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Sotomayor and Our Changing Politics
First, as someone who has been encouraging our nation's leaders to better understand and adapt to the rapid growth of our Hispanic population, today is a very satisfying day. Despite her incredible qualifications as a judge, Sonia Sotomayor was not a safe or easy pick. I applaud President Obama, and the Senate, for having the courage and confidence for giving her a chance to serve on the highest court of the land. When she was chosen a few months ago I released this statement:
"President Obama's historic pick of Judge Sonia Sotomayor to serve on the Supreme Court is an acknowledgment and affirmation of the great demographic changes taking place in America today. Driven by years of immigration, our nation is going through profound change. The percentage of people of color in the United States has tripled in just the past 45 years, and America is now on track become a majority-minority nation in the next 30-40 years. The movement of our nation from a majority white to a more racially complex society is perhaps the single greatest societal change taking place in our great nation today. And if the Supreme Court is to have the societal legitimacy required to do its work, its Justices must reflect and speak to the people of America of the 21st century. The pick of Judge Sotomayor, a highly qualified, twice-Senate confirmed Latina to serve as one of the nine judges overseeing our judicial system, will not only put a thoughtful and highly experienced judge on the Supreme Court, it will go a long way toward making the Supreme Court one that can truly represent the new people and new realities of 21st century America."
Second, I am not surprised that a large majority of the Republicans in the Senate voted against her. As I discussed at our immigration event earlier this week (see this writeup on the right-leaning site CNS), racial intolerance has been at the very core of the Republican Party's political strategy and ideological argument since Lyndon Johnson, the Voting Rights and Civil Rights Acts of the mid 1960s. It became known as the Southern Strategy, and it was this most conscious exploitation of racial fear - Welfare Queens, Tax and Spend, Willie Horton, now criminals crossing the border - that perhaps more than anything else fuelled what we have called the Conservative Ascendancy in recent years.
We also know today, however, that the conditions which created the opportunity for the success of the Southern Strategy have become a relic of 20th century politics. But the current Congressional Republican leadership, all brought up and schooled in the successful eara of the Southern Strategy, knows no other politics. They are like an aging baseball pitcher whose fastball no longer pops, or a tv sitcom long past its prime. They throw that pitch and it gets hit out of the park, that funny joke now falls flat, and these same racial conceits thrown around during the Sotomayor hearings bounce off an America whose people and attitudes towards race are very different from the America of the Southern Strategy era.
Today's Republican Party is an almost entirely white party in an America which is now one-third non-white. They are an aging party, holding on to a politics while once successful no longer works in the much more racially diverse America of the 21st century. And this lack of diversity and long history of racial intolerance has taken its toll on the Republican brand with this fastest growing non-white part of the population, Hispanics. In a tracking poll taken last week the favorable/unfavorable ratings for the Democratic Party with Hispanics was 53-31; the Republican Party 4 percent favorable, and 85 percent unfavorable. The ratio for Congressional Democrats with Hispanics 46-34; for Congressional Republicans 5 percent favorable and 83 percent unfavorable. 4 and 5 percent! These are truly incredible numbers.
As I said in my remarks on Tuesday I think that for the Republicans to get back in the game they will have to do more than just change their racial tune, elect a few more minorities, and begin this long process of modernizing their approach to race. They will have to eventually acknowledge and repudiate their intolerant past, and their shameful exploitation of racial fear as a national political strategy. But today that day seems a long way off, and I have no doubt that the father of the Republican Party, Abraham Lincoln, if still alive today, would be holding his head down, ashamed of what his once proud Party had become.
For more on the issues in this essay see this backgrounder, On Judge Sotomayor and America's Changing Demography.