'60s Cultural Divide Still Visible in Alito Hearings

John Leo

1/16/2006 9:05:00 AM - John Leo
Consider the narrative line for Samuel Alito’s life. It’s perfect. He comes from a white ethnic community that valued family, tradition, patriotism and the Democratic party. By the time he arrived at Princeton, an outsider in a high-status student body where Catholics were still rare, the cultural revolution was under way and the most strident of the 60s people were acting like swine (“very privileged people behaving irresponsibly,” as he politely put it). He found their values alien.

As columnist David Brooks wrote last week in the New York Times: “The liberals had ‘Question Authority’ bumper stickers; the ethnics had been taught in school to respect authority…Alito wanted to learn; the richer liberals wanted to strike. He wanted to join R.O.T.C.; the liberal Princetonians expelled it from campus.”

The values gap was opening wide and Alito was on track to leave the Democratic party. Or more accurately, the party was about to leave him and millions of future “Reagan Democrats.” In the summer after Alito graduated, the McGovern revolution transformed the Democratic party. On the theory that the old New Deal coalition was dying, the party made a fateful and conscious decision to come down on the side of the anti-traditionalists, abandoning the white ethnics, union members, southerners, Catholics, and as it later turned out, a huge percentage of married and Protestant voters. To replace the Roosevelt coalition, the party turned to young people, the peace movement, educated suburbanites, feminists and blacks. The deep cultural fissure that resulted did indeed show up at the Alito hearing, still powerful after more than 30 years.

As Brooks noted, Ted Kennedy took the party’s conventional post-60s stance against law enforcement, accusing the government of “Gestapo-like” tactics in counterterrorism programs. Republican Lindsey Graham expressed alarm at the threat of terror. Democrats Patrick Leahy and Russell Feingold sounded alarmed by counterterrorism. We had some racial rhetoric, as well. Since the 60s white ethnics have usually been denounced as crude and racist by the Democratic elites. This showed up in the rumor that Alito had made up a story about his father combating racism. The story was true. The rumor was false. Kennedy sounded the note of racism too, charging (falsely) that Alito had never written a decision on behalf of an African-American. He has written at least seven decisions supporting racial bias claims by blacks.

The Democratic strategy, if you can call it that, was essentially an effort to tar Alito as a bigot, a liar and a ideologue. The press laid the groundwork for the ideological charge. Stuart Taylor, a heavyweight legal columnist for National Journal, complained in December that “the systematic slanting--conscious or unconscious” of news reports had fueled a campaign by liberal groups and senators to caricature Alito as a ideologue, when an analysis of his record shows that he is “wedded to no ideological agenda other than restraint in the exercise of judicial power.”

Every now and then, Democratic senators strayed away from their apparent commitment to full-time borking. Reliance on other countries’ judges came up. The Democrats appeared surprised that Alito opposed tailoring U.S. court decisions to those reached in foreign courts. U.S. elites chafe under the old-fashioned rule that federal judges should look to the Constitution for guidance rather than to elites in Britain, France or Canada. Democrats also made clear that justices should rule in accordance with the size of plaintiffs-“little guys” are always in the right, whereas big guys, particularly if they are corporate guys, are always wrong and frequently evil. As John Roberts said during his hearings, when the Constitution supports the little guy, I’ll come down on the little guy’s side. When it supports the big guy, I’ll come down on the big guy’s side. To sizeists, this is a revolutionary idea.

The Democrats spent a great deal of time fretting about abortion, even after Alito made clear that he had already said what he wanted to say. The technical term for the Democratic effort here is “fund-raising.” Powerful pro-abortion groups like NARAL, NOW and People for the American Way channel a great deal of money to Democrats, who are thus heavily inclined to sing for their future suppers. This is the case even when there is no apparent reason to keep badgering someone like Alito. After each lost election, Democrats talk about the need to reach out to moderates on values issues. But the first order of business is getting re-elected, which means reflecting the anger of those with a stranglehold on money.

In the end, the attempts to tar and provoke Alito came to nothing. The biggest news was that the Democrats made Mrs. Alito cry, a clear violation of the party’s sensitivity rules. He will be confirmed.