By Cass Sunstein
It’s graceless and ugly, and rarely a good idea, to kick people when they’re down.
The word “triumphalism” captures that kind of kicking. In a polarized political environment, triumphalism is dangerous.
Many Republicans are joyfully celebrating the confirmation of Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Sen. John Cornyn of Texas tweeted a photograph of what was apparently champagne, with the words, “Not quite #Beers4Brett but #Bubbly4Brett instead.”
Senator Mitch McConnell says that he wants to “thank” Kavanaugh’s opponents — whom he called “the mob” — because “they’ve done the one thing we were having trouble doing, which was energizing our base.” The White House called out “obstructionist Democrats,” who would be held “accountable for their reckless behavior in November.”
It’s always good to win, but Kavanaugh’s supporters should show less ugliness and more grace.
Many good and reasonable Americans admire Kavanaugh. They think that he has been falsely accused of sexual assault. Many good and reasonable Americans do not admire him. They believe Christine Blasey Ford when she said he attacked her.
Her allegations unleashed a torrent of accounts of sexual assaults — generally from women, occasionally from men. Whether or not you believe her accusations, countless Americans have been reliving brutal experiences.
Rightly or wrongly, they have seen Kavanaugh’s confirmation as a dispiriting answer to these questions: Will people in positions of power believe victims of sexual assault? Is it worthwhile to go public?
Kavanaugh’s supporters insist that those questions are irrelevant. In their view, the Senate’s task was much narrower. It was asking about the nominee in particular, not about sexual assault in general.
Fair enough. Even so, it is unspeakably cruel to ignore the intensity and the depth of the feelings of those who identify with Ford. To treat Kavanaugh’s confirmation as an occasion for celebration, or for glee, is to twist a knife. It deepens both public and private wounds.
We should learn here from the example of Abraham Lincoln, who understood the ugliness of triumphalism and who always avoided it. Contemporary political divisions are large, and they seem to be growing. But in comparison with the period of the Civil War, they are modest.
In his first Inaugural Address, Lincoln insisted: “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies.” He added that “our bonds of affection” must not be broken. He invoked “the mystic chords of memory,” which, he said, will come to “swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
By the time of his second Inaugural, the North was winning. The South was about to be crushed. Lincoln did not crow about victory or cast aspersions on those who would be defeated. He did not refer to “the mob.” He avoided triumphalism.
On this occasion, Lincoln did not merely speak of the better angels of our nature. He exemplified them: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in.” With respect to that work, the first task was “to bind up the nation’s wounds.”
Those who are celebrating Kavanaugh’s confirmation, and the successful transformation of the Supreme Court, should be trying to do exactly that. They should be displaying charity, compassion and a degree of humility.
One reason not to kick people when they’re down is obvious: Eventually they are going to get up, and if they’ve been kicked, they’re more likely to strike back.
Here’s an even better reason for restraint: empathy.
When people lose a political battle, they often feel wounded. But this time is different. Far too many Americans have experienced a sexual assault that they never reported but that nonetheless marked their lives. Whether or not the Senate was right to confirm Kavanaugh, it is unspeakably cruel to be drinking champagne.
Cass R. Sunstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is the editor of “Can It Happen Here? Authoritarianism in America” and a co-author of “Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness.” This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Minnesota Lawyer, the Bloomberg editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.