Think Again: Sotomayor and SCOTUS: Captured on a Carousel of Time

Crossposted with the Center for American Progress

Eric Alterman, Danielle Ivory

Sonia Sotomayor's confirmation hearings are not scheduled to begin until mid-July, but her punditocracy hearings are already well underway. This week they're all about her now infamous (and almost always decontextualized) "wise Latina" comment.

Pat Buchanan regularly reminds the public that Obama's nominee can't wait to get her hooks into the rights of white men. Michael Steele concurs, explaining: "God help you if you're a white male coming before her bench." Shelby Steele, in a triumphant act of hyperbolism, claimed that "Sotomayor has demonstrated a Hispanic chauvinism so extreme that it sometimes crosses into outright claims of racial supremacy."

And Rush Limbaugh's growls grow goofier by the day. After Sotomayor tripped and hurt herself at the airport, Limbaugh wondered allowed whether a white male judge would have fractured his ankle in a similar fall. National Review, meanwhile, confused everyone, including themselves, mixing up racial stereotypes by dressing up their "Wise Latina" as a stereotypical Buddha. "Just wait," we hear them thinking, "until Real America hears about this."

Alas, there's no substance there; not on abortion; not on guns; or land expropriation. In fact, the debate over Sonia Sotomayor's "priorities" has shed next to no light on the nominee views or decisions, but has proven awfully revealing about the state of conservatives' collective neuroses.

Never mind that Sotomayor herself is almost irrelevant to the process. Conservatives found her (or "him") scary even before they knew who she (or "he") would be. As we wrote weeks ago, the movement set out to redefine the meaning of the word "empathy" to evoke notions of Che Guevara and the Black Panther Party. Funnyman Limbaugh joked that the ideal nominee would be "a teenage single mother, who's gay, is a lesbian, who's dirt poor, African American, and disabled."

Hysterical Hannity added that the "chances... are zero" that a "radical" Obama would pick someone who would "follow the rule of law and the Constitution." A petrified Pat Buchanan predicted that the next nominee would demonstrate that "What is happening to white men now is exactly what was done to black folks for years." This week at The American Conservative, Daniel Larison complained, "Conservatives write things like this, and then they wonder why minorities flee from them in droves."

But as these arguments -- and many more we have, in our infinite mercy, spared you -- demonstrate quite clearly, Supreme Court confirmations are rarely about the alleged issues before the court itself. Rather they are, as former New York Times court reporter Linda Greenhouse argues, "about the politics of the moment as reflected, however clumsily, in the questions the senators choose to ask." For instance, when Justice John Paul Stevens was nominated back in 1975, immediately after Roe v. Wade, he was not asked a single question about abortion. "[A]bortion was simply not a hot-button political issue in the mid-'70s -- it was still waiting quietly in the wings for eventual capture by the right."

Matthew Yglesias points out that when it comes to Supreme Court nominations, "the controversy is baked into the cake." He writes that much of the ugliness "stems from the whole dysfunctional relationship our political system has to Supreme Court appointments." Precious few people who disagree, fundamentally, with a president who picks a nominee are likely to approve of that nominee, and yet almost no one is willing to admit to opposing one on purely ideological grounds. Instead, Yglesias correctly notes, "there's incredible pressure to 'unearth' the 'truth' about the nominee and how deep down he or she is history's greatest monster."

You can read the rest of Eric Alterman and Danielle Ivory's analysis in their recent article, "Think Again: Sotomayor and SCOTUS: Captured on a Carousel of Time ."

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College. He is also a Nation columnist and a professor of journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. His seventh book, Why We're Liberals: A Handbook for Restoring America's Most Important Ideals was recently published in paperback. He occasionally blogs at

Danielle Ivory is a reporter and producer for the American News Project. She lives in Washington, D.C.

This column was recently named as a finalist in the category of "Best Commentary -- Digital" for the Mirror Awards.