Cognitive Dissonance: Why ‘I Believe Dr. Ford but I Support Brett Kavanaugh’

Several theories have been advanced trying to explain the apparent contradiction between people saying that they admire and believe the story of sexual assault as told by Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, and at the same time continue to back Brett Kavanaugh. It is hard to find fault with anything in Dr. Ford’s riveting, believable testimony, although lately the president and others have criticized her lack of memory about some details. And despite the nominee’s appalling performance before the Senate Judiciary Committee on September 27, the last 35 years of his life seem to demand respect: good parents, great upbringing, privileged background, varied accomplishments.

Kavanaugh’s backers hold fast to the belief that nothing and no one has corroborated Ford’s story, taking pains to keep it that way through truncated investigation. They have no other way to defend him and negate Ford’s accusation. They dismiss adolescent ‘hijinks’ and drinking as things we can all identify with. In condemning those who call Kavanaugh’s actions into question, they unleash invective and rancor out of all proportion. In contrast, as Democrats questioned the nominee, they were calm and rational—even when Kavanaugh could not answer their questions.

So, what is going on here? In our experience, the more emotional and angry people get, the more suspect their denials. Kavanaugh’s testimony was reminiscent of that of Clarence Thomas—angry, hurt, self-serving. And Anita Hill? Calm, quiet, poised.

But perhaps more telling were the reactions of the Judiciary Committee Republicans in their bombast, self-righteousness, and fury (see Grassley, Chuck; Graham, Lindsey; Cornyn, John). What was at work here? Cognitive dissonance.

In watching the attack on Kavanaugh, his white, male GOP confreres saw potential attacks on themselves and their way of life. They, too, were, in the main, raised with money and were well-educated and accomplished as adults. Perhaps they were wild teens, but it’s doubtful. Their core belief is that someone like Kavanaugh basically did everything right, got all the right tickets punched, and here he was, being accused of heinous action that they could not see him committing. Unfair. That’s the key. That’s the dissonance. He could not have done this. And if by some chance he did, there must be a good explanation. We take care of our own kind. We are entitled to rage against these charges against him, which would blunt our chances to have a conservative majority on the Court for the next 30 years.

To believe Ford to the extent that would require voting against Kavanaugh would shake them to their core. They had to find a way around that.


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