The most interesting aspect of last week’s Senate judiciary hearings had nothing to do with Amy Coney Barrett. This is partly because she was practically flawless, and flawlessness, in this context, entails appearing as uncontroversial and noncommittal as possible.
Victory for a nominee in these confirmation hearings, like for a boxer in a boxing match, is mostly a matter of deflecting and evading hits from the opposition. In this respect, Barrett turned in a performance worthy of Floyd Mayweather or Sugar Ray Robinson. Tempting though it must have been, she did not go for the rhetorical knockout by skewering Roe v. Wade on the spot; pouring well-earned scorn upon the tinfoil-adorned head of Sheldon Whitehouse; or even suggesting that Senator Hirono sit in on a sixth-grade civics class for her own benefit.
The most remarkable feature of last week’s proceedings was, instead, the dynamic between the senators themselves. At a time when negative polarization and partisanship is at almost unprecedented levels in the United States, the one group of Democrats and Republicans who seem to like each other is to be found on Capitol Hill. Progressives and conservatives across the country hire senators every other year to express their mutual antipathy toward one another. And yet, when they convene in D.C., the senators seem to genuinely enjoy each other’s company. Senator John Kennedy of Louisiana, for instance, had this to say to Chris Coons last week when the latter raised the matter of a coronavirus relief package during the Barrett hearings:
I think I’ve been here less an amount of time than anybody on this committee. You are the most interesting people I’ve ever been around. And I mean that: The Senate is. I haven’t met a dummy yet. I realize that might be debatable by some. I haven’t met a single solitary member of the Senate that doesn’t want what’s best for America. And I certainly include you in that number, Senator Coons. . . . I didn’t come up here for delay and stultification and I know you didn’t do that either, Chris. . . . I think everybody on this committee tests their assumptions … against the arguments of their critics. That’s one of the reasons that I find you all so interesting. I’m willing to consider Democratic amendments to that bill.
Kennedy’s characteristic charm managed to evoke some warmth out of Senator Whitehouse (D., Wonderland) when his turn to speak came around:
Let me first say how surprised I am that Senator Kennedy finds us all interesting. Because I have operated under the principle for many years that everybody from Louisiana is more interesting than I am.
Examples of little exchanges like this abounded throughout the hearings. Cory Booker needled Ted Cruz playfully with a vegan joke, a sidebar was convened to discuss the ethical conduct of the Houston Astros, and Dianne Feinstein thanked Lindsey Graham for his chairmanship at the hearings’ close before giving him a hug. This last action was far enough beyond-the-pale for some on the online left to call for Feinstein’s resignation.
But the genuine affection that exists between senators of opposing parties shouldn’t surprise us. It should convict us at the lack of such affection in our own daily lives.
The United States was built to be governed locally. The classical republican strain of the Founders’ politics envisioned dense local communities coming together face-to-face at town meetings in order to hammer out their political differences and decide how to govern themselves. It was this habit of local association that so impressed Alexis de Tocqueville when he visited America early in the 19th century. In Democracy in America, Tocqueville depicts these local associations as the basic building-blocks of American society.
When democracy takes place in this local, face-to-face, Tocquevillian context, it’s difficult to hate one’s political opponents with any kind of sustained passion. You know their family — perhaps you are their family. Your kids play on the same little-league team. You’re in a fantasy-football league together. In other words, you have to confront the fullness of your enemy’s humanity before you hate them, including the apolitical parts of their lives that you share in common with them. Human beings, when embodied locally in this way in a context of a cross-party community, can’t be easily distilled into a one-dimensional object of loathing. Cable news and social media, by way of contrast, make this transfiguration of the human into the political their stock-in-trade.
Tocqueville’s America is on life support in 2020. Americans are geographically self-segregating according to ideological preference at an unprecedented rate. Never before have there been so many states in which the governorship and both houses of the legislature are controlled by one party. The number of landslide counties, in which elections are habitually won by huge margins by one party, is also at an historic high. This means that Americans are no longer forced into regular contact with their political opponents by the exigencies of community life. More and more Republicans spend time exclusively with Republicans, and the same is true for Democrats. As a result, conservatives know progressives not as fellow members of the PTA or as the coach of the high-school-football team, but as whomever Tucker Carlson says they are. Cable-news personalities are furthermore subject to a whole litany of incentives that lead them to hand-pick the craziest political actors in America for appearances on prime time. The same could be said of online outlets as well.
The upshot of all this is that conservatives and progressives alike appear to one another as flattened-out avatars of uncomplicated evil, abstracted from the context of their actual lives and marketed to one another as products in the lucrative media-conflict industrial complex. The bonds of apolitical affection that make politics possible are hence eviscerated by this process until Left and Right see each other only through a glass, darkly; which is to say, through a television.
All of this points to why the senators get along as well as they do. American voters have outsourced their own citizenship to their elected representatives in Washington. As a result, many are unable to recognize the habits of citizenship, neighborliness, and compromise as they play out on Capitol Hill because they’ve had little first-hand experience of these things themselves.
Senators and House representatives do professionally and full-time what the rest of us are supposed to do as part-time amateurs. They meet regularly with their political rivals to discuss and decide matters of public concern. In doing so, they build lasting personal relationships across the aisle that guard against any temptation towards uncomplicated hatred. This is why the Kavanaugh hearings have created more lasting and bitter divisions in the country at large than they seem to have created on the Senate Judiciary Committee itself. Our federal representatives have proven that the relentless and sustained presentation of human beings to one another in personal and informal contexts is a reliable safeguard against civil strife.
To be sure, there are formal, enforced rules of civility in the Senate that don’t exist broadly in civil society. But the basic norms that are codified in the Senate rule book have existed for a long time as informal social norms that grease the wheels of public discourse. Good manners, a willingness to listen, and a refusal to attribute malicious motives to one’s opponent are not the exclusive preserve of formal political hearings. And besides, when politicians make a show of their mutual enmity, its usually for the cameras and it’s always for our sake, which reflects a lot more poorly on us than it does on them. In the final analysis, the senators don’t hate each other because they and their congressional colleagues are functioning the way citizens in the United States should. Inter-partisan discourse is one of those few areas in modern American life where we would be well-advised to take our lead from our leaders.