As I See It: Many Americans like Judge Sonia Sotomayor because she represents the quintessential American success story.
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 by the U.S. Senate, 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 in the Women's Army Corps at the age of 17. The elder Sotomayor 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 only-in-America tale hasn't won over everyone. Though Sotomayor seems likely to win some Republican votes, there remain many conservatives who are convinced that she represents the activist-judge liberal-elite who are pushing the country in the wrong direction.
Since social issues such as abortion and gay marriage still drive a deep wedge into the political culture, it's no great surprise that so many social conservatives oppose Sotomayor's appointment. They would oppose any judge nominated by a Democratic president.
However, there is 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 are simply unhappy — actually, they are deeply resentful — about the social and demographic changes that have swept the country over the last 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 insisted that Washington elites have demanded that Sotomayor be shown a respect they "never for a moment accorded a pro-life, conservative mother of five from (Idaho), Sarah Palin. 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 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. A sober 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" (so said U.S. Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, R-Ga.) black man could become president and a woman with a strange-sounding name and an unusual list of favorite foods could end up on the Supreme Court.
It's no accident that Buchanan dragged Palin into the debate. Resentment of high achievers like 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 smalltown 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, not Sarah Palin, represents the future.
Cynthia Tucker is the 2007 Pulitzer Prize-winning editor of the opinion page of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.