The entire second act of Brett M. Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court, from the moment Christine Blasey Ford’s accusations against him became public through his installation onto the court on Saturday, was defined by emotion.
Ford’s emotions over relinquishing her anonymity and coming forward. The emotions of the protesters who stopped Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) in an elevator and pleaded with him to allow the FBI to investigate her claims. And most notably of all, Kavanaugh’s emotional opening statement during his second round of testimony.
This testimony was enormously polarizing. The emotional display worried many Americans, including the president of the American Bar Association. But the emotionality may also be the reason Justice Kavanaugh is now hearing cases on the court. And according to many reports, his testimony also energized the Republican Party’s conservative base a month before the pivotal midterm elections.
Political figures showing emotion — and triggering a polarized response — seems to be the norm in the Trump era. Pundits on both the left and right scorn the emotions displayed by their opponents. And yet emotion has moved to the core of our political debates because politicians and activists understand that emotional appeals are the key to winning battles.
Many blame modern media — Facebook, Twitter, cable news, the decline of newspapers and news magazines — for our emotional politics. But the criticism of emotion is nothing new. Grass-roots feminists complained about how their opponents used emotional tactics in state-level fights about the Equal Rights Amendment during the 1970s. While anti-ERA activists were not the first to use emotional appeals to support political positions, playing for politicians’ hearts was the go-to tactic. And it worked, in the process shifting how local politics was done.
Anti-ERA activists effectively leveraged emotionalism to block the amendment, even though every poll showed that a healthy majority of Americans supported it. To that majority, the ERA was a brief statement encapsulating women’s rights under the law. To anti-ERA women, however, it was a dangerous first step toward a radical reordering of American society, one that ran contrary to biblical instructions and their own beliefs about the ways families and society functioned best. And their appeals conveyed this threat.
In North Carolina, anti-ERA women built tactically on a failed campaign in Colorado to rescind ratification via a ballot measure. As scholars Jane De Hart and Donald Mathews have shown, they were particularly vocal about their fears that the ERA would ban sex-segregated public restrooms. During one legislative session, anti-ERA women sent loaves of bread to senators with notes that said, “From the bread bakers to the bread winners,” highlighting their support for traditional gender roles. These women were trying to make clear that the ERA posed a threat to the entire vision and structure of society predicated on a patriarchal nuclear family.
These appeals caught ERA advocates flat-footed. They didn’t comprehend how potent the tactic was and never moved beyond behind-the-scenes lobbying and polite requests to support their position. Lobbyists and a handful of leading feminists met with legislators, armed with mountains of polling data showing that most North Carolinians supported the amendment. Individual women were never encouraged to meet with legislators except as representatives of supporting groups, and they were told to use the same approach as the official lobbyists for the bill.
The state was considered one of the most likely to approve the amendment by national activists. But it never did so, because this low-key “positive approach” by advocates failed. By the late 1970s, some state leaders had had enough, with one noting that the pro-ERA forces’ “complacency must be shaken.” But the advocates of the ERA never engaged in the sort of emotional appeals that the opposition did.
The result was a failure to ratify the amendment, because anti-ERA women convinced male state legislators that the ERA threatened their lifestyle. If this amendment passed, they argued, legislators’ wives would be forced out of the home and into the workplace. For a majority of the North Carolina state legislature, that was a threat no amount of polling data could trump.
The contrast between North Carolina and Indiana proves the point. Indiana legislators, the last group to ratify the amendment — in 1977, two years after any other state — did so only when confronted with daily pickets by ERA supporters. That approach developed after several failed attempts to secure ratification using the same polite tactics employed by North Carolina ERA proponents.
In the face of these setbacks, Indiana feminists innovated. State chapters of the National Organization for Women established what they called the “ERA vigil” outside the statehouse in Indianapolis. Every day, from midnight to 1 p.m. in the cold of a Midwestern winter, they stood silently outside the building, holding signs bearing slogans such as “It’s a matter of simple justice” and “ERA now.”
In the afternoon, picketers made appointments with legislators and continued their personal emotional appeals to individual legislators, co-opting one of the key tactics of their opponents. Other pro-ERA groups continued the behind-the-scenes work of pressing legislators using data. The combination was successful, showing that by the mid-1970s, only when the emotion of anti-ERA activists was met with emotion from pro-ERA activists were the amendment’s supporters successful.
By focusing on personal, emotional appeals — that women would be “forced” to become men, that sex-segregated bathrooms would be eliminated — anti-ERA activists not only won the ERA fight, but they also changed American politics. Emotional responses slowly became more valued than facts and data. By the end of the 1970s, conservative activists focusing on issues such as abortion and gay rights were also using these tactics. Feminists working on these issues steadily increased the emotion in their activism as well, learning from the failures in North Carolina and the success in Indiana.
For much of the 1980s and 1990s, emotional appeals remained largely the domain of grass-roots activists. The tactics that anti-ERA women used were adapted by a variety of groups on the left and the right, on issues of race and the environment as well as gender. By the 21st century, multi-issue groups such as the tea party and Occupy added these tactics to their quiver, along with later organizations such as Black Lives Matter and the Women’s March. Activist groups still have data that they use to prove their points. Movements on the left seem particularly inclined to use data to demonstrate the continued effects of racism and sexism in American society. But the emotional tactics developed in the 1970s have remained effective grass-roots tools ever since.
What is new in recent years, however, is the way in which these tactics are being deployed by elected officials. Emotional appeals are now the first stop, the primary tool used by the White House, members of Congress and, as Kavanaugh demonstrated, judicial nominees. The political culture developed by anti-feminist activists in the 1970s is now the political culture of the nation.