The Surprising Success of the Right-Wing Rant

Right-wing pundits are casting Obama's Supreme Court pick in racist terms, and it appears to be working, write Eric Alterman and Danielle Ivory.

Part of a Series
Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor meets with Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD) in his office on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP/Susan Walsh)
Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor meets with Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD) in his office on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP/Susan Walsh)

For once, got it right. “Dems Now Get Taste of Being Called ‘Racist,’” said a screaming headline, and there’s no denying it was true. How else to characterize a story in which ex-Republican presidential candidate Tom Tancredo and radio host Rush Limbaugh compared Sonia Sotomayor’s opinions on race to those of the Ku Klux Klan.

David Duke found this to be a bit much. After all, he wrote, Judge Sonia Sotomayor, while Hispanic, was actually part and parcel of a Jewish conspiracy. Subsequently, Tancredo was asked if he wished to reconsider his KKK analogy. Alas, he declined. He also mentioned that he wasn’t sure if the Obama administration hated white people.

Newt Gingrich also termed Sotomayor a “racist,”—a discovery he apparently felt so strongly about he announced it on Twitter it while visiting the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland. Not long afterward, however, Gingrich apparently thought twice. In what was widely characterized as an “apology,” he averred the word “racist” was perhaps an unfortunate choice, but that Sotomayor’s words revealed “a betrayal of a fundamental principle of the American system—that everyone is equal before the law.”

Forgive us if we are a little slow on the uptake here, but in fact, that’s simply another way of calling the nominee racist. To be fair, it also implicates sexism as well. And even if Gingrich could be honestly judged to have dialed back the criticism ever so slightly on this inflammatory accusation, several other conservative minions of truth and taste, Ann Coulter, Glenn Beck, and Tucker Carlson clearly felt no such compunction.

Pat Buchanan also got in the game. He works for MSNBC rather than talk radio, and so he is adept enough to side-step allusions to the KKK. Instead he insisted that Sotomayor’s alleged “discrimination against white males” is somehow akin to “what was done in the South.” He also claimed to discern in Sotomayor’s past decisions that she had a “long record… of basically believing that it is OK to discriminate against white males.”

These casual references to the KKK and slavery stem almost exclusively from a comment that Sotomayor made eight years ago that a Latina justice might reach a “better conclusion” than her male counterparts. That entire speech—which focused on the implications of adding more women and minorities to federal judgeships with regard, specifically, to discrimination cases, was widely available. Yet many in the media insisted on highlighting the one quote, alone, without context, and thereby purposely distorting its intent. Media Matters’ Eric Boehlert examined the phenomenon and concluded:

After many hours of Googling and searching Nexis and combing through television transcripts, I can say with complete confidence that not only did most news organizations fail to include context for the "Latina woman" quote, but it was the absolute iron-clad rule. Providing even passing context for the quote was basically banned. The Village Did. Not. Allow. It.

Politico, for instance, failed to provide context for the quote here , here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. Lest we be accused of unfairly singling out one publication, let us note that so too, as it happens, did Time, The Economist, Congressional Quarterly, The Dallas Morning News, The Denver Post’s Vincent Carroll, USA Today, The New York Times, The Boston Globe, and the San Francisco Chronicle, to name just a few.

Of course even bothering to refer to the justice’s actual quotes was apparently above the paygrade of a number of conservative talking heads. G. Gordon Liddy went right for the ovaries, saying, “Let’s hope that the key conferences aren’t when she’s menstruating or something, or just before she’s going to menstruate. That would really be bad. Lord knows what we would get then.” Karl Rove compared her to a schoolmarm and claimed that Sotomayor (who finished at the top of her class at Princeton University) wasn’t necessarily all that smart. In what sounds to us like a nasty dig at a recent former president of the United States, Rove told Charlie Rose: “I know lots of stupid people who went to Ivy League schools.”

He went on to accuse the nominee of casually disregarding the law to prop up women and minorities. Again, with what he makes, he could at least hire someone to do his homework for him. Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick did hers, and discovered that even though Sotomayor had only decided one abortion case, in which she ruled against the abortion-rights side, pundits continued to berate her as a “radical pick” who "believes the role of the court is to set policy which is exactly the philosophy that led to the Supreme Court turning into the National Abortion Control Board." Salon’s Glenn Greenwald brought up an important first-amendment decision, in which Sotomayor sided with a white racist NYPD employee.

Amazingly, as racist, sexist and downright dishonest as these attacks are, they are, in a way, working. As the sage E.J. Dionne Jr. points out, “The power of the Limbaugh-Gingrich axis means that Obama is regularly cast as somewhere on the far left end of a truncated political spectrum.” Dionne writes that by giving “the right wing’s rants…wall-to-wall airtime…the media play an independent role by regularly treating far-right views as mainstream positions.” The net result is a political discourse that ranges “from the moderate left to the far right,” empowering the voices that divide us and ensuring that the most regressive and dogmatic voices are allowed to define the potential of our politics.

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College. He is also a Nation columnist and a professor of journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. His seventh book, Why We’re Liberals: A Handbook for Restoring America’s Most Important Ideals was recently published in paperback. He occasionally blogs at

Danielle Ivory is a reporter and producer for the American News Project. She lives in Washington, D.C.

This column was recently named as a finalist in the category of “Best Commentary—Digital” for the Mirror Awards. The series of columns judged can be found here.

The positions of American Progress, and our policy experts, are independent, and the findings and conclusions presented are those of American Progress alone. A full list of supporters is available here. American Progress would like to acknowledge the many generous supporters who make our work possible.


Eric Alterman

Senior Fellow

Explore The Series