Bouie: Justice Alito is the true believer his flag says he is

The Supreme Court justice is just as vulnerable to motivated reasoning as any other political person.

By Jamelle Bouie / The New York Times

In a large part of American political discourse, overt cynicism is the currency of sophistication. It is a sign of political savviness, even worldliness, to know that politicians are creatures of pure self-interest, with no solid beliefs, concerns or preoccupations. It becomes a little naive to take politicians at their word and to say, even adjusting for political considerations, that people tend to say what they believe and try to act on those beliefs.

Consider abortion rights. For years, the savviest position was the cynical one: Their vocal opposition notwithstanding, neither Republican lawmakers nor conservative judges would actually try to overturn Roe v. Wade. Instead, they would keep Roe as a “punching bag and a sandbag,” as William Saletan put it in Slate, to “fire up religious conservatives in elections without scaring suburbanites, libertarians and younger voters who don’t want abortion to become illegal.”

As we now know, this was wrong. The Republican voters who made opposition to Roe a litmus test for Republican politicians and the Republican politicians who made opposition to Roe a litmus test for Republican-appointed federal judges were sincere about their desire to pare back reproductive rights and end legal abortion altogether. As soon as they had the right pieces in place, they moved as quickly as they could to render Roe a nullity in American constitutional law.

Political parties do not want to win solely for the sake of winning; they want to win so that their coalition can achieve as many of its objectives as possible. And public cynicism notwithstanding, they want to do this even if it costs them votes in the short term. The Democratic Party of 2009 and 2010 burned valuable political capital on comprehensive health care reform because nearly every part of the Democratic coalition was driven to make health care reform a reality. The same was and remains true for Republicans and abortion.

One implication of this truth — that politicians and political figures are more earnest than you might realize — is that we can’t assume that when they are speaking, they always have their fingers crossed, hidden behind their backs. We can’t always assume that the most outlandish rhetoric is for show.

It is true that politicians are playing a cynical game sometimes. George Wallace ran his first race for Alabama governor as a racial moderate. When he lost that race to John Patterson, a fire-breathing segregationist and friend to the Ku Klux Klan, Wallace promised himself that he would never lose the same way again. For his next campaign, he made himself a staunch defender of segregation and eventually became the living embodiment of white American backlash to integration, North and South. But when it was clear, in the 1970s, that times had changed — and after he had been paralyzed by a gunman’s bullet — he switched paths again, glad-handing for the votes of Black Alabamians as a supposedly reformed man.

For a recent example, look no further than Sen. J.D. Vance of Ohio. When, as a young author, he thought his political ambitions might run through the green rooms of Washington and New York, he posed and presented himself as a moderate on the center-right of American politics who despised the populist turn in Republican politics and condemned Donald Trump to friends as a would-be Adolf Hitler. When it became clear to Vance that Trump was the only game in town on his side of the aisle, he did not hesitate to twist himself into the shape of a MAGA acolyte. “He is the best president of my lifetime,” a 37-year-old Vance said of Trump during his Senate campaign.

All of this brings us to the most recent controversy surrounding Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito. Not long after the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, my colleague Jodi Kantor reported last week, someone in the Alito household flew an inverted American flag in the front yard. The upside-down flag, a sign of naval distress, was one of the preferred symbols of the movement to “stop the steal” — a statement of solidarity with those who disbelieved the results of the 2020 presidential election and fought to return Trump to office against the rule of law and the verdict of the Constitution.

Alito says he did not put up the flag. He says his wife did, “in response to a neighbor’s use of objectionable and personally insulting language on yard signs.” There is no evidence to say otherwise, although it is a strange coincidence that Martha-Ann Alito would deploy this particular flag to retaliate against a neighbor within weeks of the moment that it became a fraught symbol of violent opposition to the constitutional order. The initial provocation, as Fox News reported, was that the neighbor in question had put up a sign directly blaming Martha-Ann Alito for the Jan. 6 attack.

Whether or not Samuel Alito was part of the decision to fly the inverted flag, there is no question that he is a genuine Republican partisan who is more than willing to share views that echo narratives aired throughout conservative media. In 2020, for example, he warned that liberals were the real threat to freedom of speech. During oral argument in Trump v. United States, he wondered aloud if a president like Trump needed criminal immunity so that he would leave office at the end of his term; a troubling question that took for granted the idea that the prosecutions the former president faces are politically motivated.

It is not that far-fetched to think that a Supreme Court justice might have internalized the extreme views of the insurrectionist right. Yes, he is a powerful member of one of the most elite institutions in the country, and, yes, he’s highly educated and has access to a wealth of high-quality information. But there is no one living who is fully immune to motivated reasoning or completely unsusceptible to misinformation and disinformation. There is every reason, and then some, to think that Alito believes many of the same things that any other Republican of his age and ideological disposition might also believe, especially when his social world seems to consist of similarly like-minded, goal-oriented partisans.

Cynicism is as often as much a form of comfort as it is anything else. It is comforting, in a way, to believe that powerful people have better sense than those they represent or work with or try to appeal to. It is comforting to think that the red meat is for someone else. The disturbing truth is that there’s probably more sincerity than not in American politics. We may not want to believe it, but most of the people in charge say what they mean and mean what they say.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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