Alito and the Changing Face of Conservatism:

One of the more interesting elements of the Alito is what it says about the changing face of conservatism in the United States and the general drift of ethnic Catholics (some might say "urban Catholics") toward the Republican Party. Alito, along with Scalia, now makes the second ethnic Catholic to be appointed to the Court (no Poles yet, of course). I have yet to see an in-depth profile of his personal life, but one profile I read this morning indicated that he is the son of an Italian immigrant who worked in the New Jersey State Government, presumably from a relatively modest background (I'm just speculating on that point for now). Thus, three of the most conservative Justices (probably the three most conservative) on the Supreme Court would be a black man raised in Georgia poverty and two Italian-Americans, all Catholic as well. This group traditionally has been Democratic and liberal in orientation, which adds to the puzzle. Perhaps this is simply an isolated coincidence, but I wonder whether this demographic fact says something deeper about the nature of modern conservatism and political alignments in the country. In the possibility that there is something larger at work here, I'll take a stab at trying to offer an explanation.

In true old-world style, his mother is even named Rose (yes, her name is actually "Rose Alito" from New Jersey--no word from Bruce Springsteen on the nomination). The New York Times has some great quotes from her in its profile of him:

Alito's mother, Rose, who will turn 91 in December, spent Monday fielding congratulatory telephone calls from her home in Hamilton, N.J., a Trenton suburb. ''I'm so excited I can't even express myself,'' she said.

More candid that her son might wish, she said, ''I think he was upset that he didn't get there in the first shot, that Miers got it.'' That was a reference to Bush's choice of Harriet Miers, since withdrawn.

If confirmed, Alito would be the fifth Catholic on the Supreme Court. ''Of course he's against abortion,'' his mother said, another comment supporters in Washington might wish she'd held back.

I suspect that there were plenty of us who grew up in Italian, Polish, or similar households who feel like we know Rose Alito.

I think that the demographic fact of the make-up of the conservative Justices (Thomas, Scalia, and Alito) is a remarkable statement on the nature of modern conservatism (I'm frankly not sure where Roberts fits in this). I don't know Alito, but I feel like my background growing up is similar enough to his that I will hazard a few speculations on what this says about the nature of modern conservativism. For those like myself (and I hazard to guess Scalia, Alito, and Thomas) conservatism is attractive because it now seems to be the party of meritocracy where one is judged on your character and ability, and not on your connections or demographics. As the doors of schools such as Princeton and Yale Law School (in Alito's case), and the professions themselves have been thrown open to Italians, Poles, Irish, etc., individuals such as Scalia and Alito have had the opportunity to prove themselves. All that is asked is for the opportunity to enjoy the blessings of a free country and to compete on equal terms.

Among other things, I think this cultural upbringing reflects itself in a skepticism about racial preferences in college admissions and hiring. It is difficult to say, from what I can tell, that Sam Alito's ascent to the Supreme Court came about through some sort of unfair advantage, money, or family connections. In the legal arena, I think this cultural temperament may reflect itself in a anti-elitist streak rebelling against the arrogance of the Supreme Court and the federal judiciary and a humility in the face of the common-sense of citizens as reflected through democratically-elected legislatures. These old rules and elitism historically were used by the WASPs to discriminate and exclude ethnic Catholics. From all reports I hear about Alito, he also is a genuinely human, nice, and down-to-Earth guy, or, in other words "a regular guy."

In general then, I think this is more of a populist conservatism with a strong anti-elitist strain to it. Scalia articulates this anti-elitist populism forcefully in many of his opinions, and I suspect that to the extent that Alito is fruit from a similar tree, a similar populism is present in his thought. This is Reagan-style conservatism (perhaps with a bit of Nixonian populism) rather than Bush conservatism.

(Historical footnote: Nixon actually toyed with the idea of appointing an ethnic Catholic to the Court, but in the end chose not to do so. There are some great soundbites in John Dean's book The Rehnquist Choice where you can hear Nixon speculating on whether there are any good "Poles or Italians" out there that he can put on the Court.) Strangely enough, the five most conservative members of the Court are now all Catholic.


Reading the Comments, apparently "ethnic Catholic" is more of a term of art than I was aware. I simply have in mind the more traditionally working-class Catholic cultures of Southern and Eastern Europe (Italy, Poland, plus the Irish), versus the "high Catholicism" of Western Europe (as found in England, France, Austria, etc.). As my relatives would put it, it is the difference between those "whose names end with vowels" and those who do not. I thought this was a fairly conventionally-understood distinction. Perhaps the best way to explain it is to simply illustrate it--Scalia and Alito are "ethnic Catholics" and Roberts and Kennedy are not. Judging from some of the Comments, it may only be ethnic Catholics that draw this distinction.

I should also make clear that I certainly am not implying that the world or conservatism is truly meritocratic--President Bush quite plainly illustrates the continued role of pull and family connections. Class undoubtedly still matters. I'm simply saying that for those like myself (and perhaps Alito) conservatism at least since Reagan (and perhaps even Nixon) appears relatively more meritocratic in principle than liberalism. Perhaps this perception is incorrect, but that doesn't mean it is absent. As an example, consider the changing perception of labor unions in the minds of the ethnic Americans I am describing--do they help out the "little guy" or are they an apparatus for protecting seniority and connections? You will get a strong disagreement of opinion on this issue. More relevantly, one's opinion on this is neither "correct" or "incorrect" but is rather subjective.

I deleted a paragraph from an earlier version.