Lisa Murkowski & the Cancer in American Democracy

Yesterday, DC Circuit Court Judge Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed to the Supreme Court by a 50–48 vote in the Senate. The vote, preceded most recently by the public deliberations of four at-the-time “undecided” Senators — Democrat Joe Manchin (West Virginia) and Republicans Susan Collins (Maine), Jeff Flake (Arizona), and Lisa Murkowski (Alaska)—was almost perfectly party-line, with 49/51 Republicans and 1/47 Democrats (Manchin, surprise surprise) voting “Yea”, 46/47 Democrats and both Independents voting “Nay”, and the remaining 2/51 Republicans, Steve Daines (Montana) and Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), absent or abstaining, the former for the purposes of attending his Daughter’s wedding and the latter for… well, let’s have some words about that.

And before we start, I want to make something clear: this is probably not the article you think it’s going to be.

For the uninitiated, first, a brief timeline of the events leading up to this vote, truncated for length. On July 9th, 2018, Brett Kavanaugh was officially nominated for the seat left vacant by the retirement of Justice Anthony Kennedy. Kavanaugh’s hearings with the Senate Judiciary Committee began on September 4th, with a great deal of attention being paid towards Kavanaugh’s stance on Roe v. Wade and his non-answers in response thereto. On September 16th, Christine Blasey Ford officially came forward publicly with allegations that Brett Kavanaugh had sexually assaulted her in High School. On September 27th, Ford and Kavanaugh both publicly testified before the Senate Judiciary committee, with Ford’s emotional testimony, Kavanaugh’s fiery retort, and the Senate’s at-times ludicrous lack of professionalism all drawing extensive media coverage. The following day, the Senate voted to move forward with Kavanaugh’s confirmation vote on the condition that it would be preceded by a 1–week “limited in scope” FBI investigation into the allegations against him. The FBI’s report was shown to the Senate on October 4th, six days later, and was reportedly grossly incomplete and omitted key witnesses. The next day, October 5th (i.e. Friday), the Senate voted 51–49 to invoke cloture and proceed to a final vote the following day. Yesterday, on Saturday, October 6th, 2018, Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed by the aforementioned 50–48 vote in the Senate, ensuring a Conservative majority on the bench for many years to come. The only thing more mentally draining than the hideous nature of the events leading up to the confirmation is the realization that this entire process has taken just shy of 3 months to complete.

It’s no secret that, in all spheres of American politics, Kavanaugh’s nomination has been polarizing on a historical scale. The lines of party affiliation have effectively realigned themselves along the lines set by Ford’s testimony and the #MeToo movement, and they have brought to the forefront issues which had previously been all-too-easily ignored. Even in light of Kavanaugh’s confirmation, it is my hope that these issues stay at the forefront, and that their champions be believed and given their due attention and respect. And that brings us to the most recent of these champions: Alaska Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski.

Murkowski voted “Nay” in the Oct. 5th cloture vote, the only Republican Senator to do so. She publicly showed support for Christine Blasey Ford, expressed doubt regarding Kavanaugh’s fitness for the court, and expressed a deep empathy for survivors of sexual assault at large, acknowledging that discussion around it at the highest levels of politics has been historically tainted or outright lacking. And then, when the Oct. 6th vote came around, she abstained, voting neither for or against Kavanaugh officially — she made no small matter of this, and was very open with her reasons for doing so and her mixed feelings regarding the vote at large. In the aftermath of this decision, President Trump and other Republican leaders took time to condemn her in the media, turning an already difficult decision to speak her conscience into, effectively, political martyrdom in the eyes of the GOP. Controversial as it was within her own party, some on the left might be tempted to call what she did heroic.

But, make no mistake: Lisa Murkowski is no hero. In fact, and despite whatever words she may have, her actions are indicative of a deep, malignant cancer that pervades American Democracy today. I believe this very strongly, and throughout the rest of this already overlong essay, I’m going to explain exactly why.

At first glance, that thesis might seem meanspirited, shortsighted, and lacking basic empathy. After all, Murkowski is one of only 2 pro-choice Republicans in the Senate, and she has opposed the influx of Trump-ism into the legislative branch on a number of occasions; plus, if the issues at play during Kavanaugh’s confirmation battle were even the least bit personal for her, the past several weeks have undoubtedly been very emotionally taxing. She is effectively an outsider in her own party, and it certainly couldn’t have been easy, especially in the era of Trump Presidency, to be outspoken when she knew that almost no other members of her lifelong party would stand with her. I feel torn; this is probably a hard time for her, and she doesn’t deserve for somebody like me (or anybody) to make it harder.

But still, attention must be focused on precisely what she did and why she did it. Good intentions and emotional distress aside, Murkowski is a member of one of the most immensely powerful groups of people in the country, and her actions will always speak louder than her words.

Her action (or inaction, in this case) is clear and singular: She had the power to take a stand and vote “Nay”, but instead chose to attempt a strange route up the middle and effectively avoid taking a definitive stand in either direction.

One can cite a number of reasons for her abstaining from the final vote, but in truth, they needn’t look any further than her given reason: as a courtesy to Senator Steve Daines (R-Montana), a would-have-been “Yea” vote, so that he could skip the vote and attend his Daughter’s wedding. As a result, their votes (or lack thereof) cancel out, forming what is traditionally known as a “pair” between Senators. This tradition, as I understand it (I admittedly only learned of it today), is intended to serve as a gesture of respect and fairness among statesmen & stateswomen, such that Senators may collectively ensure that neither side of any vote has a higher proportion of present members than they would at full attendance — a simple measure of decorum, kindness, and fair play, if you will.

That’s very touching — or, at least, it might be, were this not the very same office wherein, just over a week ago, Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina), a 15-year veteran Senator, referred to the necessary evaluation of a man’s fitness to sit on the highest court in the land (and, by extension, the emotional testimony of a sexual assault survivor) as an “unethical sham” and “the most despicable thing” he had seen in his political career. As an added bonus, Graham went on to refer to Kavanaugh as the real “slut whore drunk” (yeah, about that “Decorum”…) after the confirmation vote — a sickening bit of wordplay likening Kavanaugh to an intoxicated woman falling prey to sexual assault as a means of emphasizing his belief that Kavanaugh was the “true” victim of the recent hearings.

These are the words of a Senior Senator — a Statesman who, for all intents and purposes, is supposed to speak for the Legislative Branch at large. And these are the people whose honor and pride Murkowski feels she must take some stand to defend? And moreover, we, the American people, are somehow supposed to be in awe of that? Sorry, Lisa; no sale. As far as I’m concerned, the Senate surrendered both its dignity and sense of decorum a long time ago, and if they want to regain either, they should look inward and look hard. The act of abstaining, which Murkowski likely saw as a noble decision becoming of a proper Senator, was nothing more than a hollow gesture in service of a long-broken system, collectively falling upon deaf ears.

More egregious, however, are the implications behind Murkowski’s abstaining, and how they tie into American voting at large.

Many apologetic reactions to Murkowski’s actions have cited the math; i.e. the fact that, even had she voted Nay, the vote still would have been 50–49 in Kavanaugh’s favor. On top of that, even if Daines had been present and another Nay vote had somehow brought the vote to 50–50, the tie vote for a hung Senate would have gone to Mike Pence, who surely would have voted Yea. In all cases, barring some huge unanticipated voting shift by other members, it seems Kavanaugh’s nomination would have been secure.

But that raises the question: even if the result of a vote or election seems like a foregone conclusion, does that fact alone justify not voting?

This issue (especially how it pertains to the voting habits of the American Public) is a meme at this point; as in, there are literally numerous memes that I see posted and re-shared around election time that address and make fun of it. Eligible voter turnout in the 2016 elections — one of the most contentious elections in decades — was a pitiful 55.5%. Many people cite a disillusionment with politics or lack of faith in “the system” as their reason for not voting, and many more (especially in my native states of Maryland and California) like to assert that their vote “wouldn’t matter anyway,” since their state leans either so heavily Blue or Red that their vote supposedly wouldn’t make a meaningful difference. I won’t try to pedantically mansplain how game theory works, but suffice it to say that this type of thinking does not hold up under even minimal scrutiny or testing.

And yet, Lisa Murkowski could make this very same argument in her defense; Kavanaugh was going to be confirmed anyways, so what did her vote matter? This type of thinking misses the entire point of voting in a Democratic system. Voting is not simply a means to an end that sheds its significance the moment that results tip heavily in one direction; it is a crucial part of our political system that, when working properly, guarantees each person within our society both the right and the responsibility to have their say. When somebody like Lisa Murkowski — somebody whose literal job is to make decisions and vote on behalf of the American people — abdicates this responsibility willingly or insists that doing so is somehow justified, I begin to believe that she, perhaps, doesn’t really have our best interests at heart.

That brings me to the final proverbial nail in the coffin: Murkowski’s limp attempt at a centrist, reconciliatory tone following the vote.

After Kavanaugh’s confirmation, Murkowski made several remarks to the press, including an acknowledgement that there was “not a lot of public” confidence in the senate at the time, as a call for “prayers” and “healing” among members of the Senate and the American people. This is not a bad sentiment per se; while it’s eerily almost verbatim the same thing politicians these days say after a mass shooting, it isn’t a completely negative message on it’s own.

That being said, what exactly is she talking about here? Who exactly does Murkowski believe is need of “healing” right now?

Her words, however intended, imply that the answer is the Senate. Again, she seems to expect the American people to dredge up sympathy for the members of a political institution whose very job description includes making hard decisions, taking unfavorable stands in the face of unwavering opposition, and putting oneself square in the public eye. She, like Senator Graham, seems to believe on some level that the sanctity of the US Senate has been the truest casualty of the Kavanaugh controversy. Kavanaugh’s confirmation poses a huge threat to virtually every even slightly underprivileged class in the United States, from women to immigrants to the poor — and yet, she expects our primary emotion at this moment in time to be sympathy for a bunch of old folks in Washington who have spent the last 3 months (and the greater part of all of their respective careers) collecting paychecks and bickering at one another’s throats? What about the healing that over half of the country is going to need once Kavanaugh’s new conservative majority wreaks its on brand of culturally backwards havoc on the legal books? Again, no sale, Lisa.

And moreover, how exactly is abstaining from the vote supposed to bring about “healing”? If there’s anything to be learned from American history, it’s that societies generally only get better if people take aggressive and consistent action to bring about change. Murkowski’s abstaining, the very definition of inaction (paired up with what I assume she views as adequate lip service to progressive views), is about as far from that as possible.

I could keep going, but I think it’s about time to conclude this absolute monstrosity of an essay.

Lisa Murkowski is not a villain. She’s not a bad senator, nor is she really a bad politician; hell, she’s not even the worst senator with a substantial role in this controversy (Senators Flake, Collins and Manchin are objectively much more to blame than she). But she isn’t a hero, and her brand of playing-both-sides half-conciliatory rhetoric/pandering that paints herself as an embattled political martyr and her House of Congress as a troubled but noble old-guard institution is not something that Americans should be in awe of. It is, to be certain, the hallmark of an institution so mired in its own broken internal politics that it fails to see even an inch outside its own walls. Critics and onlookers should see right through this charade for what it truly is: a limp, entirely ineffective attempt at taking a stand while also taking extreme care to cover one’s own ass.

This the “cancer” to which I referred in my title: the trend in American politics towards powerful, privileged classes abandoning their civic responsibilities out of some misplaced sense of respect or misunderstanding of power, only to then bemoan the adversarial nature of politics and to yearn for “unity” and “healing” as a selfish means of assuaging their own guilt. Murkowski is the poster child of this cancer: a career politician, entrusted with a duty to her constituents and country, who instead chose the worst kind of inaction and followed it up with her own spin on the “thoughts & prayers” cliché.

Murkowski isn’t a “victim” of the Kavanaugh confirmation; rather, she is one of the 0.00000031% of the American population who is Constitutional responsible for preventing people like Brett Kavanaugh from taking office, and when faced with the opportunity to use this power, she did nothing. We as Americans should be outraged by this, not impressed by it. Abdicating one’s own privilege and power in a situation because the needs of that situation feel overly controversial is not admirable; if anything, it’s downright disgraceful. And furthermore, if the Founding Fathers, mostly wealthy white landowners living within the most free and forward-thinking Imperial Government of their time, are to be our role models, we should remember that the duty to bring about meaningful change almost always falls upon the powerful.

In the words of Generation Y’s collective surrogate Uncle, “With great power, comes great responsibility.” I hope that, before long, the Senate remembers that lesson.

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