Many Americans like Judge Sonia Sotomayor because she represents the quintessential American success story.
By dint of hard work, determination and sacrifice, she overcame poverty and personal tragedy to rise to the top of the legal profession.
If she is confirmed, as seems likely, she would become the first Latino and the first woman of color to serve on that storied bench. And, for many of us, her ancestry makes her rise all the more appealing.
Her parents left Puerto Rico during World War II; her mother, then Celina Baez, enlisted at 17 in the Women’s Army Corps. She raised her children alone after her husband died of heart ailments at the age of 42.
Her daughter’s accomplishments — as well as those of her son, Juan, a physician — reinforce our favorite national myth: in this country, anyone can succeed.
But that poignant tale hasn’t won over everyone. Though Sotomayor will likely win some Republican votes, there remain many conservatives who believe she represents the activist-judge/liberal-elite who are pushing the country in the wrong direction.
They would oppose any judge nominated by a Democratic president who favors reproductive rights and supports civil unions for gay couples.
However, there is also a less articulated but equally intense reaction to Sotomayor on the right that has nothing to do with issues and everything to do with ethnicity.
There are still some conservatives who deeply resent the social and demographic changes that have swept the country during the past four decades, leading to the election of the nation’s first black president.
That faction sees the rise of a “wise Latina” as one more indication that the country no longer belongs solely to them.
Consider the analysis of Pat Buchanan, GOP presidential candidate turned political pundit, who has labeled Sotomayor “Miss Affirmative Action.”
In a recent column, Buchanan railed that “pundits here get hoots of appreciation for doing to a white Christian woman what would constitute a hate crime if done to a ‘wise Latina woman.’” (Note the designation of Sarah Palin as “Christian” as if Sotomayor, who grew up Catholic, is pagan.) Buchanan advised his fellow Republicans to “expose Sotomayor … as a political activist whose career bespeaks a lifelong resolve to discriminate against white males.”
Never mind that Sotomayor’s record shows no such thing. An analysis of her record has shown that she has ruled against claims of discrimination far more often than she has ruled for them.
Still, among some on the right, Buchanan’s views represent the gospel truth. They explain a world in which white men no longer control all the levers of power — in which an “uppity” black man could become president and a woman with a strange-sounding name could end up on the Supreme Court.
It’s no accident that Buchanan dragged Palin into the debate. Resentment of high-achievers like Barack Obama and Sotomayor runs deepest among Palinites, who see in John McCain’s running mate a perfect spokeswoman for their long list of grievances.
For them, Palin represents “authentic” America.
There’s just one problem: That vision of America — a country run by and for God-fearing white people of small-town heritage — is losing its appeal in a country that grows more diverse and more urban every day.
As long as the Republican Party is held hostage by a group of voters who refuse to let go of that image of America, it cannot hope to be a national party. Sonia Sotomayor represents the future, not Sarah Palin.