Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Pat Buchanan and the 1970s Ethnic Revival

The fine blog Nixon Ghosts has uncovered a memo written by Pat Buchanan for the Nixon White House that suggests making ethnic quotas for Italians in order to help Nixon win the 1972 presidential election. The memo states:
[I]nstead of sending the orders out to all our other agencies — hire blacks and women — the order should go out — hire ethnic Catholics preferable women, for visible posts. One example: Italian Americans, unlike blacks, have never had a Supreme Court member — they are deeply concerned with their “criminal” image; they do not dislike the President. Give those fellows the “Jewish seat” or the “black seat” on the Court when it becomes available.

I find this extremely interesting in light of Buchanan's attempts to play the ethnic card in undermining Sonia Sotomayor's nomination to the Supreme Court. Another interesting bit of historical context from the 1970s comes from Nixon's failed Supreme Court nomination of the segregationist Harold Carswell to the Supreme Court. When the media and Democratic Senators rightfully criticized Carswell for his segregationist record, the Republican Senator from Nebraska, Roman Hruska, said:
Even if he [Carswell] were mediocre, there are a lot of mediocre judges and people and lawyers. They are entitled to a little representation, aren't they? We can't have all Brandeises and Frankfurters and Cardozos.

Please note that Brandeis, Frankfurter, and Cardozo were the only Jewish justices to have presided over the Supreme Court at that time. Anyhow, even if we grant that Hruska was not trying to be anti-Semitic, we still have a historical example of how conservative Republicans have thrown considerations of merit completely out the window when it comes to advancing their reactionary judicial agenda on the Supreme Court.

So where does the ethnic revival come in? It's almost completely forgotten today, but the African-American civil rights movement gave rise to numerous offshoots among many different groups demanding better political representation. One of those groups, believe it or not, was Italian-Americans. The Nixon Administration watched this white ethnic revolt and did everything it to create schisms between white non-WASP ethnics and non-white minority groups. In the process, many white ethnic groups, including Italian-Americans, became more likely to vote Republican. As Pat Buchanan's memo suggests, nominating a culturally conservative Italian-American Catholic to the Supreme Court was a way to pursue some of the same right-wing judicial goals as nominating a segregationist like Harold Carswell, but without the malodorous stench of Jim Crow racism to stink everything up. When you consider that two of the most conservative justices on the Supreme Court (Scalia and Alito) are Italian-American Catholics, I'd say that Nixon's 1970s strategy has finally come to fruition, only he never lived to see it. Just because Scalia and Alito are racially classified as "white," that doesn't mean that there weren't ethnic and racial considerations made when they were nominated for the Supreme Court, too.

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