The Republican’s have run out of options. They have successfully obstructed any hopes of a Democratic appointment to the Supreme Court since Obama’s final term. It was 2016 when Mitch McConell took political hardball to the next level by refusing to even grant Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, Merrick Garland, a hearing. McConell’s stated reason for this was that no Supreme Court nominee should be put forward in an election year (Ziblatt & Levitsky, 2018). Of course there was no real precedent for this. This was simply a move by Republican’s, who were the party out of power, grasping for the only lever of power available to them at the time which was a withholding form of obstructionism. The Republican’s gamble paid off when Trump became president and filling judicial appointments to all levels of the court system became a not so subtle full time job for the new administration. Over the four years of Trump’s presidency three conservative Supreme Court Justices have been seated, which is an impressive run by any president. Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett have been elevated to the highest court in the land, some with narrow bipartisan support. Amy Coney Barrett was nominated one month prior to the 2020 election, blowing apart the Republican’s subterfuge regarding not wanting to nominate a justice in an election year. Prior to the end of mutual toleration there was a widely supported norm that president’s were allowed to have their nominees, both their cabinet selections and their Supreme Court selections (Ziblatt & Levitsky, 2018). Today, we are playing a zero sum game in politics, where a win for one side is a loss for the other. Both sides have been driven into their respective corners. However, with the Republicans getting three justices in a row one would be tempted to think that they would let Biden have his nominee just for the sake of goodwill and fairness.
Enter Ketanji Brown Jackson. Jackson, Biden’s nominee, is a continuing nod to his commitment to make Washington look more representative of the actual demographics in our country. Biden announced that he would select a black woman for the Supreme Court. In selecting his nominee he was sure to pick someone who was beyond reproach. Jackson is that nominee. She has already been confirmed with bipartisan support by the second highest court in the land, the DC Court of Appeals. She is a Harvard graduate who also went to Harvard Law. She was on Law Review at Harvard. She clerked for Stephen Breyer, the man she is replacing. She served as a public defender. She is also the vice chair of the US Sentencing Commission. All of this to say that Biden picked a black woman sure to be bulletproof in a confirmation process where one side of the Senate disapproves of you, ostensibly due to your judicial opinions, but more accurately objects to your right to be applying for the job at all. Biden’s commitment to elevating minorities into positions of real power is only one of the many ways in which race has become front and center in 2022. While one party is driving forward toward inclusive representation, the other side is disdainful of such moves which they equate to a form of affirmative action. Out of 115 justices to serve, 108 have been white men. The subtext of Jackson’s nomination highlights what Diana Mutz labeled white status insecurity. (Mutz, 2016).
With Democrats having enough votes to confirm Jackson without any Republican votes, what strategy would Republicans utilize in Jackon’s confirmation hearing? Would they graciously stand down and allow Jackson to be confirmed in a bipartisan manner? It was not to be born. Characteristic of our time, Republican’s cued their depraved tools from their arsenal and leveled a curious line of attack against Jackson. Knowing they could not keep Democrats from supporting her, they seemed determined to force a strict party line vote. Senator Josh Hawley, the Republican from Missouri, led the charge. The accusation was that Judge Jackson has a history of being lenient in cases involving childhood sexual abuse. This was followed up with attacks by other Republican Senators such as Marsha Blackburn, Ted Cruise, and Lindsay Graham. On the surface the charge seems perplexing, but upon closer inspection it is clear what the Republicans were driving at. The Republicans were giving a not so subtle nod to the QAnon conspiracy theory that many Democrats are secret members of an elite kabal that endorse and engage in the sexual abuse of children. Not every Republican engages in conspiracy theories, but many members of the highly enthusiastic Republican base are at the very least familiar with them. If Republicans could tie Jackson, even tangentially, to being lenient on child sexual abuse this conspiritorial thread could be leveraged to make even moderate Republicans want to make distance between themselves and the nominee. If this seems highly conspiratorial and utterly beyond the pale, it is! However, this is where we are in the life cycle of political discourse in this country. Richard Hofstadter refers to this phenomenon as “paranoid style” and it is characteristic of a desperate and divisive form of politics. Think the charismatic but prejudicial Goldwater in the 1960’s, Senator McCarthy’s search for Communists in the 1950’s, and Trump’s big lie about election fraud in the 2020 election. Paranoid style has infiltrated the internet, been normalized by our former president, and brought to Congress by more recent congressional leaders who have been steeped in the power of conspiratorial thinking (Hofstadter,1964).
At last, it was Corey Booker the Democratic senator from New Jersey, who forcefully corrected the record in an impassioned 20 minute rebuke of the Republican effort to smear Jackson’s judicial record. We are in a moment where paranoid style and the willingness to erect bold faced lies have found their favor with far right politicians. It takes a Senator like Booker to lay out the whole narrative to the American people. He laid out the nuanced truth regarding Jackson. She is a mother, a wife, a Christian, an intellect, a judge, a black woman, and the latest target of conspiratorial nonsense. Perhaps very few Americans really tuned into these hearings, seeing Jackson’s confirmation as a forgone conclusion. However, we need to pay attention to the Republicans hardball tactics and what they reveal as well as what they foreshadow.
Booker , C. (2022) Booker on Trailblazing SCOTUS Nominee, Cory Booker NJ,
Gutman, A. (2007) The Lure and Danger of Extremist Rhetoric, Daedalus, Vol 136, No. 4
Hofstadter, R.(1964) “The Paranoid Style of American Politics.”
Joe Biden nominates Ketanji Brown Jackson to the supreme court (2022). The
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Mutz, D. Status threat, not economic hardship, explains 2016 presidential vote