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Thursday, January 12, 2006

the Alito hearings

Today's NYT editorial page is an interesting reflection of the Alito hearings and the state of politics in the US.

A Democrat from Virginia writes of the Senators:

It's bad enough that the best they can come up with are questions about the judge's membership in a conservative college alumni group, his views on abortion back in 1985 and a perceived conflict of interest in a mutual fund case. But do they also have to make fools of themselves and the party they represent?

David Brooks, in a an op-ed (behind a firewall, I bought the paper) titled "Losing the Alitos" offers an analysis of why Democrats have, per Brooks, "lost" Middle Class white ethnic voters:

...by the late 1960's, cultural politics replaced New Deal politics, and liberal Democrats did their best to repel Northern white ethnic voters. Big city liberals launched crusades against police brutality, portraying working-class cops as thuggish storm troopers for the establishment. In the media, educated liberals portrayed urban ethnics as uncultured, uneducated Archie Bunkers.

The liberals were doves; the ethnics were hawks. The liberals had "Question Authority" bumper stickers; the ethnics had been taught in school to respect authority. The liberals thought an unjust society caused poverty; the ethnics believed in working their way out of poverty.

Sam Alito emerged from his middle-class neighborhood about that time, made it to Princeton and found "very priveleged people behaving irresponsibly."

Finally, a reader from Georgia asks the overlooked core question:

Judge Samuel Alito Jr. says he will not bring an agenda to the Supreme Court. If that is so, why have his writings and his rulings almost always favored executive prerogatives and corporate power?

These three quotes describe this week quite nicely.

First, the Democratic leadership, whether the Senators on the judiciary committee or in the DNC, have failed in an inexcusable manner. The Roberts and Alito nominations were a chance for the nation to have a debate about core issues, about competing philosophies of government and constitutional principles. They were a chance to highlight a "politics of contrast" between the two parties. (Say, how one party clearly supports a woman's right of access to safe and legal abortion.) We did not get that. Not from our Senators, nor from Howard Dean and the crew in DC.

The bloviating and trivializing we did get is not merely embarassing, it represents an egregious failure in an environment where we simply could not afford to fail. In this context, David Brooks is more than "right": Democratic message management and leadership is currently a pathetic embarrassment that sends exactly the wrong message with...sad to say of our current Senators...exactly the worst messengers.

Brooks, however, attempts to create a "persecution myth" around Samuel Alito cobbled together out of Republican chestnuts like: "Rich liberals have been calling white ethnics bigots for 40 years." I guess David Brooks would have us conclude that most salient feature of Alito's judicial development and upbringing was Norman Lear's work in television. Brooks' op ed is a delusional right wing fantasy..a fantasy riddled with a peculiar brand of out of touch cultural analysis that can only be called Brooksian. (If his basic point were accurate, the entire Eastern seaboard would be trending Republican. It isn't.) So why does Brooks indulge in this myth of Alito as an aggrieved working class hero...a little lost FDR Dem betrayed by snide Princeton elites? That's a good question.

There's a motive in Brooks' rhetoric. It's basic FOX News. He valorizes these "hard working ethnics" and their resentment of liberal elites as a way of building political capital. These scary pull quotes could sum up the Bush era. They sound like they're from Zell Miller...but they're David Brooks too.

If forced to choose, most Americans side with the party that errs on the side of the cops not the criminals....If forced to choose, most Americans want a party that will fight aggressively against the terrorists, not the N.S.A.

That puts it nicely. This country has been "forced to choose"...and the party in power ...(hint: it's those poor persecuted Republicans)....has both erred and acted aggressively with little accountability from the Democrats. The best way to distract from GOP corruption, failure, ineptitude and ulterior motives is to scare people and play on their resentments and fears...to put the entire debate into an "either/or" that has no middle ground. This tactic would be laughable if it hadn't been so effective.

Further, Brooks' flirtation with "class resentment" and "liberal persecuation" ...his valorization of the values of "white ethnics" is dangerous precisely because it is fictional. It is fictional not simply because the nation and its media are run...not by "liberals"...but by Republicans and their very conservative supporters. But it is also fictional, and dangerous, because no one group in America can lay claim to the mythical values of common sense and earthiness that Brooks inscribes on Alito...nor, for the sake of our democracy and our traditions...should any one group make that claim.

What the American public has been denied in the Alito hearings, and in the broader debate about our nation's future is exactly the question of what to make of the "executive perogatives and corporate power" that impacts our daily lives in manifold ways. We didn't debate this in the last presidential election in 2004...and we utterly failed to do so in the midterms of 2002. Corporate and governmental accountability to the citizens whose consent forms the legitimacy of our democracy, however, is the core issue of the day.

Maybe it's time for Democrats to take on that debate in simple terms while focusing on core Democratic values.

Would that be so hard?


  • Paul: Some killer analysis here, esp IMO, when you make the simple point about Brooks that if this column's main idea "were accurate, the entire Eastern seaboard would be trending Republican. It isn't." I also think that one of the key points in this piece -- how a tapestry of spin gets repeatedly, aggresively presented as the truth -- resonates with a comment you made earlier this week: it's Kartrina, and the mind-boggling devestation of New Orleans, that, more than anything else, exposed a reality which shocked Americans out of absorbing, so readily, the fantasy picture sold by the Republican Party.

    On the other hand, I think I give some of the democratic senators charged with opposing Alito more credit than many on the blogosphere. I don't think they have failed completely. I think the questions asked by Schumer, Durbin and other senators were near to what I would have wanted. In any case, as I listened on-and-off to the hearings, I consistently had the experience of being more moved in my opposition of this man to the supreme court.

    In my opinion, the hearings were above all marked by a sense of seriousness and perhaps even grimness. This wasn't the only tone, but I think it was the dominant one. It is what I experienced in Kennedy's anger
    about getting the facts on Alito's membership in CAP; in the high level of distress and confusion over Alito's sheer lack of credibility in claiming not to remember this group when he had previously put it on his CV; in the deep skepticism and worry over Alito's disregard for a ten year's old's dignity evinced in the strip-search decision; and, not least of all, in Alito's answers regarding torture, spying, presidential power and the "unsettled" right to reproductive freedom.

    I think the Democratic Party will be, and should be, dead set against this nominee. I'm encouraged that Joe Lieberman has been reputed to say a fillibuster would not be off the table. And I think all of this was only increased by the facile and smug approach taken by the Republicans (esp senators like Orrin Hatch) during this hearing.

    By Blogger awol, at 3:31 PM  

  • Grimness, seriousness, anger.

    I respect your take, awol, and the glimmers of hope in your post may well come to fruition.

    I think my disagreement with the party leadership comes before the hearings even began.

    We've simply failed to frame the debate about the core issues regardless of the nominee. If the tables had been turned...(and the current GOP was out of power and facing a marked change in direction in the Supreme Court)...there would have been:

    #1: a steady drumbeat on the issues...
    #2: a persistent hammering at any wedge of weakness...including sharp elbows and "media ready" bites.
    #3: a consistent linkage of any nominee to George W. Bush and his disastrous presidency.

    We didn't do that.

    Instead we've had a DNC that wrote this one off, and Senators that fell into the trap of personalization..and how that plays out in the media for everyday Americans.

    Howard Dean may be doing great party building on the local level...but I think back to Dean's outreach to pro-life Dems last summer as the Roberts process kicked in:

    It may well have been the wise thing to get behind Casey; but it was miserable politics to mix the Roberts nomination with a wobbly message on reproductive rights. I stand by that view.

    Sterling Newberry echoed Peter Daou today with a great post on Bloggers in the Wilderness. It's a salient post. In my view, last summer when the anti-NARAL circus kicked in...we were part of that process.

    Alito and Roberts could be the nicest guys in the universe, but they are not mainstream judges. They are conservative, pro-corporate, pro-executive power thinkers who are NOT in the judicial mainstream. And we just don't know how they will rule on a host of issues from reproductive rights to stem cell technology to public funding for religious schools and, hell, the commerce clause.

    On this one, our message all along should have been to demand a judge of impeccable scholarship and reputation with a mainstream non-ideological background.

    That, I think, would be acceptable to almost everyone in this context...and that's not what we're getting.

    By Blogger kid oakland, at 6:18 PM  

  • i fear that the senators still think they're playing electoral politics, when the fate of the republic itself is at stake. there's no immediacy, no passion on the democratic side, which is strange given the gravity of the issues that this nomination will impact. agreed that this is the natural result of neglecting to make an argument for liberalism for a generation or so. i just hope we can turn things around while there's still something left to salvage. why can't they see what's right in front of them?

    By Anonymous wu ming, at 12:51 AM  

  • I got your email but my reply was bounced - can you send me your new address: Sorry to post this personal message.

    By Anonymous harry, at 5:05 AM  

  • Great essay.

    By Blogger Kathleen, at 4:57 PM  

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