If he'd been born a little earlier, Sam Alito would probably have been a Democrat. In the 1950's, the middle-class and lower-middle-class whites in places like Trenton, where Alito grew up, were the heart and soul of the Democratic Party.
But by the late 1960's, cultural politics replaced New Deal politics, and liberal Democrats did their best to repel Northern white ethnic voters. Big-city liberals launched crusades against police brutality, portraying working-class cops as thuggish storm troopers for the establishment. In the media, educated liberals portrayed urban ethnics as uncultured, uneducated Archie Bunkers.
The liberals were doves; the ethnics were hawks. The liberals had "Question Authority" bumper stickers; the ethnics had been taught in school to respect authority. The liberals thought an unjust society caused poverty; the ethnics believed in working their way out of poverty.
Sam Alito emerged from his middle-class neighborhood about that time, made it to Princeton and found "very privileged people behaving irresponsibly."
Alito wanted to learn; the richer liberals wanted to strike. He wanted to join R.O.T.C.; the liberal Princetonians expelled it from campus. He was orderly and respectful; they were disorderly and disrespectful. The experience was so searing that he mentioned it in the opening of his confirmation hearing 37 years later.
In 1971, Fred Dutton, an important Democratic strategist, acknowledged the rift between educated liberals and the white working class. In a short book, "Changing Sources of Power," Dutton argued that white workers had "tended, in fact, to become a major redoubt of traditional Americanism and of the antinegro, antiyouth vote."
The New Deal coalition, including Catholics and white ethnics, was dying, he argued, and should be replaced by a "loose peace coalition" of young people, educated suburbanites, feminists and blacks.
That plan wasn't stupid, but it didn't work. The party has been in a downward spiral ever since. John Kerry lost the white working class by 23 percentage points. He lost among his fellow Catholics. He lost the election.
After every defeat, Democrats vow to reconnect with middle-class whites. But if there is one lesson of the Alito hearings, it is that the Democratic Party continues to repel those voters just as vigorously as ever. The Democrats have amply shown why they remain the party of gown, but not town.
First, there was the old subject of police brutality. If you listened to the questions of Jeff Sessions, a Republican, you heard a man exercised by the terror drug dealers can inflict on a neighborhood. If you listened to Ted Kennedy, you heard a man exercised by the terror law enforcement officials can inflict on a neighborhood. Kennedy railed against "Gestapo-like" tactics. Patrick Leahy accused Alito of rendering decisions in a "light most favorable to law enforcement."
If forced to choose, most Americans side with the party that errs on the side of the cops, not the criminals.
Then there was the old hawk-dove divide. If you listened to Lindsey Graham, a Republican, you heard a man alarmed by the threats posed by anti-American terrorists. If you listened to Leahy or Russ Feingold, you heard men alarmed by the threats posed by American counterterrorists. The Democratic questions implied that American counterterrorists are guilty until proved innocent, that a police state is being born.
If forced to choose, most Americans want a party that will fight aggressively against the terrorists, not the N.S.A.
Then there were the old accusations of bigotry. Kennedy misleadingly and maliciously asserted that Alito had never written a decision on behalf of an African-American. But those wild accusations don't carry weight any more. Rich liberals have been calling white ethnics bigots for 40 years.
Finally, and most important, there is the question of demeanor. Alito is a paragon of the old-fashioned working-class ethic. In a culture of self-aggrandizement, Alito is modest. In a culture of self-exposure, Alito is reticent. In a culture of made-for-TV sentimentalism, Alito refuses to emote. In a culture that celebrates the rebel, or the fashionable pseudorebel, Alito respects tradition, order and authority.
What sort of party doesn't admire these virtues in a judge?
The big story of American politics, which was underlined by every hour of the Alito hearings, is that sometime between 1932 and 1968, the DNA of the Democratic Party fundamentally changed. In 1932, the Democrats had working-class DNA. Today, the Democrats have different DNA, the DNA of a minority party.
Nancy Dutton's letter back to David Brooks