Friday morning, as we appeared to be heading toward an affirmative vote for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh from the Senate Judiciary Committee, I lamented to a friend that there seemed to be not even two senators able to ask and answer the question, “How can we knit this country back together?”
Thursday’s hearing had laid bare our country’s two cultures, and our internal conflict. One culture appears to valorize something like a male warrior ethic, and the defense by men of home and country. The other culture seeks to reorganize institutions and the allocation of decision-making power around a norm of gender equality.
And there we were. Squaring off – tears on all sides, in the hearing room, in offices behind closed doors, in the streets, men and women crying.
What was aggressive belligerence to some was to others courage in the defense of honor. What to half the country was a failure to corroborate an allegation was to the other half a coverup achieved through a refusal to establish a sound process for vetting a claim of sexual assault.
To describe the two cultures in this way is not to say that a warrior culture cannot in principle also embrace gender equality; long ago, in “The Republic,” Plato wanted to make sure his utopia’s fierce guardians would include women as well as men. Nor is this description to say that those who pursue a reorganization of our institutions and decision-making structures for the sake of gender equality are incapable of a staunch defense of the political institutions that sustain a republic. Their goal ought to be a reconstitution of our institutions that achieves the equality they seek while also affirming the fundamental importance of sound legal processes. These are compatible goals.
Yet each culture is partial at the moment. One is too dismissive of real problems related to hierarchy and long-standing patterns by which some dominate others; the other too blind to our collective need for institutions that bring order out of chaos.
What we need in the midst of all of this is an oasis where something new can grow.
That new thing should unite the pursuit of equality and fairness for all and a commitment to the power of well-constructed institutions and processes to bring order from chaos.
And then, suddenly, as if out of nowhere, two senators appeared to ask and answer my question. Or actually five, including four swing votes: Sens. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., Christopher Coons, D-Del., and Susan Collins, R-Maine, called for an FBI investigation of the allegations against Kavanaugh in advance of the final vote. And they got it.
Flake said: “We ought to do what we can to make sure we do all due diligence with a nomination this important. This country is being ripped apart here.”
Now we can have a process – institutions that bring order out of chaos – that includes in its mission the project of investigating a quite significant allegation of a violation of norms of equality and the rule of law.
Here is a small seed of a way forward. An alternative universe where lawmakers from each of our major parties can collaborate to imagine a solution that has a chance of knitting together the best of what each of our sides has to offer: on one side, a full-throated defense of the rule of law and due process; on the other,a full-throated defense of the equal treatment of women. Can we make something of this moment?
I hope and pray that we can.
Danielle Allen is a political theorist at Harvard University and a contributing columnist for The Post.