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.


  • David R. Carlin Jr.

    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.

Join the Conversation

in our Telegram Chat

Or find us on

Editor's picks

Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack
Share to...