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Wednesday, August 5, 2009

When Ideology Trumps Practical Reason

It’s a long, hot August, and the vote on Sotomayor nears. Why does it matter? She will win confirmation, so why does it matter if some, or a significant amount, of Republicans vote for Judge Sotomayor? It matters because it is a vote about fairness and objectivity. Do such concepts exist in American political discourse anymore?

The Republicans should have investigated Sonia Sotomayor aggressively, and they did. But the majority of Republicans, at least from their stated positions in the media, have not judged Sotomayor’s qualifications as a judge for the Supreme Court. That is their mandate. Instead of zeroing in on her judicial record, they focused on her off-the-cuff speeches. If you want to judge the qualifications of a judge, you look at how she decided cases, you look at her written opinions, you look at her legal experience, and you look at her education.

The problem, of course, for those ideologically-obsessed Republicans is that they had nothing ‘official’ to work with. They had prejudged her, and they couldn’t get the facts to fit their pre-conclusions. Sotomayor was a Phi Beta Kappa student from Princeton and graduated from Yale Law School. After hearing her in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee, I have little doubt she is smarter and more practical than the senators from both sides of the aisle who questioned her.

In the overwhelming majority of cases, and there are thousands which are part of the record of the Second Circuit, Sotomayor voted with Republican judges who sat next to her on the Court of Appeals. When you look at her judicial record, there is little evidence of ideology, but plenty of evidence of practicality and following legal precedent.

But facts don’t matter to ideologues. Facts don’t matter to those without a spine to publicly rebuke Rush Limbaugh or Newt Gingrich or Ralph Reed. Facts don’t matter to those who have decided they don’t like you because your name is ‘Sotomayor’ and you are a Latina. The facts, which are used to judge a nominee’s qualifications for the Supreme Court and not how she will decide specific cases, support a unanimous or near-unanimous vote in Sotomayor’s favor. But she won’t get it, and that’s the current state of the Republican Party. It’s trapped in its ideology.

Before Democrats get too cheery about themselves, it has happened to them too. No political party escapes the tug of ideology, and as a party succeeds and stays in power it begins to think that somehow it should always be there, it deserves power, and it is historically destined to win. Power corrupts, and it corrupts through ideology.

But when reasonable practicality erupts and interrupts, the country is better for it. Obama is now funding charter schools at unprecedented levels. This was a Republican cause. But perhaps this is a way to improve the education of our children, while giving parents a choice. Moreover, we need more Republicans like Lamar Alexander and Lindsey Graham, who declared they intend to vote for Sotomayor based on her qualifications to be a judge, not on her likelihood of being a Republican puppet on judicial matters.

I don’t know what happened to reasonable political discourse, the middle ground of give-and-take, the focus on making things work. I in part blame our current political discourse on the flash media of ten-second opinions. This show is for entertainment, even when it is labeled ‘news,’ not for edification.

I also think another problem is the discomfort the white majority feels about this country becoming more Latino, more Asian, more African, less Christian, more Secular. We are becoming a reflection of the greater world, and the United States, economically, is also becoming a smaller portion of that world over time, as the rest of the world develops by leaps and bounds. Some will exploit these inexorable trends and the discomforts they cause, for money and power, while others will try to make our community work together as one. If this American experiment is to keep succeeding, practical reason must triumph over ideology.

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