#StopKavanaugh: The Optics of Political Protest

No matter what your political leanings, everyone can agree that the Oct. 6 50-48 confirmation vote on then-nominee Brett Kavanaugh was considerably controversial.

From the beginning, Democratic opposition to Judge Kavanaugh felt like a protest of sorts.

Commentators reported that liberal Senators interrupted the original proceedings 44 times within the first 40 minutes, requesting to adjourn because they weren’t able to access the legal documents requested.

Initial arguments against the nominee called his credibility into question by calling out inconsistencies between his 2006 and 2018 testimonies.

When the anonymous allegations went public, the narrative shifted, but the strategy stayed the same: undermine credibility and amplify protest.

Democrats demanded for the allegations to be taken seriously calling for a vote delay, a public hearing and an FBI investigation to analyze Kavanaugh’s credibility.

To Democrats and Kavanaugh’s criticizers, the call to action was perfectly logical. A slight vote delay to hear out the accuser and investigate credible sexual assault claims is entirely reasonable, especially since the position in question is a consequential, lifetime appointment.

On the other hand, to the GOP, their outrage was agitating but expected. Pundits argue that the elevation of these sexual assault scandals in the media was politically motivated.

“He’s not an advocate for abortion, but Democrats don’t have the votes to stop him,” noted prominent conservative commentator Ben Shapiro, arguing that leftist opposition to the nominee was about his judicial philosophy over the assault allegations.

“Remember, Democratic opposition to Kavanaugh started not with Christine Blasey Ford, but with […] pro-abortion protestors being dragged out of the Senate Judiciary Committee.”

In his prepared opening statement, Kavanaugh characterized the allegations as “a calculated and orchestrated political hit, fueled with apparent pent-up anger about President Trump and the 2016 election […] revenge on behalf of the Clintons and millions of dollars in money from outside left-wing opposition groups.”

To the objective eye, the premise seems hypocritical: an unfair, partisan attack in it of itself and an assumption of the Democratic Party’s motivations but digging deeper, the claims have some merit.

Under unified Republican government, Democrats have no institutional power and hardly any mechanisms to stop the GOP’s policy advancements. They’re clearly on the defensive but have no ground to actually defend, aside from a filibuster destined for cloture.

Desperate times call for desperate measures and nontraditional strategic thinking. The Democrats need to, and are, thinking about politics way differently than they were in 2015. They’re turning to different rhetorical tactics and are relying on the media to propagate them.

Instead of actively promoting policy, the mainstream party apparatus seems more concerned with getting the public opinion on their side by undermining Trump’s credibility and protesting actions the administration takes that are against the Democrat’s agenda.

There’s some evidence to suggest its working in the short-term. It’s helped Democrats destroy Republican healthcare bills on arrival and take sizeable steps to stop questionable immigration policy.

Even with Kavanaugh the media spent nearly a month amplifying protests against his candidacy. By his confirmation vote his approval rating was more negative than not.

But public opinion alone didn’t stop Republicans and Democrat Joe Manchin from elevating the Judge to the Supreme Court. Additionally,  there’s evidence that focusing on protest over policy could backfire on the Democrats rather than help them.

“As a tactic, [protest] can be effective,” said FOX pundit Tucker Carlson. “But there’s a cost to it, especially when it’s on television. Normal people find it scary and unreasonable because that’s exactly what it is.”

With media cycles that seem to be dominated by attempts to undermine credibility and protest coverage, is it worth it to take Carlson’s idea seriously: is the tactic worth it?

Protesting can be worthless in affecting change if it’s not done with a clear goal in mind.

“Most massive rallies fail to create significant changes in politics or public policies,” wrote Atlantic contributor Moises Naim laying out the case that very few Western protests tend to be effective. “More often than not, [momentum] simply fizzles out.”

Academia suggests that the media traditionally tends to cover protests unfairly.

In his peer-reviewed Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly 2010 article, Damon Di Cicco found that major protest coverage between 1967 and 2007 was depicted as a “public nuisance,” a trend he theorizes is linked with increased American conservatism.

Nuisance isn’t a good look and that’s exactly how the right is characterizing the left-wing protests against Kavanaugh.

The protest visuals allow Republicans to frame them not as political speech expressing discontent with the Senate’s decision but as Democrats disrespecting rule of law.

Conservative media has surfaced headlines like “Kavanaugh drama shows we need less democracy” and “14 Completely Insane Reactions to Brett Kavanaugh’s Confirmation.”

Left-wing commentators have been quick to refute this claim though, noting that calling the protests “mob rule” is drastic when it’s referring to people demonstrating against a partisan decision that most of the country disagreed with.

However, the turbulent political times may be changing these dynamics.

Even if political protests don’t change policymakers’ minds, a Harvard study shows that protesting makes people more politically active and inclined to vote. With a more unreliable voting base than the GOP, Democrats need as much voter turnout as they can get.

After all, when Republicans were in the same position in 2008 to 2010 their party’s supporters saw an uptick in political protests.

The GOP utilized the same strategies the Democrats are using now: from the Obama birthers questioning the past President’s legitimacy to the Tea Party advocating for more pure, right-wing officials. (It’s ironic that when it’s not their side, it’s considered mob rule).

Whatever your opinion, it’ll be interesting to see whether or not the media protest portrayals help or hurt them in the ballot box this November with both reasonings in mind.

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