Remembering Bork, and the borkings we’ve endured since

Before this week ends, I want to point out one thing from last week: the anniversary of Senate Democrats’ defeat of Robert Bork’s nomination to the Supreme Court. The New York Times’ Joe Nocera — always worth reading, but no one’s idea of a right-winger — made this observation:

The Bork fight, in some ways, was the beginning of the end of civil discourse in politics. For years afterward, conservatives seethed at the “systematic demonization” of Bork, recalls Clint Bolick, a longtime conservative legal activist. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution coined the angry verb “to bork,” which meant to destroy a nominee by whatever means necessary. When Republicans borked the Democratic House Speaker Jim Wright less than two years later, there wasn’t a trace of remorse, not after what the Democrats had done to Bork. The anger between Democrats and Republicans, the unwillingness to work together, the profound mistrust — the line from Bork to today’s ugly politics is a straight one.

(Links original. NB: The editorial to which Nocera referred was by the Atlanta Journal, not the combined Sunday AJC, and our archives credit Jeff Dickerson — yes, that Jeff Dickerson — as the author.)

There were ugly moments in politics before, and there would be ugly moments in politics afterward. I don’t think Nocera intends to excuse ugly Republican behavior that followed the Bork nomination (I recommend reading his whole column) and nor do I.

But as a moment when character assassination became a substitute for arguing against philosophical differences, long before Hillary Clinton lamented the “politics of personal destruction,” it should be recalled as a moment of national shame. Whatever aisle-crossing Ted Kennedy did later in his Senate career is undermined by his role in creating the art of borking. It is no coincidence that Joe Biden, who as Senate Judiciary chairman in 1987 helped lead the charge against Bork, now as vice president still has the audacity to hint that Republicans will bear the blame for future murders and rapes if they don’t agree to President Obama’s latest stimulus package; leopards don’t change their spots.

The sliming by both parties of presidential appointees is de rigueur. The scapegoating of Sarah Palin for the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, because she used the kind of rhetoric that is part and parcel of contemporary politics, may well be another moment where this tendency was escalated. Mild cases of borking even take place within parties now; see the swapping of insults by Rick Perry (”you don’t have a heart”) and Mitt Romney (”it means you have…a brain”) over one another’s immigration stances. There is a growing list of beliefs one is not allowed to challenge without being labeled a “denier,” a clear reference to those who deny that the Holocaust took place.

And it’s not just politicians: The likelihood that someone in an online discussion will eventually invoke Hitler is so high that it has a name, Godwin’s Law. No wonder we the people keep electing the borkers.

This doesn’t only matter for the words people use. It feeds a tribalism that discourages people from challenging their ideological fellow-travelers on particular issues, lest they give “the other side” an opening to undermine their broader agenda. It causes people to say things they might not actually believe, simply because they know how “their side” is supposed to answer the question. And it leads to sloppy arguments, because people don’t bother to learn the thinking behind, and nuances of, the stances they adopt (e.g., “all government spending boosts demand and thus the economy,” or “all tax cuts produce higher revenues”).

Anyone who wonders why Americans lack faith in our institutions, and despair that there’s no solution in sight, would do well to remember what happened to Robert Bork some 24 years ago.

– By Kyle Wingfield

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217 comments Add your comment

Rockerbabe

October 28th, 2011
12:38 pm

Kyle is at it again. . .complaining about all of the uncivil discourse in our politics. Well, you repugs and some dems got what you wanted. Uncivil discourse will continue as long as there is “no holds bar” attitude toward mistreating an opponent and flooding the campaigns with so much money from third party operatives.

I do not know what the “cure” is, but this business of crying wolf all of the time, this “DOA” attitude towards new legislation originating from the opposite party and proclaiming that President Obama will be a one-term President [despite the wishes of 56% of the voting public] does not help on bit. The SCOTUS and its installment of Dubya as President didn’t help one bit. The systemic attempt to purge voters from the voting rolls on the pretense of voter fraud is just that, a fraud on the American public. So what’s your beef? Except maybe WE are finally fighting back.

You write about Bork; what about Anita Hill and all of the other good, well-educated women who have tried to make a career in public service, only to find themselves “borked” by men with sexist and demeaning attitudes [yes, Hiliary is included]. Palin got what her republican party has given to all others; so stop gripping. What goes around, comes around, for all of us, moneybags included.

HDB

October 28th, 2011
12:43 pm

Bork was such a terrible candidate for SCOTUS…and his record was so hostile to so many interests that it was necessary to do what was done. The only problem is that it further eroded the possibility of cooperation and increased the probability of Congressional animosity!!

Chuck

October 28th, 2011
12:43 pm

Oh snap, Rockerbabe!

Hayek

October 28th, 2011
12:46 pm

Deja vu–just a few minutes ago I was thinking about the critical moment in turning our society into such a disfunctional mess. I had forgotten about Borking as being such a moment.

Two other factors worth mentioning, though neither is a single moment. The New Deal era reinterpretation of the constitution in favor of activist judges. The incresingly sophisticated use of gerrymandering (abetted by the VRA’s rules on majority-minority districts) to create uncontested congressional seats.

HDB

October 28th, 2011
12:47 pm

Rockerbabe — two thumbs up!!!

Charles

October 28th, 2011
12:48 pm

Rockerbabe,

Great comments.

Kyle Wingfield

October 28th, 2011
12:50 pm

And with Rockerbabe’s 12:38, I rest my case. If you’re on the wrong side, she says, you deserve what you get. Well, that’s the whole damn problem.

Kudos, I guess, to Rockerbabe for being so unrepentant about it.

Southern Comfort

October 28th, 2011
12:51 pm

Anyone who wonders why Americans lack faith in our institutions, and despair that there’s no solution in sight, would do well to remember what happened to Robert Bork some 24 years ago.

If you believe popular opinion, the whole idea of lacking faith in our institutions was due to the Carter Administration, for starters. I think our government has been on a decline into the bowels of hell since Watergate, and our current group of elected officials are only doing what we allow them to get away with without fear of punishment.

I think that the only relevance that the Bork nomination has is that what was once done in the dark and behind the scenes was finally put out on full display for all to see. The fact that Americans didn’t recoil and revolt only gave legitimacy to the whole idea of demonizing the opposition without fear of reprecussions.

Independant.....Really I am......

October 28th, 2011
12:51 pm

Its Funny that Kyle would find a way to lay the divide in politics at the feet of the Dems……How about refusing to lay blame for what started it and lets start calling out those in BOTH PARTIES that won’t rise above the pettiness and do whats right for America????

Jamaal Charles

October 28th, 2011
12:52 pm

Excellent article. Happy you had a nice birthday.

Kyle Wingfield

October 28th, 2011
12:52 pm

HDB: Yeah, a terrible candidate who had taught law at Yale, been U.S. solicitor general and a federal judge. But because his beliefs differ from you, he’s unqualified and the ends justify the means.

Southern Comfort

October 28th, 2011
12:53 pm

If you’re on the wrong side, she says, you deserve what you get. Well, that’s the whole damn problem.

Is that not the same message that’s driven home here on the AJC blogs by the uber-conservatives that post here?

Senior Citizen Kane

October 28th, 2011
12:54 pm

I still remember the Lion of the Senate asking Bord a loaded question and then getting up and leaving before he could answer. What a statesman.

Senior Citizen Kane

October 28th, 2011
12:54 pm

He actually asked Bork, not Bord.

Kyle Wingfield

October 28th, 2011
12:55 pm

Independant: I don’t consider it laying blame as much as saying, that was the moment when so much that we dislike about our politics began. The blame belongs to everyone who’s used the Bork template since then and, as I wrote, both parties are guilty.

Independant.....Really I am......

October 28th, 2011
12:57 pm

hey Kyle, How many times have you written articles lamenting “Activist Judges”??? Are you willing to admit that Borks’ beliefs made him more likely than most to (again use a right side term) “Legislate from the Bench”???

Kyle Wingfield

October 28th, 2011
12:57 pm

Southern: I don’t necessarily disagree with your 12:51. But I’m not sure the personal viciousness, the demonization, took place behind closed doors, at least not on the same level — because I don’t know what the point would have been. The point of maligning Bork was to whip up public opposition to him.

Kyle Wingfield

October 28th, 2011
12:59 pm

Southern @ 12:53: I don’t think any one group has a monopoly on that kind of rhetoric.

Kyle Wingfield

October 28th, 2011
1:01 pm

Independant @ 12:57: According to the search function on my blog, once. When the Georgia Supreme Court contorted the historical record to justify throwing out an act of the Legislature.

real john

October 28th, 2011
1:01 pm

Kyle:

Unforunately the libs on this blog are just proving your point. You put a well thought out article blaming both Republicans and Democrats equally. However, most of these libs don’t even bother to read your article. As soon as they see Kyle as a new article, they can’t wait to start typing with their angry little fingers…its pathetic..

At least you try to bring some differing views into your articles and from time to time, I have found you to be quit harsh of Republicans. I can’t recall one article where Bookman has every really attacked Dems or Obama (unless it is a back handed shot at the Repubs in some way).

Keep up the good work Kyle. As I said, the usual lib bloggers on here will keep on proving your point.

Mid Ga Retiree

October 28th, 2011
1:02 pm

I read from Kyle’s article that neither Republicans nor Democrats are lily-white when it comes to “borking”. After reading the responses so far, I repeat what I said recently to another columnist, “You need a better class of bloggers.”

Independant.....Really I am......

October 28th, 2011
1:03 pm

” I don’t think any one group has a monopoly on that kind of rhetoric.”

Come on Kyle….The Republicans have attacked and villified Prsident Obama in a wy that now other sitting president has ever been…I was not nor am I now an Obama Supporter, but the disrespect and venom that has been the hallmark of his presidency is embarrasing…We have allowed teh highest office in our country to be pissed on for the sake of political positioning, and I believed we will never be able to walk that back….

Aquagirl

October 28th, 2011
1:03 pm

This dumb@$$ was ok with poll taxes. He thought Nixon’s attempted end-run around Watergate investigations was legal. It was a complete slap in the face he was ever considered, much less put forth as someone who should be sitting on the Supreme Court.

Buy a clue, Kyle: don’t launch a nuke by nominating guys with 14th century thinking and they won’t get Borked.

Dusty

October 28th, 2011
1:04 pm

Good grief, Kyle, I haven’t gotten over the continuing deluge of hate poured on George W. Bush yet. Then you bring up Bork.

But the hate is not abated by the newspaper industry. Did not the AJC just hire Maureen Dowd as one of their commentators? Are not Bookman and Luckovich the staples of twisted facts and slanted vision that inspires the extreme? Do you remember Lucko’s cartoon of an American serviceman being roasted on a spit?

I admire your integrity but you are a lamb among many wolves.

Southern Comfort

October 28th, 2011
1:07 pm

Kyle

Appreciate the thoughtful response. By saying behind closed doors, I mean that the demonization was not as “in your face” and blatant as it is now. Before then, you had the usual underhanded things such as using the rumor mill and such to undercut candidates. The point of doing such was the same as it is now which is to try to grow your base to the point of having a dominant majority that would be hard to defeat.

Growing up in Alabama, I remember Republicans attempting to use Wallace’s past against him when he ran for governor in the early 1980’s. I also remember Democrats painting Republicans in negative connotation to keep the minority vote back then. Neither party is without fault, but the ultimate failure is in the voters themselves. Until we force politicians to change for the better, we’ll continue down the same road. I also completely agree with your 12:59 post.

Independant.....Really I am......

October 28th, 2011
1:08 pm

Real John….. You my friend are as much the problem as the “libs” you are trying so hard to blame…. How about we stop with teh lables…stop with the name calling stop with the tagging and start demanding that ALL of our elected officials work toward soultions that will be of benefit to ALL AMERICANS..Not just those that share our particular beliefs…

HDB

October 28th, 2011
1:08 pm

Kyle Wingfield
October 28th, 2011
12:52 pm

Remember….I wasn’t the ONLY one who thought Bork was a terrible candidate for SCOTUS….

From wiki….:

A hotly contested United States Senate debate over Bork’s nomination ensued, partly fueled by strong opposition by civil and women’s rights groups concerned with Bork’s stated desire to roll back civil rights decisions of the Warren and Burger courts, and his opposition to the right of the Federal government to impose standards of voting fairness upon the states. Bork is one of only three Supreme Court nominees to ever be opposed by the ACLU.Bork was also criticized for being an “advocate of disproportionate powers for the executive branch of Government, almost executive supremacy,” as demonstrated by his role in the Saturday Night Massacre.

To pro-choice legal groups, Bork’s originalist views and his belief that the Constitution does not contain a general “right to privacy” were viewed as a clear signal that, should he become a Justice on the Supreme Court, he would vote to reverse the Court’s 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade

Kyle Wingfield

October 28th, 2011
1:09 pm

Independant: Bushitler? General Betrayus? Either of those ring a bell?

I’m not at all defending the personal invective against Obama. I’m not even trying to put it on an equal footing with what Bush faced. But here’s the problem: It always gets worse, because what happened to the last guy is always used to justify what’s done to the current guy. I would say that unilateral rejection of such tactics is the answer, but do you really believe one side could “disarm” in that way without continuing to get pummeled by the other side? And do you really doubt that such pummeling would continue to work?

Voters are always complaining about attack ads, right? So, why do political candidates keep using them? Because on some level, they work.

Kyle Wingfield

October 28th, 2011
1:10 pm

Aquagirl: If his principles were that bad, then why didn’t Kennedy, et al. simply attack his principles? I don’t think you have to agree with Bork’s beliefs to recognize that his treatment poisoned the waters, and we haven’t recovered from it since.

HDB

October 28th, 2011
1:10 pm

Kyle…I NEVER said that Bork was UNQUALIFIED….just a terrible candidate….and that’s based on his RECORD…as was noted previously!!

brad

October 28th, 2011
1:14 pm

I can’t believe you have the balls to post this crap.

brad

October 28th, 2011
1:15 pm

You get paid for actively inciting incivility.

Kyle Wingfield

October 28th, 2011
1:16 pm

Point to one example, brad.

Kyle Wingfield

October 28th, 2011
1:16 pm

Where I’m “actively inciting incivility,” I mean.

Independant.....Really I am......

October 28th, 2011
1:18 pm

Kyle, You and others in your positon have a platform to rail against this type of foolishness…..I don’t know what your readership is, but I would be willing to bet that If you took a consistant stand against this type of retoric when it comes for either side teh tone could be made more civil… Don’t get me wrong, I am in complete favor of extensive debate when its done in a productive fashion, and I believe that debate among the general populace can and should occur, But when the hook is baited and the read meat is tossed into into the fray…well this is what happens…..

brad

October 28th, 2011
1:18 pm

You’re either delusional, or think that I am. Get serious.

brad

October 28th, 2011
1:20 pm

Enter your comments here

brad

October 28th, 2011
1:22 pm

Well, I suppose that lobbing partisan posts is “casually inciting incivility”.

Dusty

October 28th, 2011
1:22 pm

Brad posted on the wrong AJC blog, Kyle. His comment is so suitable to other members of the editorial staff.

Kyle Wingfield

October 28th, 2011
1:22 pm

Independant: And I have spoken out against incivility several times in the 2.5 years I’ve been at the AJC. If you look at my track record, I think you’ll find I spend my time writing about people’s ideas, not their character. And I try to err on the side of allowing a free-wheeling discussion in comments threads, probably to a fault in too many cases. I’m not saying I’m perfect, but it is something I take seriously.

UGA 1999

October 28th, 2011
1:24 pm

Not a very interesting topic Kyle….

Common Sense isn't very Common

October 28th, 2011
1:27 pm

Kyle

Do you remember or just read about it?

If so that could shade your perception of events that occured.

As many of us here have done in the past without enough research into the issues.

catlady

October 28th, 2011
1:29 pm

What comes to my mind is the reprehensible treatment of Max Cleland by Saxby Chambliss. I’m not sure I would pee on him if he was on fire. Of course, his “bad knee” would keep him from getting too close to a fire, anyway.

Independant.....Really I am......

October 28th, 2011
1:29 pm

OK Kyle…..The way you have choosen to engage todays topic is both thoughtful and productive….To that end, why not take the time to both challenge and correct your posters when they present information rises to the level that we alll seem so opposed to??? Again you have a platform to move political debate forward…why not do it??

Dusty

October 28th, 2011
1:29 pm

Independent…really I am

No, I don’t think you are. Too much evidence against you.

UGA 1999

October 28th, 2011
1:31 pm

Dusty….prove it.

Don't Tread

October 28th, 2011
1:39 pm

I suppose Billy became the “bane” of your existence? :)

I had forgotten about the Bork confirmation hearings. That was mild compared to what goes on today (as you pointed out with the Biden example).

Independant.....Really I am......

October 28th, 2011
1:42 pm

Dusty…What have I said that proves a lack of independence???

markie mark

October 28th, 2011
1:42 pm

“You write about Bork; what about Anita Hill and all of the other good, well-educated women who have tried to make a career in public service, only to find themselves “borked” by men with sexist and demeaning attitudes [”

Sorry, Rockerbabe, your premise is false. Anita Hill did not “try to make a career in public service and find herself borked” as you say. Anita Hill decided to get involved in the hearings of Clarence Thomas confirmation and make charges she couldn’t prove. And I wish desperately that I could remember the name of the brilliant AA gentlemen that testified about Anita Hill (last name Daggett?) and how she had pursued him despite his repeated requests for her to quit. His testimony, in my mind, shredded her claims….

War Eagle

October 28th, 2011
1:46 pm

Anyone elected to office should have to prove their qualifications. We have an Ayatollah who ran nothing, voted on nothing and collected a paycheck while BSing the nation into thinking he was the messiah. And stupidly, we bought into it instead of looking at someone who ran a business and someone who, along with his father, ran a state for 8 yrs. And this is what we got. A cry baby who whines and complains and then gets angry when he does not get his way and blames everyone but himself. Then he goes onthe vacation of the month claiming enetitlement. He’s worse than Jimmy who was worse than Van Buren.But that’s what happens when you vote for “the brotha” who disses his grand motha.