The Senate’s confirmation vote of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to become the next Associate Justice of the Supreme Court was the most partisan in modern history. The 50-48 tally continues a trend in which confirmations have devolved into strict party-line votes.
While political pundits spent months pondering over whether centrist or independent-minded Republicans–Maine’s Susan Collins, Arizona’s Jeff Flake, Tennessee’s Bob Corker, and Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski–would vote against Kavanaugh, only Murkowski broke ranks by abstaining. Things were no different on the opposite end of the aisle. Of the Red-State Democrats–Montana’s Jon Tester, Indiana’s Joe Donnelly, Missouri’s Claire McCaskill, North Dakota’s Heidi Heitkamp, and West Virginia’s Joe Manchin III–thought to be caught between Scylla and Charybdis, only Manchin, up for election in a state that gave Donald Trump his second largest margin of victory in the 2016 presidential election, switched sides.
The party-line votes are the culmination of a trend begun in 2005 when 22 senators broke ranks to confirm Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. Of the five subsequent nominations, no more than nine senators have voted against their party’s position.
The comparison of this recent trend to past epochs is astonishing. Other than Clarence Thomas in 1991 and Robert Bork in 1987, all confirmation votes since 1969 had at least 18 senators vote with the opposing party. As recently as the 1990s, the vast majority of senators did so. Nominated by Bill Clinton, Ruth Bader Ginsburg received 41 of the 44 Republican votes in 1993 while Stephen Breyer garnered 33 of 42 Republicans a year later despite the growing hostility between the president and Congress.
The 1970s and 1980s actually witnessed four unanimous confirmations, an outcome that’s unfathomable in today’s political climate. The Senate confirmed Anthony Kennedy, Sandra Day O’Connor, John Paul Stevens, and Harry Blackmun without a single dissenting vote. Other justices came close to getting a perfect score.
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Even during the heavily contested nomination battles over Clement Haynsworth Jr. and G. Harrold Carswell, two of Richard Nixon’s nominees whom the Senate rejected, 30 or more senators in each instance broke ranks with their respective parties.
Go back farther in time, and one will largely find a series of voice votes, a procedure in which, instead of employing a roll call, the Senate acted in unison, bellowing out “yeas” and “nays” in succession. Such informality also seems unfathomable today.
The reasons for today’s party-line votes are simple. Besides the amped-up, hyper-politicized age the Senate now operates in, the parties have become more disciplined like the British House of Commons, where members of parliament rarely break party ranks. The purification of the parties into ideologically distinct entities has also contributed to the recent trend of partisan voting patterns. Before southern voters switched en masse to the Republican Party in the 1970s, both parties housed liberals and conservatives. Over time, the dozens of conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans who once regaled the Senate disappeared. Attacked as apostates by their parties, centrists also became endangered species within the upper chamber.
The bitterness surrounding Kavanaugh’s confirmation is a testament to this reality.
Unless today’s radioactive political climate cools down, presidents no longer pander to their most rabid constituents by foregoing extremists in favor of centrists, and senators resurrect some of the institutional prerogatives that used to put the upper house’s interest and integrity above that of loyalty to one’s party, these voting patterns will continue.
Don’t hold your breath, however. The chance of those changes taking place any time soon are about the same as the next Supreme Court nominee getting unanimously confirmed.