Opinion | Ketanji Brown Jackson’s confirmation will have deep political effects

With Ketanji Brown Jackson set to be confirmed as the newest justice of the Supreme Court on Thursday, we can judge what came of her confirmation hearings, for the two parties and for the country.

Democrats finally gave their own voters something to celebrate. Their voters, having witnessed the way Jackson was treated by the GOP, should now have a stronger incentive to get to the polls.

Republicans did their best to drag Jackson and her confirmation down into a sewer of their construction, believing it would be to their political benefit. They appear to have failed — and in the process deepened their own radicalization.

Let’s begin with the Democrats. For their voters, who so often see their leaders miss opportunities and shrink from fights, Jackson’s confirmation was not just a victory but one with profound symbolic meaning.

That’s why it was so important when Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey admonished his Republican colleagues for their odious attacks on Jackson, and told her, “I’m not letting anybody in the Senate steal my joy” at seeing her ascend to the court. “You have earned this spot. You are worthy.”

It was so powerful because Americans saw how worthy Jackson is, and saw those preening, dishonest, cynical Republicans tell her she wasn’t.

The Republicans’ strategy was aimed mostly at their base, and though its effects might be complex, there’s not much reason to believe it succeeded beyond reinforcing the beliefs of people who didn’t need any more persuading.

Not only has Jackson’s nomination garnered strong support in polls, but also one survey from Quinnipiac University found 52 percent of Americans saying they disapproved of how Republicans handled her nomination; only 27 percent said they approved of the Republicans’ performance.

Their questioning of Jackson ranged from inane to repulsive; one low point came when Sen. Marsha Blackburn (Tenn.) asked her to define “woman,” something Republicans themselves turn out to be incapable of doing. Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.) ranted about critical race theory infecting children’s books, and he and Sen. Tom Cotton (Ark.) were so angry about Jackson’s work as a public defender that they now seem to be all but opposed to the very constitutional guarantee that every defendant has a right to a lawyer.

Speaking of public defenders, Cruz said “their heart is with the murderers, with the criminals, and that’s who they are rooting for.” Cotton suggested that Jackson would have rushed to Nuremberg to defend Nazis. These are the people who bray the loudest about their devotion to the Constitution.

As vile as those attacks were, they were a sideshow to the main Republican offering: the rancid accusation that Jackson is soft on pedophiles. Rather than revisiting the details of that calumny, let’s pull our view back a bit, to see it in its political context.

The Republicans who chose to make that the central theme of their attack on Jackson know full well the central role conspiracies of pedophilia play in the fever dreams of QAnon, whose adherents make up a substantial portion of the Republican base. But that’s only part of the story.

One of the key recent developments in the ongoing osmotic process of right-wing hate rhetoric is the way the term “grooming” — i.e., creating a relationship with a child to prepare them for sexual abuse — has rapidly moved from the fringe to the mainstream. Conservatives now use it to refer to any opposition to “Don’t Say Gay” bills, support for inclusivity, or belief that trans people should be treated with the same respect as anyone else.

It’s notable that the use of the term on the right accelerated as Republican senators made their bogus child pornography attacks on Jackson. So even if Republican senators didn’t actually use the term “groomer” during the hearings, their decision to make Jackson’s confirmation all about pedophilia validated, elevated and spread that rancid accusation.

But does that actually help Republicans? It might cheer their most maniacal supporters. But if Republicans are going to be the party that routinely accuses anyone who disagrees with them of being a pedophile, they might find it harder to win converts across the middle of the electorate. That could be one of the lasting effects of Jackson’s confirmation process.

It’s also possible that the sight of Jackson taking her oath of office will fill Democrats with both the joy that Booker spoke of, and an entirely justified anger at Republicans for the way they treated her. It would be more than fair for Democratic candidates everywhere to say, “Did Republicans’ treatment of Jackson disgust you? Then come out to vote so those Republicans don’t get to decide who sits on the Supreme Court.”

It will be some time before we can fully judge the political impact of this confirmation, though one clue as to how this will resonate in the future will be found in whether Democrats bring up this confirmation more often than Republicans do. But it undoubtedly intensified the currents already shaping our politics: Democrats reaching for the mainstream, and Republicans running eagerly to embrace their extremist fringe.