussing the allegations by Dr Ford and the danger of claims of sexual assault that “the young men in America live in a dangerous time”. To this commentator, this is a clear reference to the Me Too movement (a global movement against sexual harassment and sexual assault which has come under criticism for the publicizing of false allegations of sexual assault)
The clear implication of this statement is that the opposition in this case exceeds the Democratic Party but rather extends to the misguided and dangerous liberal movement for sexual accountability which could create potential unsubstantiated claims of sexual assault. The ultimate goal? To oppose this ‘dangerous’ movement and ensure the protection of the American man.
Although the occurrences preceding his election (e.g. the Access Hollywood bus tape where he brags about sexual assault) would indicate that President Trump is impervious to the scope of the Me Too movement, it has largely experienced some significant successes in bringing down some powerful men in various industries and the optics of Justice Kavanaugh’s appointment in the context of this movement is clear. It would be a fair assessment that the appointment of Justice Kavanaugh by the Republican Party is due to a desire for political schadenfreude based on the passionate opposition of the Democratic Party by its base but also targeted at the (largely perceived liberal) Me Too movement. Thus we are left with a clear alternative justification for the actions of the Republican Party other than Realpolitik. Schadenfreude.
As colorfully articulated by Political Commentator John Oliver
“You don’t need to choose an unhinged partisan with a multiple accusations of sexual misconduct hanging over him,”… “So it feels like they’re doing this just to deliver a ‘f — — you’ to Democrats, and even more directly, a ‘f — — you’ to women.”
I am inclined to agree.