COLUMN RIGHT/ CHARLES R. KESLER : Thomas Cuts at Democrats’ Moral Capital : The party of civil rights now thinks of every American as a hog to be slopped.

<i> Charles R. Kesler is associate professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and director of its Henry Salvatori Center. </i>

The most important figure in Clarence Thomas’ early life was his grandfather, a hard-working Catholic Democrat who reared him from age 7, sent him to good parochial schools and urged him to make something of himself. Today, poised to become an associate justice of the Supreme Court, Thomas is a zealous conservative whose nomination will be fiercely contested, in part precisely because he believes in the virtues and strengths of character that he learned from his grandfather.

Thomas’ life fits the familiar pattern of disillusionment with the Democratic Party that over the past 25 years has moved millions of ethnic and Southern voters into the Republican column. One by one, urban Catholics and rural Protestants alike discovered that the American morality of hard work, self-respect, strong family life and proud citizenship could no longer abide a political party that seemed devoted to turning every American into a hog to be slopped.

But Thomas is black, and his apostasy cuts deeper, into the last bastion of Democratic loyalty--and into the last vestiges of Democratic honor. For a long time now, the Democrats have been living off the moral capital they earned in the civil-rights movement. Though occasionally they seize the moral high ground on an issue like Social Security, there is little political risk in defending ever higher benefits for recipient throngs; consequently, there is little honor in the game. But in the mid-1960s debate over the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, the Democrats did take a courageous and principled stand (albeit mostly against their fellow Democrats in the South). Wrapped in the mantle of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., they defended the proposition, which King had traced back to the great truth “that all men are created equal,” as proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence, that a person should be judged by the content of his character, not the color of his skin.


Alas, it did not take long for the reverse alchemy of Democratic Party politics to transmute this gold into base metal. A principle became an interest--the special interest of a client group. Individual rights were transformed into group rights. The Declaration of Independence was replaced by line items in the federal budget. Equality of opportunity decayed into the rigid inequalities of quotas, busing and proportional representation. And the civil-rights movement settled into the comfortable mind-set of the civil-rights Establishment.

That is why Clarence Thomas’ nomination promises to be holy hell for liberal Democrats. It tweaks their consciences, reminding them of the dream they once claimed to stand for, and it offends their vanity, seeing a black man who scorns all their favors. The counterattack has already begun. Harvard law professor Derrick Bell says that Thomas “looks black” but “thinks white.” Behold the principle of today’s civil-rights Establishment: There’s nothing like the color of a man’s skin to tell you what the content of his thoughts should be.

Liberals will squirm during Thomas’ confirmation hearings, for their attacks on this son of a sharecropper will alienate them still further from their old base of support among working-class whites, and will risk dividing their support among loyal blacks, too. But better this than 20 or 30 years of Justice Thomas, they will conclude, fearing, quite rightly, that his precepts and example could break the brittle bones of the civil-rights Establishment.

Thomas’ principles arise naturally from the character his grandfather imparted. They are the principles of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and of the Declaration of Independence. As a firm Lincoln Republican, Thomas stands for the equality of human beings ordained by what he calls “higher law”--what the Declaration calls “the laws of nature and of nature’s God.” It will soon become clear that these principles challenge not only the civil-rights Establishment but also the sometimes errant majoritarianism of his conservative colleagues on the high court.

In the meantime, President Bush should be congratulated for this wise and courageous nomination. Clarence Thomas is superbly qualified to sit on the Supreme Court. He has the proper temperament, character and learning to be a good justice. More important, he has the convictions that may make him a great justice. By reading the Constitution in the light of the permanent moral truths of the Declaration, he may well restore a prudent idealism to our law, and help to reunite an American people now badly divided by the politics of race, ethnicity, sex and self-interest.