Jeff Flake and the lost art of changing your mind

Why the senator's persuadability is a hopeful sign for democracy

Jeff Flake.
(Image credit: Illustrated | Olga Kashurina/iStock, Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Pay no attention to the magazine covers. There is hope for American democracy, after all, and it's been found — in all places — at the heart of the fierce and ugly debate over Brett Kavanaugh's nomination to the Supreme Court.

That hope's name? Jeff Flake.

You might be surprised by that notion. The senator, an Arizona Republican in his waning days of office, has become an object of derision across the political spectrum. The right hates him because of his evident contempt for the way President Trump practices politics. The left despises him because that contempt has manifested itself in a few speeches and a book — but little to no action to actually obstruct Trump. In an increasingly polarized, tribalized nation, Flake has become a man without a political country.

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The criticism of Flake isn't entirely unfair. But one very important thing is also true: If not for Flake, it's very likely Kavanaugh this morning would be waking up ready to be sworn in as the court's newest justice. Instead, America has another week to consider Kavanaugh's nomination while the FBI works to determine the truth of sexual assault allegations against him.

Yes, this is a thin reed.

Flake was the only Republican standing between that delay and a likely swift confirmation. In an era where party-line votes are common and expected, Flake allowed himself to be persuaded to take an unexpected stand.

And persuasion is the currency of democracy.

Moments before Friday's meeting of the Senate Judiciary Committee — after Flake announced he would vote for Kavanaugh — a pair of young women approached him in the hallways of the Capitol. The result went viral. As he stood in an elevator, they confronted him with their own stories of sexual abuse. "You're telling all women that they don't matter, that they should just stay quiet," Maria Gallagher told him. "Because if they tell you what happened to them you are going to ignore them."

"It certainly struck a chord," Flake said later.

That was proof for some Democrats that their uncivil campaign of recent months is on the right track. "Tell me again why we shouldn't confront Republicans where they eat, where they sleep, and where they work until they stop being complicit in the destruction of our democracy," ThinkProgress' Ian Millhiser wrote on Twitter.

Gallagher and her friend didn't go to where Flake eats or sleeps to confront him, though. (Consider: Would you be more persuaded or irritated by strangers accosting you in those places?) Instead, they found him where he works — doing the people's business — and did what is done in those hallways: They lobbied him.

It wasn't just lobbying that sealed the deal. Relationships also mattered. It was a Democrat, Sen. Chris Coons (Del.), who persuaded Flake to ask for the one-week delay. Coons was persuasive because the two men have a longstanding relationship.

"I know Chris," Flake told The Atlantic. "We've traveled together a lot. We've sat down with Robert Mugabe. We've been chased by elephants, literally, in Mozambique. We trust each other."

It also helped that what Coons asked for — the one-week delay — was so plainly reasonable, even from a Republican point of view. It was a political Pascal's Wager of sorts for Flake: If no new evidence against Kavanaugh emerges during the week's delay, then almost zero harm has been done. If new evidence comes forth, though, it allows the GOP to start the process over with a new, unsullied candidate — somebody who can presumably be rushed through before Congress' term ends in a few months.

Even then, the decision wasn't easy. "There's no currency, no market for reaching across the aisle," Flake said. "It just makes it so difficult."

Lobbying. Relationships. A gettable ask. Those three elements combined to persuade Flake to stand for the delay — and America is slightly less enraged today as a result.

All this comes with caveats, of course. There's reason to believe the Trump administration is limiting the scope of the FBI investigation of Kavanaugh to only four witnesses. And if no new evidence is found to corroborate the allegations, Flake will still probably vote for the nomination. A week from now, we're still going to be arguing about this.

Still, that's reason for hope. In a democracy, few battles are ever permanently won or lost. Sometimes, in a closely divided electorate, incremental victories are the best you can hope for. When so many of us believe "the other side" is always acting in bad faith and that it's pointless to attempt to persuade people who don't share our views, such moments can be rare.

There are still plenty of reasons to despair about American democracy. But those of us who want to save it still have to practice it where we can. That means doing the hard work of persuasion when and where possible.

On Friday morning in the Senate Judiciary Committee, it was still possible. There's hope yet.

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