The “Empathy’’ Gap
Right wing unloads but comes up empty in anti-Sotomayor drive.
Thursday, June 18, 2009
Just weeks into the GOP’s jihad against Supreme Court nominee Judge Sonia Sotomayor, it’s clear that their assault is coming up empty.
The campaign essentially consists of two main themes drawn from the Big Book of 1990’s Republican Identity Politics: 1) Sotomayor is racist, and 2) “Empathy” is anathema to a good Supreme Court Justice. Unfortunately, the Big Book is out of print, its prescriptions no longer relevant in Obama’s America.
Right-wingers jumped all over a 2001 lecture in which Sotomayor said, “I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion [in race and sex discrimination cases] than a white male who hasn’t lived that life.” Newt Gingrich Twittered that since a white racist shouldn’t sit on the Supreme Court, a “Latina woman racist should also withdraw.” Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele piled on, “God help you if you’re a white male coming before her bench.” The National Review put Sotomayor on its cover, inexplicably caricatured as a Buddhist monk (complete with exaggerated Asian features), with a big “The Wise Latina” headline. And of course, Rush Limbaugh has made the “wise Latina” phrase a daily staple of his radio show.
Meanwhile, we’ve learned that empathy is so offensive to conservatives that it drives them to incoherent near-violence. “I’ll give you empathy,” raged Steele. “Empathize right on your behind!”
This is a curious line of attack by Republicans, who hadn’t before betrayed hostility toward the seemingly universal virtue of empathy. “He is a delightful and warm, intelligent person, who has great empathy and a wonderful sense of humor,” said George H. W. Bush in 1991 when nominating Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court. Even that great conservative champion on the Supreme Court, Justice Samuel Alito, acknowledged the place of empathy while sitting on the court: “When I get a case about discrimination, I have to think about people in my own family who suffered discrimination because of their ethnic background or because of religion or because of gender. And I do take that into account.”
The GOP is now invested in these lines of attack, yet the American people aren’t following along. A national poll by nonpartisan pollster Research 2000 for Daily Kos last week found Americans are overwhelmingly rejecting these assaults.
Asked if they thought Sotomayor was racist, a mere 8 percent of respondents answered yes, including just 19 percent of Republicans. Even among the GOP’s rump regional base in the South, just 13 percent agreed.
Asked if empathy was “an important characteristic for a Supreme Court justice to possess,” Republicans had more success bringing their partisans along – Republicans said no by a 56-18 percent margin. However, independents approve of empathy by a 54-28 margin (and Dems overwhelmingly agree, at 73-12 percent). Overall, 52 percent of Americans think their justices should feel empathy, compared to just 29 percent who disagree. Again, Republicans find themselves out on a slender limb, hanging apart from the American mainstream.
All told, respondents agree that Sotomayor is qualified to be on the Supreme Court by a 54-26 margin, with independents giving her a solid vote of confidence at 55-21. Only Republicans, whipping themselves into a frenzy over “empathy,” disagree by a 74-14 margin.
So while the majority of Americans – and 83 percent of Latinos – think Sotomayor is qualified to serve, the Republicans remain stuck in their unpopular default position, alienating a key demographic for a lost cause, as all signs in the Senate point to an easy confirmation.