The Senate needs to cool it


From its inception, the Senate is an odd and controversial feature of our constitutional system. It is not “popular” in the sense that its powers are derived directly from, for, or by the people. Given fears of “mob rule” in democracy, the architects of the Constitution found it necessary to temper popular passions. A probably apocryphal story involving Washington and Jefferson has the former defending the existence of the Senate by noting its “cooling” function.

The Senate is supposed to be the haven of statesmen, whose job is to temper democracy, to cool passions and to keep politics from getting overheated. They are to keep the fuse from being lit. Granted, it is difficult to imagine, given the 17th Amendment, how our Senators might become anything other than typical party politicians, but this Senatorial partisanship has cost our democracy a heavy price in terms of providing some ballast and leadership in our politics.

{mosads}Nowhere was this more on display than in the Kavanaugh hearings. We may be sitting on a powder-keg, deep and hateful divisions that could lead into a Spanish-style civil war. Rather than temper rage and expectations, Senators inflamed both, due to the fact that the televised proceedings were a high-profile opportunity to play to their ideological bases. The result is a no-win one for our democracy because half the country will be furious at either outcome.

Members of the Senate needed to ponder the implications of this in advance. The first thing they should have done was close the hearings. Secondly, someone should have made the argument that poring through high school yearbooks is beneath the dignity of the body. Thirdly, there should have been agreement among the Senators that their personal “feelings” were irrelevant to the proceedings. We live in the age of the tyranny of feeling, which is a symptom of the obsession with self that is the political opposite of statesmanship.

The Senate finds itself now in a real quandary. To be fair, the politicization of judicial confirmations, the horribly outsized role of our Court and the weaponization of the law in the culture wars can hardly be placed at the feet of this Congress. Nonetheless, the Senate needs to take advantage of the chaos they have helped create by giving Americans a lesson in the principles underlying our Constitution.

How might they do this? I have some pieces of advice. First, they agree among themselves that they will vote the opposite of what party demands dictate. This will mean, of course, that Kavanaugh will not get confirmed, but his rejection will be enacted by a straight Republican vote and both parties will have demonstrated that the rule of law cannot survive subordinating it to ideological fervor. Second, they will issue a formal apology for their own conduct during the proceedings, from Sen. Lindsey Graham’s (R-S.C.) intemperate outburst to Sen. Chris Coons’ (D-Del.) tearful self-pity. Third, they will issue stern warnings to their bases that unless said bases learn to have a little more regard for their opponents and a little less for themselves, that they are no longer interested in either their money or their support.

Finally, Trump should offer to withdraw Kavanaugh’s nomination on the condition that the Democrats agree to a speedy confirmation of a well-qualified replacement. If they refuse, they look truculent; if they agree, the Republicans get their candidate. The future of the Republic ought not hinge on whether Brett Kavanaugh gets confirmed, after all.

Democracy needs a schoolmarm and it needs one precisely at those moments when it is most unruly. The Kavanaugh hearings are not ultimately about whether we should believe Kavanaugh or Blasey Ford; rather, they are about our tendency to throw a tantrum when we don’t get our way.

We need adults and in our system the Senate is supposed to be the adult in the room. Rather than allowing us to play with matches they should take them out of our hands, lest the long fuse be lit. Our first Civil War occurred in no small part because the Senate had lost its cool, as demonstrated in Preston Brooks caning Charles Sumner. We can’t afford such intemperance again.

Jeffrey Polet is a professor of political science at Hope College in Holland, Mich.

Tags Chris Coons Kavanaugh confirmation hearings Lindsey Graham Lindsey Graham Politics of the United States Sentate

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