Recent events have presented Minnesotans with a special opportunity to take their own political temperatures — and to self-diagnose the severity of their individual cases of partisan tribal fever.
The Ellison-Kavanaugh Consistency Test should prove highly predictive as to whether a voter has much hope of recovering normal reasoning powers and leading a healthy ideological life again someday.
The nation’s genuinely scary epidemic of tribal fever in the Age of Trump leaves most Americans far less equipped to judge how extensively they’ve been infected.
Judge (now Justice) Brett Kavanaugh was a bitterly polarizing political figure the moment President Donald Trump nominated him to fill the U.S. Supreme Court seat of the now-retired Anthony Kennedy, whose “moderate” decisions on a few issues (above all, abortion rights and gay rights), made the prospect of his replacement by a more consistent conservative nothing less than an existential threat to some of modern progressivism’s most-prized cultural advances — and thus a thrilling opportunity for the American right.
It’s evident that a great many politically aware Americans knew exactly where they stood on Kavanaugh’s nomination long before decades-old and late-breaking allegations of sexual assault produced perhaps the ugliest confirmation battle finale in modern history.
Kavanaugh’s approval in public polls had started slipping during his contentious initial confirmation hearings — and fell only a few points more after the allegations surfaced.
So it seems clear that relatively few Americans who favored Kavanaugh before the allegations surfaced were convinced by the testimony of Christine Blasey Ford — or at least sufficiently convinced to turn against the nominee.
And that means that many of those who were persuaded by Ford’s version of long-ago events — or at least sufficiently persuaded to argue that the charges in themselves should disqualify Kavanaugh — had opposed his nomination earlier on other grounds.
Members of both these groups seem to see ideological motives distorting the “other side’s” evaluation of the quality of evidence against Kavanaugh.
But how is one to scrutinize one’s own impartiality?
If Peter Progressive had been less frightened by Kavanaugh as a threat to treasured constitutional rights, might he have been less convinced by Ford’s account of a sexual assault three decades ago?
If Constance Conservative were less eager to see the high court reconsider Roe vs. Wade someday, might she have been more skeptical of Kavanaugh’s denials?
Minnesota voters are not reduced to pondering hypotheticals like this about how they’d evaluate similar allegations if the political implications of their conclusions were reversed. We have before us what researchers call a natural experiment.
Minnesota has its own controversial political figure — Fifth District U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison — seeking an important new office as state attorney general — who was hit just before the August primary with a woman’s allegation of misconduct — in this case domestic abuse — emotional, and, in one incident, physical.
One noteworthy difference is that Ellison’s candidacy excites progressives and alarms conservatives — the exact opposite of Kavanaugh’s political effect.
Anecdotally, it appears to me that Minnesota conservatives seem considerably quicker to believe the allegations from Ellison’s former live-in girlfriend, Karen Monahan, than they were to credit the charges against Kavanaugh. And Minnesota liberals appear somewhat more devoted to “due process” and even “the presumption of innocence” in Ellison’s case than they were in Kavanaugh’s, and less insistent on a searching and fearless investigation.
But the point is not to speculate or generalize — it is to urge Minnesotans of goodwill to seize this opportunity to evaluate some evidence about themselves.
Assuming that we all would like to think we can set our partisan biases and passions aside and apply evenhanded principles in such a serious business as weighing evidence of wrongdoing, we should take note if we’ve somehow come to different conclusions about the guilt of Kavanaugh and Ellison.
Can consistent principles explain such inconsistent verdicts?
Considering what we know now, the two situations bear quite a few similarities. In both cases, alleged victims recounted vivid, detailed memories of abusive incidents — with some gaps and ambiguities. Ford couldn’t name the date and place she was attacked, or recall how she arrived or departed. Monahan’s recollection has varied between Ellison pulling her off a bed and merely attempting to do so. And she’s added the odd claim that a video of the incident exists that she refuses to share, giving a variety of reasons.
Over time, both victims have told a number of people the stories of these alleged events, at least in part. But otherwise little corroboration has been produced for either. Both men also have been subjected to other, still-less-substantiated accusations.
The most notable differences in the situations are, first, that Kavanaugh allegedly assaulted Ford well over 30 years ago, as a teenager, while Ellison’s alleged misconduct occurred only several years ago — and that the misdeed Kavanaugh is accused of is much more serious than the charge against Ellison.
Yet it’s unclear what difference such differences make, since each man has adamantly denied that anything remotely resembling these allegations ever occurred.
It is no defense to say: “I absolutely did not commit the offense. And besides, it wasn’t that big a deal.” (Or “besides, I was just a kid.”)
Perhaps others see more and weightier differences. But Minnesotans who come to different conclusions about the sufficiency of evidence against Kavanaugh and Ellison surely owe it to themselves to explain (to themselves) the neutral, nonpartisan principles that produce that outcome.
And what about me, with my conservative tribal leanings? I am uneasy about the sweeping denials of both men. But I come down judging the evidence on these accusations inadequate in either case to justify disqualifying either man from high office on these grounds.
D.J. Tice is at Doug.Tice@startribune.com