On July 29, 1994, Justice Stephan Breyer was confirmed to the US Supreme court with an 87-to-9 vote. Nominated by former President Bill Clinton, Justice Breyer is typically associated with the liberal wing of the Court. Nearly thirty years later, Breyer has announced his retirement – paving the way for President Biden to make Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson his first nomination to the court. The following article outlines the tumultuous trial and confirmation of the first black women to the Supreme Court on a 53-to-47 vote. The drastic differences between these voting results and the outcome of Justice Breyer’s confirmation are widely representative of the friction currently threatening American society and democracy. Justice Jackson’s nomination and confirmation to the US Supreme Court on April 7, 2022 reflects the growing influence of social identity on American partisan identification and the detrimental effects this phenomenon is having on the stability of democracy.
Social Identity is Shaped by Partisan Attachment
In the past decade, partisanship has acquired many of the characteristics of a social group identity. Members of the same party tend to display similar behavior, share common interests, and feel a sense of unity. For instance, Republicans are more likely to cite religion, freedom, and independence as a source of meaning in their lives, while Democrats are more focused on physical and mental health as well as hobbies and recreation. Beyond their basic values, voters perceive the other party as threatening and dangerous to the nation’s well-being. Very few Republicans and Democrats believe that members of the opposite party have “a lot” or “some” good ideas. Among Democrats, 86% believe that the Republican party has few or no good ideas, and 82% of Republicans feel this way about the Democratic party. These statistics represent the growing partisan divide in the Unites States and are reflected in the deeply divided 53-to-47 vote to confirm Justice Jackson. While this win for the Democratic party marked a historical occasion, it emphasizes the gradual, opposite ideological movement toward extremist ideas and philosophies occurring within the US party system. Jackson was backed by all fifty members of the Democratic caucus and three Republicans. The slim majority win is shocking, especially when Jackson’s successor was confirmed by such a large majority. According to Patrick Miller and Pamela Johnston Conover, a large part of people’s motivation to identify with and show unwavering loyalty to their party has more to do with fear of the opposite rather loyalty to their own. It is this hatred that binds members of groups together and is creating increasingly homogenous partisan worlds
Social Identity Influences How We Believe Facts
As competition and conflict between groups intensifies, the strength of partisanship attachment also escalates. When groups become polarized, objective information is often rejected in favor of the strength of partisan identification (Cramer). During the trial of Justice Jackson, Republican senators often used false information to prevent her confirmation to the Supreme Court. For instance, Senate judiciary committee member Josh Hawley claimed Jackson had a “pattern of letting child porn offenders off the hook for their appalling crimes.” This widely false accusation was quickly disputed by fact checkers and legal experts, but it fed into the longstanding conspiracy theory that Democratic leaders are involved in a child sex trafficking ring. Unfortunately, the conversation didn’t end there. Many other Republican senators and politicians continued to make similar accusations. Extremist congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene made the bold claim that, “You are either a Senator that supports child rapists, child pornography, and the most vile child predators. Or you are a Senator who protects children and votes NO to KJB!” Partisanship is the determining factor in whether Americans believe these claims and support Justice Jackson’s confirmation. 93% of Democrats who have heard a lot about the nomination say the Senate should confirm her as a justice, while 58% of Republicans say she should not be confirmed. Partisan identity if a powerful tool in the current American political climate. The members of Hawley and Greene’s party showed support for their false claims despite large amounts of debunking. Justice Jackson’s confirmation hearing provides ample evidence for that claim that partisanship is a social identity that influences what facts individuals choose to believe and ignore.
Social Identity is a Threat to Democracy
The Republican attacks on Justice Jackson and the polarizing vote that confirmed her place in the Supreme Court demonstrate the United States’ political climate veer to the far right. This scenario exemplifies Miller and Conover’s concept described as the politics of resentment, in which voting behavior and legislation is manipulated by strategic politicians. The conflict and contestation created by the politics of resentment leads to anti-social attitudes as well as dangerous political actions. While the American government needs contestation for democracy to function, the politics of resentment opens the doors to populist leadership. The lack of recognition that the opposition can be correct and must be equally represented in politics is a large contributor to these issues. This theme is represented by the fact that only three out of the fifty Republican senators voted yes to Justice Jackson’s confirmation. When Vice President Kamala Harris announced the vote, all fifty Democrats and one republican stood and applauded this historical event. However, most Republicans had already vacated the room – a show of the deeply personal strike resulting from this Democratic win. Populist appeals such as anti-elitist claims, support of the silent majority, and creating an “us vs. them” rhetoric commonly arise from this type of social behavior. As conflict intensifies, it becomes more difficult for partisan groups to compromise, leading to the demonization and delegitimization of the opponent. In the case of Justice Jackson’s trial, Republican politicians attempted to discredit her credibility by questioning her LSAT scores and making wild claims about her support of child abuse. These claims seemed to disregard that Jackson is considered, “one of the most qualified supreme court nominees in recent history” (Greve).
The onslaught of criticism Justice Jackson received during her Supreme Court nomination trial revealed the deeply divided partisan society as well as the social and racial issues defining American politics. Without forced interaction and comprise, parties will continue to diverge ideologically, and the pillars of the United States democracy will continue to crumble.
Cramer, Katherine J. The Politics of Resentment : Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker. Chicago ; London, University Of Chicago Press, 2016.
Dunn, Amina. “More Support than Oppose Jackson’s Supreme Court Nomination, with Many Not Sure.” Pew Research Center, 17 Mar. 2022, www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2022/03/17/more-support-than-oppose-jacksons-supreme-court-nomination-with-many-not-sure/. Accessed 18 Apr. 2022.
Greve, Joan. “Republicans’ Ugly Attacks on Ketanji Brown Jackson Show Lurch to Far Right.” The Guardian, 7 Apr. 2022, www.theguardian.com/us-news/2022/apr/07/republicans-ketanji-brown-jackson-qanon-far-right. Accessed 12 Apr. 2022.
Hulse, Carl, and Annie Karni. “Jackson Confirmed as First Black Woman to Sit on Supreme Court.” The New York Times, 7 Apr. 2022, www.nytimes.com/2022/04/07/us/politics/ketanji-brown-jackson-supreme-court.html.
Miller, Patrick R., and Pamela Johnston Conover. “Red and Blue States of Mind.” Political Research Quarterly, vol. 68, no. 2, 30 Mar. 2015, pp. 225–239, journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1065912915577208, 10.1177/1065912915577208.
Pew Research Center. “PARTISAN ANTIPATHY: MORE INTENSE, MORE PERSONAL.” Pew Research Center – U.S. Politics & Policy, 10 Oct. 2019, www.pewresearch.org/politics/2019/10/10/the-partisan-landscape-and-views-of-the-parties/.
Silver, Laura, and Patrick van Kessel. “Both Republicans and Democrats Prioritize Family, but They Differ over Other Sources of Meaning in Life.” Pew Research Center, 22 Nov. 2021, www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2021/11/22/both-republicans-and-democrats-prioritize-family-but-they-differ-over-other-sources-of-meaning-in-life/.