What do you think of when you hear the word “circus”? The trapeze artist, the lion tamer, the clowns, the acrobats — all under the big top, in a frenzy of activity? If you ask voters what they think of Congress’s handling of the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, the most common word they use is “circus,” connoting a group of senators, in the center of a tiered arena, all trying to grab our attention without accomplishing much.
“The hearings were a circus,” said Dan, a Republican from Minnesota. “The Republicans were on one side, praising the judge, while the Democrats were in another ring, adding plenty of drama.”
“It was a bad episode of ‘House of Cards,’ ” offered Chuck, an independent from Oregon, “with key leaders all trying to make each other miserable. As a viewer, I didn’t like any of the acts.”
It’s been a little over two weeks since the four days of confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Nominated in July by Trump, and lauded by the president as a man with “impeccable credentials,’’ Kavanaugh endured a process that became what Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg called “a highly partisan show” — and that was before the sexual assault allegations by Professor Christine Blasey Ford came out in public, and before the newest allegations from Deborah Ramirez.
The 500 voters I speak with weekly wrote me unsolicited notes, asking whether I was going to explore “the circus” with them — and I took the bait. Surely, regular American citizens would find some common ground, some reasonable way through all of the drama we have been experiencing.
No such luck.
Although most Americans agree that there is a frenzy, Republican and Democratic voters are divided about who is to blame for the drama. Most voters, however, are not talking about Kavanaugh and his credentials — or even the accusers. Instead, they are lambasting the other party.
Most Democrats see the process as one big Republican strategy to “Get the Conservative Judge Through As Fast As Possible.” They are angry at Senators Chuck Grassley, Orrin Hatch, and Mitch McConnell, whom they believe are pushing, prodding, rushing, and ignoring the seriousness of the allegations. Said Julian from Massachusetts, “I am pissed that [Merrick] Garland was held up for almost 300 days and we’re at day 70 and Republicans are trying to ram Kavanaugh through despite serious dishonesty and obvious lying on his part.” Or, said Ruth from New Jersey: “It’s really hard for me to watch these white guys setting deadlines, blatantly pushing Kavanaugh through, and doing the same disgusting thing with Christine Ford that they did with Anita Hill: belittling and insulting her — all in the name of getting their hyper-conservative candidate in.”
Across the board, Democrats see this as a set of manipulative tactics on the part of Republicans to force their guy through and ignore the legitimate claims of a sexual assault survivor who finally has the courage to speak out. Voters are appalled that the response of Republicans to the accusations sends a message to teenage sons that their actions in high school or as a college freshman have no bearing on their futures. As Jeremy from New Hampshire said, “The most important thing to me is that there’s an investigative and deliberative process that’s fair to everyone involved. The fact that we have a hastily scheduled showdown is disgusting to me.”
Republican voters generally tell a different story: that the process is a desperate and political attempt by the Democrats — a last resort — to disqualify Kavanaugh at any cost. Here’s how Peter from Illinois sees it: “The Dems played a crap hand into a real winner. They didn’t have the votes but they had an ace in the sleeve. They knew of the letter and leaked it to the press, which forced Dr. Ford to go public when it was too late for Trump to pull Kavanaugh and submit a replacement before the midterms. Well played.” Or, said Joseph from Texas: “It’s just so damned predictable that this was going to happen. We all knew that there would be some story at the 11th hour about how Kavanaugh was either racist or sexist.”
At the core of the Republican point of view is disbelief that Senator Dianne Feinstein held onto a letter for three months and didn’t show it to anyone. Her excuse about the privacy of the victim doesn’t seem credible to them. As Hugh from California said, “Feinstein’s stunt is a new low, that will surely blow up in the faces of the Democrats.” And now, Republican voters are focused on how Ramirez came forward only after six days of consulting with a Democratic lawyer, and most people expect that there will be more allegations this week.
There was only one area of agreement: over 85 percent of my voters believe that Ford and other accusers should be heard prior to any final vote. Said Nancy, a Republican from Connecticut, “If the Republicans do not give this air, in spite of the circus it will likely cause, I think they deserve to be voted out of office.”
Although we don’t know what the outcome of this frenzy will be, it’s clear that the big loss is for the American people, who have become cynical about their leaders. And that’s the common ground: voters from both parties believe that Congress is incapable of running a process, unable to work together, and full of politicians who are mostly concerned with grandstanding for their next elections — focused on themselves.
No matter what happens here, no one will win. If Democrats block Kavanaugh’s nomination, they’ll likely have to go through it all again with another conservative nominee. If Republicans vote Kavanaugh through after the hearings, they’ll have to deny the legitimacy of reports of sexual assault. Either way, the Supreme Court will lose its last remaining shreds of nonpartisan decency and credibility. Our government has been replaced by a circus, and the voters are not entertained.
Diane Hessan is an entrepreneur, author, and chair of C Space. She has been in conversation with 500 voters across the political spectrum weekly since December 2016. Follow her on Twitter @DianeHessan.
Editor’s note: Diane Hessan, an entrepreneur who writes regularly for the Globe’s Opinion pages, has been tracking the viewpoints of about 500 voters across the political spectrum weekly since December 2016. She has been using a proprietary online panel she created to write occasional columns to reflect their sentiment. To ensure confidentiality of the participants, Hessan identified them by first name only and state. Hessan further protected their identity by giving them pseudonyms. Going forward, she will use the real first names of participants, with their consent.