The fate of Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the US Supreme Court may be in the hands of Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Susan Collins (R-ME).
As the nation anxiously awaits the results of an FBI investigation into multiple sexual assault and misconduct allegations against the nominee, there seems to be a general consensus that the outcome of the probe only matters to these two female Republican senators. As if only moderate Republican women would care about sexual assault.
Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ), who is considered the third Republican swing vote, seems more concerned about the process of “due diligence” than he is about the risk of putting a potential sexual predator on the Supreme Court.
Flake, who on Friday forced the White House to order an FBI investigation into the assault claims, admitted Sunday he would have voted to advance the vote on Kavanaugh if he were facing reelection. Neither Collins nor Murkowski has publicly stated whether they believe Christine Blasey Ford’s claim that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her in high school, or whether they believe the sexual assault and misconduct allegations two other women have brought forth against him. But both supported Flake’s call for an FBI investigation on Friday, and both have been inundated with calls, emails, threats, and pleas from people who want them to block Kavanaugh’s nomination.
Putting all the pressure on Murkowski and Collins is unfair. They’re often the swing voters on contentious issues because they are moderate Republicans generally, and women in particular. They were the only two Republicans who voted against repealing Obamacare, because it would leave millions of Americans without health insurance. (Sen. John McCain’s vote against repeal was framed around his disdain for the Senate’s “process.”) As women in the GOP, Murkowski and Collins are expected to be the moral counterweight to the men in their party who make irresponsible choices that harm millions of Americans.
That’s happening again with Kavanaugh’s confirmation. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell wants to “plow right through” to the vote, despite the serious sexual assault allegations against the nominee.
Credible sexual assault claims against a person who is poised to take a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court should be taken seriously by the full Senate, not just by Democrats, and certainly not just by women. Putting the burden on two women to decide whether Kavanaugh is fit for the Supreme Court lets Republican men off the hook and once again places the burden on women to deal with a problem that is overwhelmingly caused by men.
Sexual assault is a men’s issue, not just a women’s issue
This should be obvious, but it’s worth repeating: Violence against women isn’t a partisan issue — it’s a crime. Kavanaugh’s confirmation no longer revolves around his views on abortion or the Second Amendment. It’s about whether or not he committed a violent crime (or crimes) and then lied about it under oath.
Yet Republican men in the Senate have mostly stayed quiet about the allegations against Kavanaugh, with only Flake and Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) suggesting the claims should be investigated. And media reports repeatedly suggest that only Murkowski and Collins would believe the allegations are serious enough to disqualify him, even if they are true. With a razor-thin majority in the Senate, the GOP can only lose one Republican vote to confirm Kavanaugh, assuming all Democrats vote against him.
“Nobody else in the mostly white and male GOP conference seems likely to vote against him. Most of them did not even appear to seriously consider it,” writes Vox’s Dylan Scott, making the case that fate of Kavanaugh’s confirmation rests on Collins’s vote.
It’s possible that some Republican men in the Senate do not believe Kavanaugh assaulted women. I suspect, though, that many members do believe the women who have come forward but are doing what men have typically done in this type of situation: sitting back and staying silent about sexual violence against women — a problem that men created but won’t take responsibility for.
Research shows that men are conditioned to excuse violence against women based on a notion of “male sexual entitlement,” which in turn creates a “culture of impunity” that perpetuate sexual assault. Prevention efforts are normally focused on women and teaching them to avoid and react to male violence. So it’s not surprising that women in Congress are expected to take the political risk, by voting against party leaders to keep someone with disturbing allegations against him off the Supreme Court.
This is cowardice. And another reason Republican men in the Senate aren’t condemning the allegations is simply because men are generally raised to believe that sexual violence isn’t something they need to care about or stop other men from doing.
“We talk about how many women were raped last year, not about how many men raped women,” Jackson Katz, a speaker and gender rights activists, said in a viral TED talk video from 2013. Katz has been reframing the issue of sexual violence as a men’s issue, not a women’s issue, because men are overwhelmingly the ones who perpetrate sexual violence. Men are responsible for about 90 percent of sexual assaults against women, and 93 percent of sexual assaults against men.
“Calling it a women’s issue gives men the excuse not to pay attention,” Katz said in his talk.
Perhaps that’s one reason why few Republican men in the Senate have said anything about the sexual assault allegations against Kavanaugh, much less condemned them. In fact, several have chosen to minimize the claims brought forward by these women. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) suggested that a sexual assault in high school hardly disqualifies Kavanaugh from the bench. “If that was true, I think it would be hard for senators to not consider who the judge is today,” Hatch said last week. “That’s the issue. Is this judge a really good man? And he is. And by any measure he is.”
That kind of tactic, according to Katz, is to absolve men from taking any action.
Blaming victims allows men to avoid responsibility
Republican leaders in the Senate at first avoided attacking the three women who have accused Kavanaugh of sexual assault and misconduct. But now some of them are downplaying their allegations and trying to shift blame to the victims.
One of the cruelest narratives surfaced after Julie Swetnick, a web developer who has held security clearances at the Department of Justice and other federal agencies, shared her story last week. In a sworn statement, Swetnick said she attended many high school parties with Kavanaugh and his classmates in the 1980s, and said she saw Kavanaugh and other boys line up outside bedrooms to “gang rape” drunk girls. She said Kavanaugh was also present at a party where she was “gang raped.”
The horrific allegations, which should have prompted an immediate FBI investigation, were immediately downplayed by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC). Basically, Graham said such a thing couldn’t have happened because no woman would continue to attend parties where girls were repeatedly raped, and that if she did, she was a bad person for not raising the alarm. Classic victim blaming.
Why would any reasonable person continue to hang around people like this?— Lindsey Graham (@LindseyGrahamSC) September 26, 2018
Why would any person continue to put their friends and themselves in danger?
Isn’t there some duty to warn others?
In using this narrative, Graham was not only discrediting Swetnick’s serious allegations but also giving his male colleagues in the Senate permission to ignore them.
Katz says men fall for this kind of argument because it lets them off the hook.
“Blaming victims and minimizing the harms they have suffered is much easier than holding people accountable — especially the powerful and well-connected. [It] also lets people avoid the introspection they would be forced into if they acknowledged that people they like or look up to are also capable of cruel, abusive, and even criminal behavior,” he said in his TED talk.
Republican Senate leaders are doing this to get their colleagues to ignore criminal allegations against one of their political allies. This is important context as Senate leaders have tried to push through a vote on Kavanaugh’s confirmation, despite protests from Democrats, and with a last-minute intervention from only three Republicans in the Senate: Murkowski, Collins, and Flake.
The rest of the Senate’s GOP caucus has remained mostly silent, which has led some news commentators to reach this conclusion: Republicans hate women. That’s also unfair.
There are plenty of Republican men who have a record of supporting legislation to protect women and advance women’s rights. Earlier this month, 46 House Republicans (and many Democrats) sent a letter to House Speaker Paul Ryan urging him to push for a vote to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act, which would have expired on Sunday.
The act funds social service agencies that aid victims affected by sexual violence, such as rape crisis centers, shelters, and legal assistance programs.
“This is not a partisan issue,” wrote Rep. John Katko (R-NY). “VAWA has been continually reauthorized on a bipartisan basis in Congress. We must act now to maintain and strengthen this critical law.”
Last week, the Senate and House passed a spending bill that extends funding for the bill through Dec 7. Trump signed it on Friday.
One current Republican member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Mike Crapo of Idaho, co-sponsored a stronger version of the Violence Against Women Act in 2013.
I think it’s too cynical to think that all Republican men condone sexual violence, or think the allegations against Kavanaugh are not serious.
But Senate leaders have given their male colleagues cover to put partisan politics above their concerns about the candidate’s potential history of sexual violence. Their dismissive language and rhetoric has suggested that even if the allegations are true, it’s a problem for the victims to deal with, not Kavanaugh, and certainly not any men in the Senate.
Instead, Murkowski and Collins are expected to vote their conscience, because women are supposed to care. Maine is a moderate state, but Alaska is not, so this pressure is not entirely from their constituents. And the politics shouldn’t even matter. Every Republican in the Senate is responsible for making sure they don’t appoint someone with a history of sexual violence to the US Supreme Court — or at the very least to prevent a potential criminal from making such important legal decisions that affect the lives of millions of Americans.
Some progressive groups have shifted the pressure to male senators
Some progressive groups are starting to realize that the burden of whether the Senate confirms a potential sexual predator should not rest solely on Murkowski and Collins. At first, the two were under pressure to reject his confirmation because both senators support women’s reproductive rights and progressive groups feared Kavanaugh would restrict abortion rights. Yet after the sexual assault claims surfaced, it was also assumed Murkowski and Collins would be the only two Republican senators who cared.
Now the Women’s March is going after the male GOP senators who voted Friday to advance a full Senate vote on Kavanaugh’s confirmation, pending the FBI investigation.
Instead of just urging people to call Murkowski and Collins, they are calling out Republican men on the Senate Judiciary Committee:
.@ChuckGrassley: You are a rape apologist. #CancelKavanaugh pic.twitter.com/EX2oZdD7ay— Women's March (@womensmarch) September 28, 2018
This message seems extreme, but at least the groups are putting pressure on the people who deserve it: the Republican men in the Senate who are trying to normalize violence against women.
Correction: an earlier version of this article mistakenly stated that the House had not yet passed an appropriations bill. It passed an appropriations bill on Sept. 26th.