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What Kavanaugh's Confirmation Means For America's Culture Wars


We'd like to take this conversation a step further to go beyond the fight over the Kavanaugh nomination to what some see as a growing crisis of civility and respect for democratic processes across the board. So we've called two people who have been thinking hard about this. Norman Eisen is senior fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution. He's a former U.S. ambassador to the Czech Republic. He is with us from Prague.

Ambassador, welcome. Thanks for joining us.

NORMAN EISEN: Thanks for having me back.

MARTIN: Also with us - political scientist Francis Fukuyama. He's a professor at Stanford, and he just wrote a book about the politics of resentment. Professor, thank you so much for joining us as well.

FRANCIS FUKUYAMA: Well, thank you.

MARTIN: And I'm going to start with you. And I just want to say that this isn't a referendum on the Brett Kavanaugh nomination because we know Republicans are angry. They say that due process is under attack. Democrats are angry. They say that they feel that the system's been manipulated overall - and, you know, not to mention all the gender dynamics. So, professor Fukuyama, I'm going to ask you, how seriously do you take the divisions of the moment? Are the wheels coming off the democratic project?

FUKUYAMA: Well, I think they're very, very serious. The degree of polarization is the single biggest weakness in American society and in the American political system. It means that we can't make routine decisions like appointing a Supreme Court justice. It also means that it's seeping into society. So it's not simply that we're disagreeing over, you know, policies like abortion. It also means that, as Americans, as individuals, we are increasingly distrusting one another, disliking each other on a personal basis.

And, you know, I think the hearings demonstrated that we're even perceiving the same events and the same facts in such different ways that there really doesn't seem to be common ground for having actually a civil discussion. And so I think this is a continuation of a process. It's been going on for quite a few years now, but it's really accelerated, I think, in the last two.

MARTIN: Ambassador Eisen, I'm going with you because you wrote a piece in The Times where you mentioned that people across the West are expressing these concerns. It's not just in the United States. But you also said that understanding history would give us optimism for the future. What makes you so sure about that?

EISEN: Well, if you trace the oscillations - the ups and downs of the democratic project - really on both sides of the Atlantic. You need to have, I think, that transatlantic mindset. I'm not just saying that because I'm calling you from Prague. And if you do that, you see that our democracies have come through equal and greater challenges far more substantial than the ones we face now.

Often, there's disagreement. There was disagreement about U.S. entry into World War I. There was, for a time, disagreement before World War II. The Marshall Plan wasn't fully funded until after the Cold War had begun. And, every time, we're able to come together. It's the genius of the democratic project. I charted it in my new book, "The Last Palace," looking at that century from here in Prague. And so I'm confident that we'll be able to overcome this.

And perhaps the last place where I might take exception, perhaps, to professor Fukuyama's view is I think it's asymmetrical. Do not think this is a matter of both sides. I believe that there was a tremendous break in the democratic process in the way the Kavanaugh nomination was handled. And so once we're able to redress those ills - as we always are - I think we'll get back to the more normal turbulence of democracy instead of its current extreme version.

MARTIN: Ambassador, what should we do about this, then?

EISEN: Well, I think on the - to take the example of the Kavanaugh nomination - but there's so much more in the Trump administration that the same could be said of. We need to acknowledge what the baseline is. This was not a normal process. I worked when I was in the White House on two Supreme Court nominations. We turned over every page of Justice Elena Kagan's White House documents. This White House withheld hundreds of thousands of pages. You had an FBI investigation. I wrote about what a normal one would have looked like. I commissioned many of them. This was an abnormal and limited one. You had an extremely unusual unprecedented partisanship by the nominee on Fox News.

MARTIN: OK, Ambassador, but I'm going to ask you - we don't have - we have limited time, so I'm going to ask you briefly to tell us what direction we should go in going forward. And then I want to turn it over to the professor again. What should we do now?

EISEN: We have to acknowledge what was wrong, and it must be made right. I believe there will likely be some redress in the mid-term when some more accountability may come to at least one if not both houses of Congress. And that redress will help heal what's broken.

MARTIN: Professor Fukuyama, you actually belong to a project called Better Angels, which is an effort to bring conservatives and progressives together to reduce polarization using very - it's very structured. It's very intentional. How is that going? And what do you hope to accomplish with this?

FUKUYAMA: Well, it's one of a lot of grassroots efforts to build civility across the country. But I actually think that that by itself is not going to turn the trick because this is something I think that really needs leadership. I agree with the ambassador that the blame here has not been symmetrical. I mean, we have a president who instead of trying to actually unite the country around some common interests has done everything he can to try to increase the degree of polarization.

But, in a certain sense, it means that, you know, there's grounds for optimism because if it is the result of this kind of - what I would regard as really bad leadership, it means that somebody with a different agenda, you know, could actually begin to emphasize, you know, common national identity, things that Americans actually hold in common and walk us back a little bit from this precipice.

MARTIN: So if there - professor, we only have a minute left. So, professor Fukuyama, if that leadership is not there, what should people be doing in the interim?

FUKUYAMA: (Laughter) They should vote. I mean, I do think that fundamentally, you know, a lot of this is a political fight. And I think that if you're - you know, I really do think the upcoming election in November is one of the most important in American history because I do think that that's the ultimate way that Americans have of holding their leaders accountable. And there's going to be big implications drawn depending on the way that this election goes. And I think that's really - that's the way that in a democracy you exercise your agency and you, you know, express your democratic will.

MARTIN: So much more to say. I'm sorry, we are running out of time - but more to come, hopefully. We'll have this conversation again, and we'll talk about how things are proceeding in that way.

That's Professor Francis Fukuyama of Stanford. His latest book is "Identity: The Demand For Dignity And The Politics Of Resentment." And former ambassador to the Czech Republic and the current senior fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution Norman Eisen was also with us.

Ambassador, professor, thank you both so much for joining us.

FUKUYAMA: Thank you.

EISEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.