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What Can We Learn From Jeff Flake's About-Face?

Activism matters, for one.
Senator Jeff Flake listens to Democratic senators speak during a Senate Judiciary Committee meeting on September 28th, 2018, in Washington, D.C.

Senator Jeff Flake listens to Democratic senators speak during a Senate Judiciary Committee meeting on September 28th, 2018, in Washington, D.C.

There are rare moments in politics when an individual's behavior can seem genuinely shocking. We experienced a few such moments last week, in the decisions to postpone a floor vote on Brett Kavanaugh's confirmation to the Supreme Court.

By most accounts, the key figure in this late reversal was Senator Jeff Flake (R-Arizona), a Republican who's in his last few months both in the Senate and on its Judiciary Committee. Flake, who had at first signaled that he was undecided on whether to vote in support of Kavanaugh, announced on Friday morning that he was indeed going to support the nominee. This prompted two responses that likely affected Flake's later behavior, although it's difficult to know which played a greater role.

First, two protesters, Ana Maria Archila and Maria Gallagher, confronted the senator as he was entering an elevator. They blocked the door, preventing the elevator from closing. Archila revealed (for the first time publicly) her own experience with sexual violence, saying: "I was sexually assaulted and nobody believed me. I didn't tell anyone and you're telling all women that they don't matter, that they should just stay quiet, because if they tell you what happened to them, you're going to ignore them." These activists, offering gripping, brutal, and deeply personal testimony to a senator's face on live television, apparently affected Flake on an emotional level.

As shaken as Flake was by Archila and Gallagher, he seems to have also been affected by his colleague Chris Coons' (D-Connecticut) late-game intervention. Coons was reportedly taken aback when he learned of Flake's plans to vote for Kavanaugh. He re-tooled a speech to appeal specifically to Flake, decrying the decline in comity within the chamber. He and Flake later spoke one-on-one and checked in with a number of other people including Chuck Grassley, Dianne Feinstein, and officials at the Department of Justice.

What followed caught Capitol Hill by surprise: Flake offered his aye vote in exchange for a one-week delay on the floor vote and a Federal Bureau of Investigation look at Christine Blasey Ford's accusations.

Flake's about-face is especially important given the GOP's tenuous grasp on the Senate. Republicans have only a one-seat majority on the committee and a two-seat majority in the chamber, making any given Republican potentially pivotal. It was important that Flake, who will not face voters again and has a history of at least verbal pushback against the Trump administration's priorities, was on this committee. And it was not irrelevant that Flake has friends who have been victims of sexual violence.

We can draw a few important lessons from this episode.

First, activism matters. We know from substantial research that protests, union strikes, and other forms of political activism can affect lawmaking and public policy, but it can be hard to know that in the moment. Millions have participated in protests over the past few years, never sure whether they were doing it to make them feel better or if there might actually be an effect on the government. Archila and Gallagher took some risk confronting a senator so directly, but their confrontation got through and may have changed history.

Second, personal narratives matter. The #MeToo movement, and the more recent effort of #WhyIDidntReport, has seen untold thousands of women coming forward to reveal painful personal stories in a very public way to make others aware of the prevalence of harassment and sexual violence and the reasons so few victims end up reporting their assailants. Blasey Ford endured hours of clearly painful testimony, revealing the worst moment of her life, in an effort to have some impact on a key government decision. Surely she and the vast numbers of other women who have recently revealed such traumatic moments want to know they weren't completely ignored. Here was at least some evidence to suggest their testimony was worth it.

Finally, legislative relationships matter. Inter-party friendships in Congress are increasingly rare, but that between Coons and Flake appears to be genuine. What's more, their friendship has been cultivated over several years of service, including some overseas travel to Africa together. These junkets are often met with scorn from political observers, many of whom see them as a lavish perk that few Americans in other lines get to enjoy or even a source of corruption. But the legislative networks fostered by these and other opportunities for members of Congress can end up having a meaningful effect on a legislature, even a deeply polarized one.

The FBI investigation and other political events over the next week may end up having little effect on the Kavanaugh confirmation vote. But the outcome is far less certain than it was last week, and senators will end up casting a more informed and less rushed vote than they otherwise would have. And all because people chose to get involved.