ambition, jealousy, and the Supreme Court

What better way to revive the blog after settling back in to life in the US than with a post on ugly human character traits and our country’s highest court.

But first, an aside: I think it’s awesome that our Solicitor General is properly referred to as “General So-and-so”, and let me to all you overpaid private sector types who shudder at the thought of taking a pay cut to go work in government … being called ‘General Insert-Your-Last-Name-Here has got to make up for at least a few hundred thousand in compensation, right? Not that you’d always have to stand on formality; I’m sure you could have your underlings just call you Commander Fancypants. Also, you could start wearing ascots.

And now back to our regularly-scheduled blog post. General Kagan has been nominated to replace outgoing Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens. You can read complete, detailed coverage of Kagan’s career at SCOTUSblog. Commandant Kagan’s career has been illustrious, to say the least: Princeton undergrad, Harvard Law, Harvard Law Review, Supreme Court clerk, private practice, tenured professor at Chicago, service as a government lawyer in several positions in the Clinton White House and briefly in the Senate, law professor at Harvard, Dean of Harvard Law School, and now Solicitor Fancypants under Obama.

But to read the popular and elite commentary on the issue, you’d think that Kagan’s very success is a problem for her nomination. Uber-blogger Andrew Sullivan has been all over this, decrying Kagan’s ‘careerism’ (a dirty word, apparently) in what has become a typical view among pundits and Average Joe’s alike: “Her life, so far as one can tell, is her career.” That’s an odd criticism, coming from a man who admits he spends upwards of 12 hours a day, every day, blogging for a living. It’s also an incoherent position on the merits. Such criticism of Kagan boils down to a misunderstanding of the role of ambition in life and a failure to engage in basic self reflection.

First, let’s examine Sullivan’s particular gripe about Kagan’s ‘careerism’ and her supposed risk aversion. “Name one risk she has taken with her career,” he challenges his reader, and then says of himself, “I can’t.” He’s really talking about Kagan’s remarkable track record of not taking public, forceful positions on issues like abortion, terror policy, gay marriage, and so on during her illustrious career thus far.  That level of caginess is remarkable, and we’ll get to that in a second. But for now, let me answer Sullivan’s question from a different perspective.

What risks has she taken? How about giving up the promise of an extremely lucrative career as a lawyer in private practice? Someone of Kagan’s intellect, education, and work ethic can count on making partner and holding down million-plus salaries in relatively short order. Instead, Kagan left her firm and became an academic. “Big deal,” you might say, “don’t academics have comfy, risk-free jobs?” Sure they do. But then Kagan took a 2-year sabbatical from her cushy gig at Chicago to go lawyer for the government. And when Chicago gave her an ultimatum — come back and teach or be gone forever — she gave up tenure for the extremely risky life of a politically-appointed government lawyer. No public sector union or bureaucratic protection for her. She served at the pleasure of the president. Fall out of favor and you lose your job. Work at a pace comically similar to a character from The West Wing. That seems like a really big risk to me. It’s a risk that most people in this world aren’t willing to take. The vast majority of people in her position would (and do) opt for the paycheck of private practice, or the security of academia. Kagan decided to get involved, instead. And years later, when Obama asked her to leave her job as Dean of Harvard Law School so she could spend her days kissing Senators’ asses for confirmation, listening to people whisper nastily about her sexual orientation on TV, newspapers, and blogs, and have her briefs and oral arguments attacked from left and right by people unfamiliar with the unique role of the Solicitor General — she said yes. If Andrew thinks her career represents some sort of risk-free romp through the corridors of power, then he hasn’t thought very rigorously about what it really means to make those decisions.

Sullivan’s main problem with her careerism, however,  is with the coyness and caginess that goes along with it. He’s outraged that she hasn’t, in his opinion, come out and definitively told the public whether or not she is gay. He’s outraged that she hasn’t written 40 opinionated blog posts about the issues of the day for the past decade, as he himself has. Underneath this criticism is a concern that Kagan has had the part of her personality that generates and articulates opinions attenuated. Somehow, she seems less human than Andrew might prefer of a nominee to the highest court in the land.

While it’s fair to call Kagan extraordinarily coy, it borders on insanity to blame her as the nominee. If Kagan is coy, that’s because she has correctly read and understood the rules of the game for people who want to be on the Supreme Court. Ever since Bork, everyone knows that you get confirmed by never taking controversial public stances on things people actually care about. Them’s the rules. You can blame the rules, as Matt Yglesias thoughtfully does, but you really can’t blame Kagan herself for seeing and following them better than her contemporaries. That’s just called being good at what you do.

As Jonathan Bernstein astutely points out, this whole controversy boils down to a misunderstanding of the role of ambition in life:

1.  Regardless of the way we choose Justices or any other top position, we’re going to get candidates who are highly ambitious; there’s just no way to avoid that.

2.  Therefore, it is foolish to count it against any candidate that she appears to be ambitious, or that she does the sorts of things that people who want to reach the Court (or other high office) organize their lives to do.

3.  It is possible, however, to think of reforms that would change the ways that ambition is expressed.  If you want more explicit statements of political positions, make that a requirement.  Just don’t mistake any of that for purging ambition from the system, or for opening the gates to less ambitious people.

I think Jonathan is onto something here, and so I’d like to take a moment to defend ambition and ‘careerism’ from the ignorance displayed by arguments along the lines of Andrew Sullivan’s. Sullivan mocks Kagan for the sin of, as the NYT reported, wearing a judge’s robes in her high school senior yearbook photo and for daring to express from such an early age her ambition to serve on the Court. In my mind, that pretty much makes Sullivan a jerk. Certainly most of us didn’t have such specific high aspirations for our lives when we graduated from high school. But I think Sullivan isn’t being honest with himself or with us if he means to say that he never had high hopes and dreams for his life. I remember very clearly wanting to shoot for the stars when I was in high school. I still do. I’m pretty sure Andrew had some hopes and dreams, too. Mine weren’t and aren’t nearly as specific as Kagan’s — but that’s not to say that my way of being is better than hers. In a lot of ways, having a more clear idea of what I want to do would really help me organize my life around achieving those goals.

Unless Sullivan is some sort of inhuman brute who never had a childhood dream, then his critique seems to be more about Kagan’s success at translating her childhood dream into a career than it is about her dreaming capacity as such.

Sullivan’s complaints, and the many others who share them, reveal more about the speaker than they do about Kagan. It’s plain old Daft Punk jealousy that someone else was harder, better, faster, or stronger than us — smarter than us, harder working than us, and ultimately more successful than us. Or, Sullivan’s complaints are that Kagan had different goals than he did. He wanted to pontificate from his La-Z-Boy. She wanted to be a Supreme Court Justice. Maybe Sullivan wants to say that wanting to be a Justice is beyond the pale. That’s a problem, because I’m pretty sure it’s an awesome job, and I doubt I’d turn it down if I had the chance. And I doubt Andrew would, either. The next step is to organize one’s life around attaining that goal. That’s something Kagan was willing to do, so good for her. It’s not something Andrew has done, nor I (given that you’re reading this public blog post). But it’ll be a cold day in hell before people in general give up their dreams to please our own sense of propriety about just how high they’re are allowed to rise and just how hard they’re allowed to work and just how much they’re allowed to give up in return for achieving their goals.

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9 Responses to “ambition, jealousy, and the Supreme Court”


  1. 1 JSC7 May 13, 2010 at 9:37 pm

    Maybe I’m giving more credit than is due, I think the argument that Sullivan is on some level trying to make isn’t one that just puts down Kagan, although that it does, but a more inflamed, morally-charged version of the Yglesias argument. It’s one thing to say “those are the rules” and that’s that, its another to say that, because of the ways the rules are, any person that follows them so closely, as Kagan did, is implicitly not the kind of person we want on SCOTUS. And, I guess, at the same time, any nomination of someone who has followed the rules well is a tacit denial of the problem on the part of the administration.

    I’m not saying that it’s an accurate argument, but it at least asks more interesting questions than the naively stated “should someone try really really hard to get what they want?”, notably, could there be a point where the rules change so much that naively stated question is no longer naive, and if so, who’s responsibility is it to try to change the process so that the problem can be avoided.

    • 2 JSC5 May 13, 2010 at 10:44 pm

      I do think you give Sullivan far too much credit. Nothing of his I’ve read makes an argument against the political system that governs nominations. It’s all personal vitriol against Kagan and Obama. His is not the Yglesias argument, even though that’s the argument he should be using.

      Second, I don’t agree that conforming with the rules as-is is a tacit denial of the problem. One example of many: the Electoral College is flawed, but who would condemn Obama for tacit approval of the EC by running for pres? I’m not sure that’s the best case I could make, but the general principle seems right.

      More importantly, why is the onus on Obama to fix a shitty system created by our own peurile political culture? What makes us think the press has the tools to do the job? Who exactly is the nominee Sullivan would really like and who could ALSO be confirmed?

      • 3 JSC5 May 13, 2010 at 10:46 pm

        Sigh, I meant Pres, not press.

      • 4 JSC7 May 13, 2010 at 11:09 pm

        I wonder whether there is a nominee that Sullivan likes and who would be confirmed, which on some level is the heart of the problem. I agree with your EC example, and I agree that we’re always playing by flawed rules of one kind or another, without necessarily supporting them wholeheartedly, although on some level Obama is offering a greater amount of support for the EC if he runs than if he says, I would run, but the EC is too flawed so I won’t. He just thinks, as we all do, that the cost of being elected through the flawed system is trivial compared to the benefit of having a good president. And I think a lot of flawed systems work this way; they’re good enough, and slowly getting better, so no need for full opposition.

        Nonetheless, it is at least conceivable that the rules of the game could become so flawed that some good candidates no longer bother to play. An example could be Senate procedural problems and Evan Bayh’s resignation (I don’t know that much about how good Evan Bayh is, but I think you get my idea). Similarly, maybe potentially awesome SCOTUS candidates sink their ship by, oh, I don’t know, blogging on the side.

        In the end, I agree with you that the responsibility on fixing the issue doesn’t really fall on anyone. It’s our own society’s fault for being puerile, politically ignorant and conservative within our own mental framework. But the discourse as to how much the rules work is still useful.

  2. 5 JSC7 May 13, 2010 at 10:32 pm

    I guess kind of like the Ezra Klein argument about organization kids, except it’s weird how much focus there is on how understanding of a person’s views is obscured until it’s too late, and not much on how 30 years of hiding your views might actually change you as a person.

    • 6 JSC5 May 14, 2010 at 12:24 am

      Yeah, I do think the issue of how not voicing your opinions for 30 years can change you as a person is the most important issue here. And yet Sullivan completely misses this point in favor or putty in his mad dash to condemn. It’s sad, really.

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  1. 1 The internet and privacy: stop taking the easy way out « Joint Stock Company Trackback on July 16, 2010 at 6:56 pm

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This is a group blog. JSC5 currently writes from the US. JSC7 writes from behind the Great Firewall of China.

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