Christine Blasey Ford, Brett Kavanaugh, and the Death of Dignity in Politics

The subject of the Ford-Kavanaugh hearings was dignity. Christine Blasey Ford detailed an assault on her dignity that has haunted her for most of her life. (“Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter,” the psychology professor said, “the uproarious laughter between the two . . . I was underneath one of them while the two laughed, two friends having a really good time with one another.”) Conversely, Brett Kavanaugh and his defenders, most prominently Senator Lindsey Graham, cast Ford’s accusation and the hearing itself as an attack on Kavanaugh’s dignity: the shouting, hectoring, crying, and Graham’s explicit refusal even to consider the subject of the hearing communicated that they saw any challenge as an offense. For the rest of us, the spectacle of the hearing, and the vote that followed, became a death watch for dignity in politics.

There are at least two ways in which the concept of dignity is key to our understanding of politics. There is the dignity that participation in the political process affords each citizen. Having a voice, being heard, and exercising political agency are all component parts of dignity. I have written about the concept of the “feminization of politics,” which foregrounds restoring dignity to those who are not often heard: women, poor people, black and brown people, disabled people, and many others. Several new democratic movements, such as municipalism in Spain and elsewhere, or the process-based parties in Scandinavia, place the public hearing of people’s stories and opinions at the center of their political work. When people are cast out of the political community—when they become stateless or lose their right to vote, or are simply marginalized to the point of becoming inaudible—they suffer the loss of dignity.

On the other hand, there is the dignity of political performance, with its reliance on honorifics, procedure, particular modes of dress, and a recognizable use of language. People have long understood that this performance can signal and even precede the content of politics. In Russia during the nineteen-nineties, I often had a chance to report from the Constitutional Court, and it was a profoundly and peculiarly elevating experience. Seemingly out of nowhere, there appeared the performance of respect for the law, for the intellectual rigor of interpreting the law, and for procedure. In a country where politics had long been based on lies and law was an instrument of terror, a small group of people decided to act as though law…

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