The Dangerous Politics of the Sotomayor Nomination

There are many ways to play the game of politics in America. Two of the most time-honored are the race/ethnic game and the ideological game. That is, you can play politics by making an appeal to certain ethnic/racial groups or by appealing to certain ideological groups.
In 2008, the brilliant Obama campaign strategy combined both these games. It played the first by means of its appeal to African-American voters, more than 95 percent of whom voted for Obama. And it played the ideological game by appealing to ultraliberals and their characteristic dogmas: pro-choice, pro-environment, anti-war, anti-racism, and so on.
This combination of black and ultraliberal voters was not enough, in itself, to win the White House, but it was a terrific head start. It made it almost inevitable that Obama would win many of the Democratic primaries, and it meant that all he had to do after winning the Democratic nomination was to pick up a good chunk of two other groups of people: (1) those who, ideologically speaking, float in the middle of the political spectrum, neither liberal nor conservative; and (2) those who, ethnically speaking, are non-black. On the ideology front: Obama won a big chunk of middle-of-the-road voters when the country was hit with the banking crisis in mid-September. On the race/ethnic front: He didn’t do terribly well with non-Hispanic white voters, but he did very well with Hispanic voters (although of course not nearly as well as he did with black voters).
In the end, he won the White House by a very comfortable margin (roughly 55 to 45 percent). And, of course, it wasn’t just Obama who profited from this foundational alliance of blacks and ultraliberals. His great victory carried the Democratic Party to comfortable margins in the U.S. House and Senate.
The nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the United States Supreme Court is another move in this ethnic-ideological game of politics, a move intended to strengthen Obama’s reelection chances in 2012 and the chances of the Democratic Party generally.
Ideologically speaking, Sotomayor will form part of the Court’s liberal bloc. Despite the ranting of Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, et al., her record to date doesn’t make her liberalism perfectly clear. Yet we may be sure that the exceedingly clever Obama people — Rahm Emmanuel, David Plouffe, and David Axelrod, not to mention Obama himself — would never have allowed the Sotomayor nomination to go forward unless they were confident — 100 percent confident — that she would be a reliable member of the Court’s liberal bloc. After all, Obama has already given a certain amount of offense to his ultraliberal supporters by escalating the war in Afghanistan, by blocking release of the famous abuse photos, and by indicating his unwillingness to see Bush administration officials criminally punished for the interrogation tactics used at Guantanamo Bay. He can’t afford to offend ultraliberals any further by putting, say, an anti-Roe justice on the Supreme Court.
Even more importantly, the Sotomayor nomination is a move in the race/ethnic game — a move intended to guarantee that Hispanic voters will be reliable and overwhelmingly Democratic voters for at least a generation to come, thereby making it certain that the Democratic Party will be the nation’s number one political party for the indefinite future.
It is not, however, the mere appointment of Sotomayor to the Court that will produce that outcome. What will do that is the perception among Hispanics that all opposition to the Sotomayor appointment is based on anti-Hispanic racism. “She is so intelligent, so experienced, so hard-working, so moderate in her judicial philosophy, and she has such an inspiring personal story — how could anybody but an anti-Hispanic racist oppose her nomination?” This is the White House campaign story. Of course, this isn’t the story that the White House puts out in so many words. But it can count on its fellow travelers in the media, in Hispanic organizations, and in the world at large to fill in the blanks.
“But that is unfair,” you’ll say. “Conservatives and Republicans who oppose her nomination have reasons of principle for doing so.” True enough; but here, as in so many cases, it will be perceptions that count more than facts.
Thanks to their stridency, some conservatives — Limbaugh again being the most conspicuous example — make it easy for Democrats to promote this anti-Hispanic perception. But many Republican conservatives — most notably, Republican members of the U.S. Senate, who will have to vote on whether Sotomayor gets confirmed — are far from strident. To date, they have been measured and judicious in their comments on the nomination.
So how do they fit into the story line that all opposition to Sotomayor is due to anti-Hispanic bias? Easy. The press explains their temperate reaction as being based on a fear that anything other than temperance will provoke a great anti-Republican Hispanic backlash. In other words: “Deep in the bottom of their anti-Hispanic hearts, these Republican politicians have feelings identical with those of Rush Limbaugh, but they have the political good sense not to give voice to them.”
There is some long-term consolation in all this for the Republicans. If the Democratic Party more and more clearly becomes a black-Hispanic-ultraliberal party, those whites who are neither black nor Hispanic nor ultraliberal will drift into the Republican Party; and non-Hispanic whites, it must be remembered, still make up the great majority of the U.S. population. “But this will be white racism, won’t it?” Not necessarily. If the Democratic Party becomes a race/ethnic party (as it already is in a number of Southern states), it will be perfectly natural yet totally non-racist for a white who happens not to belong to that particular race to withdraw from the party.  The white voter will no longer feel “at home” in a party defined by a racial/ethnic group not his own.
In the long run, then, it may be good for Republicans that the Democratic Party is attempting to become a race/ethnic party. Good for Republicans, yes — but very bad for America.

By

David R. Carlin Jr. is a politician and sociologist who served as a Democratic majority leader of the Rhode Island Senate. His books include "Can a Catholic Be a Democrat?: How the Party I Loved Became the Enemy of My Religion" and "The Decline and Fall of the Catholic Church in America." Carlin is a current professor of sociology and philosophy at the Community College of Rhode Island at Newport.

  • I am not Spartacus

    The Democrat Party has long been a coalition of Tribal interests – blacks, homosexuals, abortionists, feminists, communists, socialists, etc – whose renin is the principal of (In Larry Auster’s words) Non-Discrimination.

    Sotomayor is a racist misandrist who routinely badgered lawyers arguing before her suggesting her bullying was a way of covering-up for her lack of knowledge. She has made it crystal clear that her status as a Latino and a woman will be the basis for her rendering right judgments.

    Obama’s choice of her to dispense Justice clearly partial to non-white males was easily predictable by those who have read “Dreams of my Father” and thought about his two score year membership in Pastor Wright’s Church and what that meant (AntiAmerican, Anti-White male, Black Liberationist Orthopraxis).

    Omaba blames the white man for the misery and penury of blacks on this Planet.

    The Republican Party knows this but is too craven to say it out loud. The result for The Republican Party?

    Mark Steyn had a recent column in which he ended by quoting John Derbyshire; Better dead than rude.

    (Can’t say that I’ll miss it).

  • Austin

    The Democratic Party is now up to its ears in Ethnic Identity Politics. We have African-Americans, Mexican-Americans, Asian-Americans, etc. People are no longer individual citizens, but members of various groups. These Groups have quotas for school admissions, government jobs, contracts, etc. Curiously enough, some groups actually are being hurt by this quota business, such as Asians who tend to do better than all other groups academically, and are thus penalized in university admissions.

    Affirmative action was created in the late 1960’s to give Blacks a leg up based on the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow, but it has been expanded into an ethnic spoils system, whereby people who have no historical greviance are supposed to benefit.
    Why should a person who came here from Mexico or Pakistan 10 years ago get preference over a white person who was born and raised here?

    No real reason of justice, but simply an ethnic identity spoils system. The Democrats are risking a “Balkanization” of the nation into various ethnic identity groups rather than as American “Citizens”. This is very dangerous in the long run.

  • Andy

    In 2008, the brilliant Obama campaign strategy combined both these games. It played the first by means of its appeal to African-American voters, more than 95 percent of whom voted for Obama.

    I have one quibble with the above. I agree, David, that Obama played the identity politics game successfully and that it is largely responsible for his election. However, the statistic that I’ve quoted here is somewhat deceptive.

    It should be noted that there was no discernible change in voting among African-American voters this election. While it sounds like “95 percent voted for Obama” proves that he was playing racial politics, those same 90-plus percent voted for Kerry in 2004, and Gore in 2000.

    African-Americans overwhelmingly came out to vote Obama last year, but in general they’ve always voted Democrat overwhelmingly.

  • Francis Wippel

    David,

    You mentioned the possibility of backlash. Do you mean the same type of backlash the Democrats suffered following the 1991 Clarence Thomas hearings? Or the type of backlash the Democrats suffered following their opposition of minority Bush nominees like Miguel Estrada and Janice Rogers Brown to Circuit Courts? In fact, there

  • Ann

    There is some long-term consolation in all this for the Republicans. If the Democratic Party more and more clearly becomes a black-Hispanic-ultraliberal party, those whites who are neither black nor Hispanic nor ultraliberal will drift into the Republican Party; and non-Hispanic whites, it must be remembered, still make up the great majority of the U.S. population.

    I thought that the bolded quote above wasn’t quite true, that non-Hispanic whites were going to be the minority in the relatively near future?

  • Ann

    I don’t think is unique to the Dems, the Republicans tried to reach out to Hispanics in many ways not too long ago either. And of course, both parties court different “tribes.”

    Elections have consequences. I don’t see this as dangerous politics really, just regular politics.

  • Jerry L. L.

    ‘But that is unfair,’ you’ll say. ‘Conservatives and Republicans who oppose her nomination have reasons of principle for doing so.’ True enough; but here, as in so many cases, it will be perceptions that count more than facts.

    Doesn’t this smack of exploitation of the “ignorant” masses? So, apparently, some Democrats seem to presuppose that the Hispanics are vulnerable to believing supposed fallacious attacks on their race by the opposition of Sotomayor’s nomination.

    It would seem that instead of promoting racial acceptance in our society, some Democrats are more likely encouraging racial prejudice and hatred for political power (of course as a means towards racial acceptance). Otherwise, what is “This nominee will be difficult to oppose” supposed to mean? *sigh* Tell me this isn’t true. This kind of politics is abhorrent.

  • Kevin J Jones

    Let’s remember the Dems were once the party of white ethnic identity politics. They still are in many ways. The Irish and Italians have deep loyalty to the Democratic party; in some ways they’re more loyal to party than to their professed religion.

    As shown here, the GOP also caters to white identity politics. This is seen in their polemics against affirmative action and, to a lesser extent, against immigration.

    White Dems use minorities against non-liberal whites. I suspect left-wing rhetoric against “white males” has an origin in the displacement of white ethnic Democrats by secularists and feminists. The conquerors justify their power by demonizing the previous rulers.

    Not that real racism wasn’t present, it’s just that accusations of racism have obvious political applications. And these frivolous, self-serving accusations are more obvious to white Americans than lingering racism.

  • I am not Spartacus

    “As shown here, the GOP also caters to white identity politics.”

  • V

    Cast derogatory comments, Mr. Carlin, such as “Despite the ranting of Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, et al.,”? How about “Despite the assertions…” or some such. Such statements as yours demean.

  • Shenderson

    You have ultimately in a couple of paragraphs described the Republican Party as a group of conservative Whites getting Whiter because somehow the Democratic Party is made up of minorities only. Do you realize that almost 40% of the world population is not White? As the planet becomes more integrated and people migrate the human population will become more plural with respect to race. At the end of the day our genetics are essentially identical. The Supreme Court has been made up of 106 White judges in 200+ years out of 210 total judges. The # includes only 2 women. How representative is this in a country that prides itself on embracing all who come. Over 1/3 of the US population is now other than White. Diversity is a key ingredient in making this country what it is. Articles like this only serve to divide.

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