People watch the Kavanaugh hearings at a tavern in Chicago. Photo: Getty Images.

People watch the Kavanaugh hearings at a tavern in Chicago. Photo: Getty Images.

The Senate confirmation of US Supreme Court justice nominee Brett Kavanaugh by a vote of 50 to 48 was the final episode in a drama that has divided America. It has also gripped foreign audiences. The midterm elections promise to do the same.

Historically, Supreme Court nominees and midterm elections have garnered little attention abroad. Today, the rest of the world looks to America’s domestic politics as a barometer of where America is heading.

Beyond the Twitter feed

In year one of the Trump presidency, the news media and many of the world’s diplomats spent countless hours trying to decipher the significance of the president’s tweets. Many foreign governments invested considerable resources translating Trump’s tweets into national languages.

But presidential tweets have proven unreliable as a measure of future policy. Presidential speeches hardly fare better. Nor do more conventional measures that in previous administrations have set out a foreign policy strategy. The most recent National Security Strategy bore little resemblance to the president’s remarks that accompanied its release.

So it makes sense that to try to understand the future course of the US, people are looking elsewhere.

Cynics think that international audiences are gripped by America’s domestic politics because of the reality TV-like character of US politics. There is clearly an element of truth to this.

Sceptics say that the focus on America’s domestic politics is unwarranted, but for different reasons. When it comes to foreign policy, the president is unconstrained by legislative and judicial power and so neither the effect of this Supreme Court nomination nor that of the midterm elections is likely to matter beyond America’s shores.

But this misses the point. US domestic politics are highly consequential and not only for Americans. At a time when the president’s personal communications are erratic, the rest of the world is right to look inside America for further clues. Trump’s term as president is constitutionally limited, but the long-term impact of Trumpism is unclear.

The power of politics

Partisan politics and midterm elections are critical factors in evaluating what to expect from America’s engagement abroad. They also indicate whether the president will have a free hand to play his cards.

The confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh as Supreme Court justice offered yet another indicator of the strength of partisan politics. Faced with one of the most controversial candidates ever, only one Republican senator, Lisa Murkowski, chose to vote against her party. Likewise, only one Democrat, Joe Manchin, voted for Kavanaugh. Public reactions to the hearings also signal that political division across the United States underpins partisanship on Capitol Hill.

The data confirm this. American attitudes are more ideologically consistent than in previous decades and this is increasingly associated with partisanship, according to a 2017 study by the Pew Research Center. The confirmation of Kavanaugh was the most partisan vote to ever take place for a Supreme Court nominee, and the conservative majority on the court will be stronger than it has been in decades.

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James Goldgeier makes the case that constraints on the American president, traditionally coming from Congress, the bureaucracy, allies and international institutions, have been eroding for decades.

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James Goldgeier makes the case that constraints on the American president, traditionally coming from Congress, the bureaucracy, allies and international institutions, have been eroding for decades.

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Even before the outcome, the nomination process confirmed the unity of the Republican Party. Republican senator Jeff Flake’s decision to call for a one-week extension to allow for an FBI investigation into allegations of sexual assault against Trump’s Supreme Court nominee was a turning point. Flake’s call, driven by a deal struck between Senator Chris Coons, a Democrat from Delaware, and Senator Flake, a Republican from Arizona, harkened back to old-style Congressional bipartisan politics rarely seen today.

It could have been the first sign of cracks in the armour of Trump’s Republican Party. Instead, the investigation was sharply limited, and had the veneer of an investigation set up to provide political cover for a party that was determined to confirm Trump’s nominee regardless.

The take home point for most international onlookers: the American president will not be constrained by a Republican-dominated Congress. But things may look different with the Democrats in charge.

Critical midterms

The Supreme Court confirmation process confirmed once again that division among the American public is real, not ephemeral, and is driving voter turnout. Voter participation in the midterm primaries was higher than in previous midterms.

The Kavanaugh effect is likely to sustain and build on this momentum. For Republican voters, the 50–48 vote on Kavanaugh confirms the significance of holding the Senate in a context where voting is almost entirely along party lines. But all signs suggest a backlash from Democrat voters.

In a country marked by intense partisanship, and where there is still a lot to play for, it matters who controls the House and who controls the Senate.

A Democratic majority in the House of Representatives would open the door for Democrats to increase their oversight function, in part by giving them the power to subpoena. This would drive forward investigation of a number of domestic policy issues, many with international consequences.

It would also open the door for Congress to reassert its role in foreign affairs. A recent survey of public attitudes by the Chicago Council revealed that internationalist sentiment has grown in America during Trump’s presidency. Americans are now more likely to support regional trade agreements NAFTA and CPTPP than they were before Trump came into office. And the largest majority since 1974 support active US engagement in world affairs.

So far, this has not been reflected in Trump’s foreign policy, but it could be an important touchstone for Democrats if they managed to take both the House and Senate.

However, if Congress is divided with a Democrat-controlled House and a Senate controlled by Republicans, it may become even more gridlocked. The president would still maintain significant leeway to act unilaterally on trade, but the exercise of oversight and investigations of the matters close to the president’s agenda would prove a tremendous distraction. In this political context, a more internationalist American public seems unlikely to drive foreign policy engagement.

In the face of an America that has turned inwards, the rest of the world may wish to move forward without America. But at 24% of world GDP and military power that is unsurpassed, the United States is as difficult to ignore as it is to decipher. In this context, public attitudes, electoral politics, and even Supreme Court nominations are critical indications of America’s role in the world.