Europe could be forgiven for thinking that now that Americans have put their government entirely in the hands of Democrats, the nation itself has made some sort of fundamental ideological shift. But as the opening stages of President Obama’s Supreme Court nomination show, the American political spectrum is still firmly grounded to the right.
Following the retirement of Justice David Souter, generally considered to be on the left side of moderate in his votes on the court, Obama has nominated Sonia Sotomayor, a moderate appellate court judge who would be entering the highest court in the land with more experience on the bench than any of the current justices. The media has focused largely on Sotomayor’s personal history, having been born to Puerto-Rican parents on a housing estate in the Bronx. She would be the first Hispanic person to serve on the court, and only the third woman.
Bizarely the right has latched on to this detail of her background to make the case that she is a “liberal activist judge,” even though her judicial record, largely moderate or unclear, doesn’t seem to reflect this. Apparently for the right, the fact that she is a Hispanic woman who was born poor means she'll make it illegal to be a white man and redistribute wealth. Obviously!
Funny enough, when arch-conservative justice Clarence Thomas was up for confirmation, his history of having been born a poor black man was considered an asset by the right.
Perhaps this kind of talk from the hard right was inevitable. In fact it wouldn’t even be worth talking about were it not for one other interesting development – in selling their supreme court nominee, the Obama Administration’s talking points have been actively stressing Sotomayor’s conservative credentials.
The Obama administration has wove a conservative narrative around Sotomayor, using much of the same language as Bush did to sell his supreme court nominees, in order to appeal to middle America. The administration has been at pains to point out how moderate she is, pointing out at every opportunity that she voted with conservative judges 95% of the time. They’ve also pointed out her anti-abortion rulings, such as when she upheld a ban on federal funds going to family planning groups that provided abortions overseas, or when she ruled in favour of a group of Connecticut anti-abortion protesters who asserted that police used excessive force against them at a demonstration.
Does anyone else find this a little bizarre? Barack Obama was elected in a landslide victory. The American public kicked the Republicans out of both the House and the Senate, handing the entire government over to the Democrats. Currently only 21% of Americans identify as Republicans. You would think that was a pretty big mandate for change right? So why does the Obama administration (and Congressional Democrats, as evidenced by their recent cave on closing Guantanamo Bay) seem to be bending over backwards to please a practically non-existent Republican party?
Can you imagine George W. Bush, when he nominated his two Supreme Court Justices, issuing talking points about how frequently they voted with their liberal colleagues, or highlighting cases in which they voted for abortion rights? The very idea is laughable. When the Bush administration went to sell their nominees they used the language of their base, talking about how Alito and Roberts represented “solid American values” and touting the conservative credentials, especially when working to sell the nominees to the religious right (at some points they even seemed to be implicitly promising that the two would vote to overturn Roe v. Wade).
And yet George W. Bush entered office having lost the popular vote, put into office by a Supreme Court ruling. By the time he was nominating his justices he was already spiralling down to the lowest approval rating of any US president in history. But was there serious talk of him selecting a moderate justice as a copromise with liberals? None.
And even though W appointed two unabashedly conservative justices (to join the other two ultra-conservative justices Scalia and Thomas already on the court), it seemed to go without saying before Obama made his selection that an unabashedly liberal justice wouldn’t even be a consideration. Given that following Bush’s appointments the court is now skewed fundamentally to the right (4 conservatives, 2 liberals and 2 moderates without Souter), adding another moderate to the mix isn’t going to significantly change the conservative direction of the court. If it’s unquestioned that a Republican president can appoint a conservative justice but a Democratic president can only appoint a moderate, it won’t be long before the idea of a “liberal justice” goes the way of the dodo. Rachel Maddow had a funny metaphor discussing this on her show Tuesday night.
This isn’t an isolated incident. Throughout the Obama presidency it’s been incredible to watch how many times the Democratic president and congress have caved in to an imaginary opposition. But here’s the explanation – while the political opposition may be imaginary – the popular opposition is not.
On a global political spectrum, the US political spectrum is still positioned firmly to the right. For instance in Europe, the Democrats would be centre-right and Republicans would be the hard right (and sometimes even the far right). This pretty much reflects the political ideology of Americans, a formula which has long favoured Republicans in US elections. This is, after all, a country where “liberal” and “Left” are still dirty words that most Democrats are loathe to identify themselves as. Even after Bill Clinton’s New Democrats shifted the party to the right (followed by Tony Blair doing the same with Labour across the pond) the Democrats seem to constantly be on the defensive, unable to stand up for progressive policies even when they occupy the presidency. Now that the Democrats control both the legislative and executive branches for the first time since the Carter administration, it seems their old curse is again rearing its ugly head. Even when they’re in power, Democrats are unable to push progressive policies on a fundamentally conservative population.
So Europeans shouldn’t fool themselves into thinking that the American political spectrum is inching back their way. For 40 years the only thing that’s gotten Democrats elected into the White House is the ineptitude and corruption of their predecessors (two Bushes and a Nixon), and once they've put him there there’s been little achieved for the Left.
Strangely, even when the American left is in power, they remain isolated, ineffective and ignored.