The obsession with Kagan’s ‘careerism’ is more than a little sexist
It’s been a day since President Obama nominated Elena Kagan for the Supreme Court, and the battle lines have mostly been drawn. But if there’s one thing the nation’s pundits can agree on, it’s that she is a brazen careerist. Here’s David Brooks who likens Kagan to the “Organization Kids” that are concerned with advancing through the ranks:
“She seems to be smart, impressive and honest — and in her willingness to suppress so much of her mind for the sake of her career, kind of disturbing.”
Jonathan Zasloff is a bit kinder, but not by much:
Consider that Kagan first got tenure at the University of Chicago based on two articles — which usually is what that notoriously overachieving faculty wants in one year from a junior professor. Then she got an academic chair at Harvard based on one more piece, Presidential Administration. She wrote nothing else for more than two years at Harvard. And then she was appointed Dean. This shows that Kagan may not be a great scholar, but she is enormously skilled at impressing older colleagues.
And of course, Glenn Greenwald has been calling out Kagan’s “careerism” since it became clear that she was a leading contender for the nomination.
Now, to some degree, this is all true. Kagan has an extremely thin paper trail, and her five published articles are all technical and non-ideological. She’s been careful not to take a strong stance on politically sensitive issues, and even her close friends aren’t sure about her views on constitutional law. Tom Goldstein of SCOTUSBlog describes her as “extraordinarily — almost artistically — careful. I don’t know anyone who has had a conversation with her in which she expressed a personal conviction on a question of constitutional law in the past decade.”
My question for Kagan’s critics is this: where were you when John Roberts was nominated to the court? To borrow from Matt Yglesias, I think you can easily analogize Kagan to John Roberts. Not only was he young (fifty years old), ideologically reliable and bereft o fa paper trail, he was also a straightforward careerist. Like Kagan, he attended Harvard Law School and went on to work in ideologically friendly environments. He clerked for William Rehnquist and took a position in the Attorney General’s office during the Reagan administration. He worked in private practice for a time, but soon went on to serve in the George H.W. Bush administration as Principal Deputy Solicitor General from 1989 to 1993. In 2003, he was confirmed to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals by George W. Bush.
As far as I can remember, there wasn’t nearly the amount of criticism surrounding Roberts’ equally meteoric rise. Roberts was seen for what he was, the product of an absurd confirmation system, and his deliberately strategic careerwasn’t held against him. By contrast, Kagan has been pilloried for following a virtually identical path. Like the “lesbian” charge, I think the careerist charge — or at least, the constant harping on Kagan’s “careerism” — has everything to do with the fact that she is an ambitious, powerful woman. Hillary Clinton has long been subject to similar criticisms, as have other powerful, political women. I don’t mean for this to be a blanket accusation, but the constant criticism of Kagan’s “careerism” seems more than a little sexist.
Photo credit: Doug Mills/The New York Times