Sotomayor Confirmation Hearings: A Centrist’s Lament

July 16, 2009 at 6:07 pm (By Amba)

I found Sotomayor’s head-down, dogged evasiveness almost unbearable to listen to.  I am told Alito and Roberts were equally careful, and that it’s all about Robert Bork, who as far as his qualifications went (very far indeed) should be on the Supreme Court right now, but who was lured out in the open on the content of his ideology — which should not be the measure of a SCOTUS nominee — and slaughtered.  All presidents and their nominees swore “Never again,” and the result is this travesty of a hearings process.

It made me reflect on how I often feel the two political parties are ruining our country.  Perhaps this is how the real world works and there’s no alternative, but the way real philosophical differences get contaminated and distorted by sports-fan emotions and patronage interests is so disheartening.  The net result is an “Our side must win for the good of the country, no matter the cost to the country” mentality.  It verges on the treasonous:  what is it called when your loyalty to an internal entity trumps country?  Very complicated, since each side claims to be the true patriots, loyal to their own vision of the country.  It’s as if King Solomon faced two mothers more ready to cut the baby in half than to tolerate the other one having it.  The Democrats who savaged Bork did inestimable damage to the Supreme Court confirmation process, and I’m sure examples from the other side are near to hand (the Republicans trying to impeach Bill Clinton instead of just censuring him?).

Is it still the unhealed wound of the Civil War haunting us?  The Hamiltonians versus the Jeffersonians?  Is it, finally, all about social class?  Or what?  I suggest revisiting this thoughtful and thought-provoking post of Donna B’s from June.  To extend Donna’s thoughts:

“Centrists” or “moderates” are misunderstood if we are seen as wanting to blend distinctions  together into an inoffensive gray mush.  We want more distinctions, not fewer.  What we resent is being pressed to choose between two straitjackets, two Procrustean beds, neither of which fits.  Maybe what we have in common is an anti-ideological, antiutopian bias.  We don’t lack passion, or fear confrontation, but maybe we get more passionate about embodied cases — particulars — than abstract principles.  The truths that seem self-evident to us cross and straddle party lines.  We value the flexibility to respond to what’s in front of us without pre-cut filters.  Guiding principles are there in the belly, but they feel preverbal, more like an operating system than a manifesto.  There’s a sense that as soon as you articulate them you’ve crippled them, curtailed their ability to respond to the full spectrum of cases.  “I know it when I see it.”  Taoist.

I’ve been traduced by both liberals and conservatives for liking Senator Lindsey Graham (not coincidentally, he first came to my attention as the only Congressman to split his vote on the Clinton impeachment), but I enjoy the way his responses seem unconstrained by ideology (though not devoid of it) and powered by common sense.  He acknowledged Sotomayor’s success story and qualifications (citing, in support, Ken Starr), and then told her some of the things she said and thought bugged the hell out of him.  That mix of generosity, anger, and humor suits me.  So sue me.

A lot of those who write and read here are centrists.  We don’t agree on everything but we have in common a certain fluidity and unpredictability.  Your thoughts?



  1. Sissy Willis said,

    It’s not social class but the tragic vs Utopian view of human nature.

    As I’ve blogged early and often, I “believe deeply that the denial of ‘life’s dark side in ourselves’ is the key to what’s wrong with the utopianist left world view”:

    David Mamet’s mugging by reality is illuminating, as he explained in a Village Voice confession last year, “Why I am No Longer a ‘Brain-Dead Liberal'”:

    “I’d observed that lust, greed, envy, sloth, and their pals are giving the world a good run for its money, but that nonetheless, people in general seem to get from day to day; and that we in the United States get from day to day under rather wonderful and privileged circumstances — that we are not and never have been the villains that some of the world and some of our citizens make us out to be, but that we are a confection of normal (greedy, lustful, duplicitous, corrupt, inspired — in short, human) individuals living under a spectacularly effective compact called the Constitution, and lucky to get it.”

  2. Ron said,

    I feel like I’ve edited myself out of conversations I would like to have because people have become just plain nutty. I find myself trying to explain things that don’t fit into neat ideological places, but I think they are easily understood — if you don’t have the blinders!

    It’s a remarkable place where you can actually attack “your” views and people don’t see it as weakness.

  3. Melinda said,

    Lindsey Graham’s been coming across as the MVP in these hearings, if for nothing else than the remark, “Unless you have a total meltdown, you will probably be confirmed.” Which IMO made him funnier than Al Franken.

    Ron, I’m chalking up the entire year of 2008 to “temporary insanity” on all sides.

  4. reader_iam said,

    Good job, Annie. And, Donna B.? Consider yourself bear-hugged.

  5. amba12 said,

    Sissy: I vividly remember that Mamet piece. It was refreshing. I think you have a point. The Utopian view goes back to Rousseau (who tellingly was a real shit of a human being, I hear).

    Ron: I’ve been thinking more about that ability to react to anything put in front of you from a solid place, but not to pull that solid place up out of your gut and articulate it in the abstract. It becomes a fish out of water, fixed, stuffed, and mounted.

  6. Donna B. said,

    If the labels were taken literally, I’d like to be a progressive. I love progress – it’s given us an extended life span and ease and comfort unknown to previous generations (air conditioning is at the top of my list of these comforts at this moment.)

    But progress “for the sake of progress” with no real benefit is ridiculous. Doing something just because something needs to be done without serious thought as to what will be fixed at what cost is stupidity and that’s where I see our politicians (on both sides) heading.

    And I think we have being a politician such a nasty job that only the semi-criminally greedy seriously think about becoming one. Or at least the successful ones.

    However maligned and however hard the religious right tries to take over the Tea Party stuff… it’s going to take that or something similar to get the politician’s attention.

    I was uplifted when I read that a lot of politicians got grief from their constituents over the vote on Waxman-Markey… or whatever that silly bill was called.

  7. Rod said,

    The positions taken by the major parties in this country are based on the expediency of coalitions. There is nothing about supporting unrestricted abortion rights which should automatically lead to favoring gun control, card check unionization, cap and trade energy policies, and expanded welfare policies, yet about 40% of our population accepts one party line on all of these issues and somehow believes they have not compromised. Another 40% plays ying to that yang and is equally convinced they have reached all of those conclusions though a logical process. If you agree completely with the platform of any party, you are not thinking for yourself.

    Centrists are a motley crew. We can disagree about all sorts of things, but I would much rather converse with someone who is thinking for herself, than someone who blandly accepts the party line.

  8. Donna B. said,

    Heck Rod… I have trouble figuring out what the “party” line actually is most of the time. Of course, I’ve never thought of myself as one of the brighter bulbs in the chandelier.

    But… I really think Obama and Sotomayor (and untold others) are just not very bright.

  9. amba12 said,

    Mebbe we should rename this blog Motley Crüe . . .

  10. Rod said,

    Or the Blue Dog Cafe.

  11. Rod said,

    IDonna: If you want to check up on the Democrats’ Party Line, Just watch CBS News. Prefer Republican Drivel? Try a steady diet of Fox.

  12. amba12 said,

    Both good! Can we have AKAs?

  13. Ennui said,

    Is it …

    I like the Rousseau insight. He comes in at a couple of angles here – both the hippy noble savage angle and the totalitarian social contract angle. Not just anyone can be a spiritual mentor to both hippies and Pol Pot. In my mind the more relevant angle is the notion of the general will (which is completely independent of, and quite possibly opposed to, the desires or interests of any particular human being) and its corollary – that empirical human beings with their little particular interests must be “forced to be free” (how much recent policy can be boiled down to that notion!). If you’re going to engage in scorched earth politics, it helps to have a notion of democracy that distinguishes between what people want and what they should want – and comes down crashingly in favor of the latter. Not to say, of course, that political hacks keep copies of The Social Contract on their Kindles but, if you want to explain the sixties, Rousseau seems like the go to guy (decidely more than Marx). He seems to have been in the air. And the guys and gals pulling the strings during this whole “culture war” period (right and left) are boomers.

    The other influence I see is Darwin. Yeah, yeah, I know what you’re thinking. I hope this point won’t be especially stupid, too. In any case, the notion I have in mind is the general idea that complex systems can regularly and predictably achieve beneficial aims not intended by any of the actors within the system. No organism is shooting for differentiation. No wall street trader is shooting for an efficient allocation of resources. No attorney is looking for justice. No scientist is looking for a true description of the world (think of Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions – Science proceeding like evolution – not towards a final description of the world but away from the current description, blindly).

    My sense is that none of this was ever really true. I think that the very notion that systems can prosper and endure without anyone paying attention to the whole is dead wrong. I directly attribute a lot of bad behavior, generally, to this notion. I also believe that it’s quite pervasive.

    To sum up our political culture: we hold that there are no ultimate ends (political or otherwise) and that people should be forced to live according to them.

  14. reader_iam said,

    Not just anyone can be a spiritual mentor to both hippies and Pol Pot.

    Ain’t that the truth!–and then some.

  15. reader_iam said,

    Mebbe we should rename this blog Motley Crüe . . .

    Annie, I’m [long] aware of your love of ’80s*** music but … please … no.

  16. reader_iam said,

    ***Don’t tell me, I know: They kept at it long after that physical decade ended. So?

    ; )

  17. Ron said,

    Maybe we’re the political “Rutles?”

  18. amba12 said,

    Well, I don’t love or even know Motley Crüe — just free-associating to their name. (Or is it Mötley?) I wasn’t into heavy metal . . . or even as much into punk as I probably should’ve been. I have banal, sweet tastes. My only umlaut transgression is Blue Öyster Cult (1970s) and then only “Don’t Fear the Reaper” (more cowbell!).

  19. amba12 said,

    Ennui: you’re bending m’mind!

    “a notion of democracy that distinguishes between what people want and what they should want” — makes me flash back to a chilling moment of the campaign for me, Michelle Obama saying, repeating, twice, vehemently, “We know how the world should look! We know how the world should look!” That scares me.

    The other side of it is the conservative faith in the Invisible Hand and the “wisdom” of the market, which is the Darwinian thing you talk about. Outcomes are not benevolent! When the strong crush the weak politically we call it tyranny; when the strong crush the weak economically (not the rich and the poor, I mean, but, say, Wal-Mart and the mom and pop store, Bill Gates and almost everyone else), we call it freedom! Without some regulation we’d probably have Love Canals all over the place. The destruction of tigers I ranted about a few posts back is just an example of untrammeled market forces. “Creative destruction” isn’t a moral process in either biology or economics. It doesn’t necessarily choose the finest, sometimes the meanest.

    So there you go.

    That said, there are more breathing holes in capitalism than in nanny-statism. More merciful randomness. More of what people do want than of what they should want. People do need some protection from each other — otherwise the worst would do the best — but they don’t want protection from themselves.

  20. reader_iam said,

    Am I completely failing to telegraph a sense of humor these days? Eek!

  21. reader_iam said,

    If so, in penance I offer this.

  22. reader_iam said,

    When the strong crush the weak politically we call it tyranny; when the strong crush the weak economically (not the rich and the poor, I mean, but, say, Wal-Mart and the mom and pop store, Bill Gates and almost everyone else), we call it freedom!

    That is a core insight from which almost everyone wants to look away, and make no mistake.

    “We know how the world should look! We know how the world should look!”

    From my point of view, there are very few phrases, in a political context, more chilling than that (regardless of how Michelle intended it, that not being the point–and I don’t, by the way, feel comfortable jumping to conclusions about what she actually intended, or feels). And some of the most malign regimes on the planet, from time’s dawning, rooted themselves in exactly that sentiment, that arrogance: “We know how the world should look! We know how the world should look!”

  23. amba12 said,

    Am I completely failing to telegraph a sense of humor these days? heck no.

  24. Randy said,

    The destruction of tigers I ranted about a few posts back is just an example of untrammeled market forces.

    I disagree. It seems to me that it is an example of ethnic Han cultural imperialism and near-continuous state propagation of superstitious beliefs as scientific fact.

  25. Randy said,

    when the strong crush the weak economically (not the rich and the poor, I mean, but, say, Wal-Mart and the mom and pop store, Bill Gates and almost everyone else), we call it freedom!

    Neither of the examples cited were giants to begin with. They started small, and as they met customer needs better than their competition, they expanded. You’re old enough to remember when WordStar had a near-monopoly on word processing, Lotus was dominant in spreadsheets and Ashton-Tate the database provider. Lotus and Ashton-Tate virtually disappeared because of their monopoly-pricing strategies. WordStar failed to change, and WordPerfect went on to a 60%+ market share in the late ’80’s while MSWord languished amongst a pack of also-rans far behind. WordPerfect refused to adapt to Windows and its users abandoned it.

    FWIW, JC Penney, Sears, Monkey Wards, Kresge, and Woolworths put a lot of local stores out of business as they grew but I don’t read too many lamenting the loss of the local haberdasher, appliance store, dress-maker.

  26. amba12 said,

    I grant you, that explains the demand. But where there’s a demand, market forces kick in with a supply, indifferent to the motive or quality of the demand. The attraction of supply to demand is such a powerful magnetic force that law can’t stop it (drugs, porn). Since penalties are far from proportionate to profit, prohibition just drives the price higher (see addition to tiger post).

  27. amba12 said,

    I’m no expert on this, but as I understand it Bill Gates used some ruthless monopolistic practices of his own to insure that his mediocre-plus products got a strangehold on the market.

  28. Randy said,

    Perhaps he did. The cost of their products remains relatively low in comparison to what those costs were in the ’80’s. Their market share has been dropping for almost a decade now with no plateau or safe harbor in sight. FWIW, MSFT attained its stranglehold because it and INTC went open-source from the beginning while Apple refused to in the mistaken belief that they could maintain market share and margins by exercising near-complete control of software and hardware. Apple’s 30-odd years of monopolist practices continue, ensuring the company a stranglehold on its installed base. The users don’t seem to mind it, though.

  29. PatHMV said,

    He certainly did (in my opinion, the lawyer carefully hedged), amba. I was disappointed that we didn’t see greater DOJ action against Microsoft on anti-trust grounds. Microsoft (again, only my opinion) used its operating system practical monopoly to make it exceedingly difficult for PC makers to affordably bundle anything other than Microsoft Office with new computers. WordPerfect lost out partly because it stuck with its “reveal codes” model when Windows made everything WYSWYG and partly because PC makers didn’t get big discounts on the Windows OS unless they bundled Office in with the PC, too. Alas, the regulators focused on more technical minutiae, like tying in Internet Explorer to the operating system, rather than on the larger structural issue.

    But even given that, the market eventually responded, and folks found a way to compete against Microsoft in the browser arena, and now competition is even growing in the office suite realm as well.

    I agree with Randy. We always tend to lament change as it is going on, but then we adapt, the changes become the status quo, and then we lament them when they go in their turn. Such is life. What doesn’t change and adapt dies. While a few species have survived relatively unchanged for many millions of years (crocodiles), most either evolve or die. The average “lifespan” of mammalian species is about 1 million years. Even beetles species only average about 2 million years [pdf]. Change or die.

    Fascinating how these threads can wander, eh? Other than those who regularly follow our conversations, who would have thought that a thread could lead, in traceable, comprehensible steps, from the Sotomayor hearings to software markets to species lifespans?

    On the original topic, from what relatively little I’ve seen and read of the hearings, they seem to be following the same frustrating course that most such hearings take, where we hear a lot of pontificating by pompous windbag Senators (pardon the redundancy) and little actual debate. The questions are all written to “score points” rather than engage in discourse. Judge Sotomayor’s answers are likewise written to parry thrusts rather than actually engage in debate over what we should be looking for in a Supreme Court justice. I am particularly troubled, however, at the nominee’s apparent decision to never try to stand by anything she has ever said in the past, preferring to vaguely distance herself from all of it, never willing to say something like “yes, I do think courts should be empathetic to the real-world realities in which most people live their lives.”

  30. PatHMV said,

    Randy, just a quibble. I know precisely what you mean in the comparison between the Microsoft/Intel decisions and Apple’s, but I don’t think it’s properly called “open source.” They had, rather, more open standards. “Open source” has come to refer specifically to open source software, which is free to copy, free to use, free to modify (depending on the specifics of the particular open source license used, of course). I think the right phrase is “open architecture.” Like I say, just a language quibble. I agree entirely on the substantive point, and that is indeed why Microsoft and Intel beat the pants off Apple.

  31. amba12 said,

    While a few species have survived relatively unchanged for many millions of years (crocodiles)


    pompous windbag Senators (pardon the redundancy)

    LOL! (Pardon the redundancy to “cockroaches.”)

    Coincidentally, right now I’m fact-checking an article about the end-Permian mass extinction. It’s a study in “creative destruction”: the wipeout of early, simple forms potentiated the arising of much more varied and complex ones.

    No doubt the reason we drag our feet at change is because we know it’s inevitably going to wipe US out — as individuals, as a civilization, as a species. We’ve changed our own environment so much that we’re now changing to adapt to it. If the bubble of conveniences we’ve devised is not robust enough and crashes, or if we ourselves destroy it, the creatures we’ve become may not be able to survive at all in the much cruder environment we’ll revert to. Some will, perhaps, and they’ll become the ancestors of the next edition of Homo. Plus, we’re about to throw major wild cards into the mix by operating directly on our own genes. That’s never happened before on this planet, but odds are it’s happened before somewhere.

  32. michael reynolds said,


    Okay, first of all, don’t watch SCOTUS hearings sober. We’re lucky you didn’t hang yourself from the shower head.

    The problem is the democratization of democracy. Look, most people don’t give a damn about politics and they shouldn’t. Most people don’t know anything about politics, and that’s fine. Most people — let’s say 90% — should be doing their jobs and pursuing their hobbies and raising their kids.

    But we have a politics now that is full of people who know nothing at all about anything, but who are nevertheless being dragged into politics by talk radio, by fundraising efforts, by TV’s always-on-eyeball, by endless haranguing from Left and Right. Politics is clogged by people who are emotional and crazed and laboring under the illusion that they know what they’re talking about.

    Before the TV age there weren’t SCOTUS hearings. What does that tell you? Turn off the cameras and guess what? We’d see lopsided votes in committee and in the Congress in favor of confirmation. Not just for Sotomayor but for Roberts and Alito and Bork and the Pothead, whatever his name was.

    It’s time to get the people the hell out of our democracy.

  33. amba12 said,

    Reminds me of a book editor who once said to me on the Q.T., back when we read the slush pile, “Kinda makes you have second thoughts about universal public education.”

    Hey, maybe the involvement of the People is why politics reminds me more and more of sports?

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