Monday, October 1, 2018


Thanks to Arizona Senator Jeff Flake we have been given one week's grace - one more week before the Senate votes on President Trump's Supreme Court nomination. Flake's Friday afternoon, last-minute, change-of-heart, begun in an elevator, and acted out for all to see on national TV, made for great drama. It highlighted how narrow the Republican Senate majority is, how little it would take to sink this nomination.  Was the lame-duck Senator signaling a dramatic deviation from tribal party loyalty and conservative class interest? Or was it just a reprieve, while (to rephrase Theodore Roosevelt) he and his allies again talk big but carry a soft stick?

The Founders may never have intended the Supreme Court to weigh as much as it does in our system, but the reality is that the Supreme Court is now way overweight with accumulated problematic power - and with no prospect of going on a diet. Hence the increasing controversy concerning each and every lifetime appointment to what has become a largely unchecked, unelected supreme legislature. Perhaps the best outcome would actually be if the seat stayed vacant for a couple of years, and a deadlocked Court came to play a less prominent role in our country's passions and divisions. 

At this point, there is no telling what further information the FBI will be able to surface, let alone whether it will be sufficient to resolve what happened or didn't happen in 1982. We may never know the full truth about that or be able to draw from it any definitive conclusions, but meanwhile we do know other things.

While the issue of individual personal responsibility may never be satisfactorily settled, this epic controversy has highlighted not only our deepening contemporary cultural divide on sex and gender but also the perennial American problem of class - class and its very visible privileges, and class and its not so hidden injuries (to rephrase the title of Richard Sennett's famous 1972 book, The Hidden Injuries of Class). 

Whatever else he did or didn't do, Court-candidate Kavanaugh - high school preppy and college frat brat - represents his social class and its strong sense of entitlement. This was abundantly evident in his hostile stance toward the Senators at last Thursday's hearing. Imagine the reaction had a poor person - or any other non-privileged person - talked to the Senators that way, berating them and interrupting them, as if they - not he - were the ones applying for a job on the highest court in the land! That President Trump, certain politicians, and some commentators found such surprisingly bad manners attractive and a further reason to support him speaks volumes about how we react to class entitlement and how it works so insidiously in our society.

For all sorts of reasons, Americans have historically had a harder time talking about the injuries class causes than do citizens of other societies. But it has never been absent from our reality or all that far from our political conversation.

In his last letter, written June 24, 1826, little more than a week before his death, Thomas Jefferson summed it up well when he famously asserted "the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God." 

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