I should not be surprised by the total absence of seriousness in our political discourse. Between the Obama election and the economic crisis, the Republican insistence on “clinging to” outdated political and economic ideologies – i.e., cut taxes, cut spending, nothing more — has quickly moved from a lack of seriousness to pure silliness. To a certain extent this was expected after almost a decade of political hegemony in both the White House and Congress: the Republican political class was tired and out of ideas. Surely the same fate will befall the Democrats at the end of the Obama reign. In the meantime, we have to live through the rehashing of the Republican culture wars that have little to with reality and less to do with policy.
Unfortunately, the Democrats, with the help of the press, fall into the trap and further the silliness. From the bailouts to health care, torture, war, domestic surveillance, and now the Supreme Court nomination nothing is ever presented with seriousness. Rather, Obama is a socialist after the previous Republican White House – with the support of Pelosi, Obama and McCain – passed a massive multi-billion dollar bailout that has helped none other than Goldman Sachs (now announcing huge profits) and other financial institutions; Obama became a socialist by promoting corporate welfare? The U.S. has the most expensive health care system with the least equality of access in the industrialized world and some 50 million people unemployed, and yet our national arrogance – along with the health care lobbies – prevent us from evening considering options that do work. The counter argument to the health care mafia is almost never presented. That would be socialism, and the government should never spend public money (that it borrows from China) unless it is used on corporate bailouts or to inflate the largest, most expensive publicly funded venture in the history of the world, our socialized national defense.
We are also so arrogant and superior to the rest of the world that by definition torture and human rights abuses can only be committed by foreign countries and never by us. Our government — that under all other circumstances is part of the problem, not the solution – is infallible when acting outside of the law. No one wants to discuss how the previous president with the help of congress gave the executive branch the unfettered right to listen in on our phone calls and read our emails. Is the new president changing any of that? Of course not. That would make him weak and unpatriotic. And the list goes on and on.
The most recent and obvious example of pure silliness is the debate over the nomination of Judge Sotomayor. Of course it would be nice to discuss her extensive judicial record, the most extensive of any nominee in recent memory (and probably the most moderate). The problem is that 99% of the press is unqualified to evaluate her judicial opinions, so the entire coverage focuses on creating controversy about whether she, as an Hispanic woman with her background, can fairly apply the law – irrespective of whether she has in the past. (Maybe there is a lone exception on the right, David Brooks). So in pure cynical and hypocritical form, the Republicans are using the emotional, rather than the rational, argument against Sotomayor in the hearings. They’re even bringing in the fireman from the Ricci case for full emotional affect. Glenn Greenwald makes precisely that argument today:
Unasked Question about Sam Alito
But when I look at those cases, I have to say to myself, and I do say to myself, “You know, this could be your grandfather, this could be your grandmother. They were not citizens at one time, and they were people who came to this country” . . . .
When I get a case about discrimination, I have to think about people in my own family who suffered discrimination because of their ethnic background or because of religion or because of gender. And I do take that into account.
Two weeks ago, Alito cast the deciding vote in Ricci v. DeStefano, an intensely contested affirmative action case. He did so by ruling in favor of the Italian-American firefighters, finding that they were unlawfully discriminated against, even though the district court judge who heard all the evidence and the three-judge appellate panel ruled against them and dismissed their case. Notably, the majority Supreme Court opinion Alito joined (.pdf) began by highlighting not the relevant legal doctrine, but rather, the emotional factors that made the Italian-American-plaintiffs empathetic.
Did Alito’s Italian-American ethnic background cause him to cast his vote in favor of the Italian-American plaintiffs? Has anyone raised that question? Given that he himself said that he “do[es] take that into account” — and given that Sonia Sotomayor spent 6 straight hours today being accused by GOP Senators and Fox News commentators of allowing her Puerto Rican heritage to lead her to discriminate against white litigants — why isn’t that question being asked about Alito’s vote in Ricci?
Also: if empathy is irrelevant to judicial decision-making, why are GOP Senators calling Frank Ricci as a witness at this hearing? Since he’s obviously not there to testify about the strict legalistic doctrines governing his claims, but instead is only there to trumpet the facts that make him “sympathetic” so that people will emotionally react against Sotomayor’s ruling (his dyslexia, the amount he spent on books and tutors, his hopes for a promotion), isn’t everything he has to say totally irrelevant pursuant to the GOP’s alleged judicial principles?
What a total joke! And the Democrats just let it happen. It’s easier for them to make this a debate about race rather than substance. Mind as well let the status quo rule on rather than have a serious discussion of the issues.