Conservatism Does Not Equal Racism. So Why Do Many Liberals Assume It Does?

From an immigration law in Arizona to a planned mosque near Ground Zero to Glenn Beck emoting at the Lincoln Memorial on the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech, the controversies roiling American politics in recent weeks and months have featured an ugly undertone, suggesting meanness, prejudice and, in the eyes of some, outright racism. And it is conservatives--whether Republican politicians, Fox News commentators or members of the "tea party" movement--who are invariably painted with that brush.

There is power in the accusation of racism against conservatives, one that liberals understand well. In an April 2008 post on Journolist, a private online community for liberal journalists, academics and activists, one writer proposed a way to distract conservatives from the campaign controversy surrounding the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Barack Obama's pastor. "If the right forces us all to either defend Wright or tear him down, no matter what we choose, we lose the game they've put upon us," Spencer Ackerman wrote. "Instead, take one of them--Fred Barnes, Karl Rove, who cares--and call them racists."

Liberal missteps on race and ethnicity are explained away, forgiven and often forgotten; conservative ones are cast as part of a sinister, decades-long story of intolerance and political calculation, in which conservative ideology and strategy are conflated with bigotry.

No doubt, such accusations stick to conservatives more than to liberals. It was then-Sen. Joe Biden, a Delaware Democrat, after all, who described presidential candidate Obama as "the first mainstream African American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy." If a conservative politician had offered such an opinion, his or her career might have ended; Biden was rewarded with a spot on Obama's ticket. Liberal missteps on race and ethnicity are explained away, forgiven and often forgotten; conservative ones are cast as part of a sinister, decades-long story of intolerance and political calculation, in which conservative ideology and strategy are conflated with bigotry.

That larger story is well-known and oft-repeated--and, I would argue, vastly oversimplified and simply wrong in its key underlying assumptions. But its endurance explains why the party of Lincoln is so easily dubbed the party of Strom Thurmond or Jefferson Davis, and why many critics believe that an identity politics of white America now tilts conservatives against not just blacks but also Hispanics, Muslims and anyone else outside a nostalgic and monochromatic description of the American way of life.

The narrative usually begins with Barry Goldwater opposing provisions of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and with Richard Nixon scheming to win the presidency through a "Southern strategy"--appealing to the racial prejudice of working-class whites in the South to pry them away from the Democratic coalition assembled by Franklin Roosevelt. In this telling, bigoted Southerners were the electoral mountain to which the Republican Moses had to come, the key to the GOP winning the White House. Wooing them entailed much more than shifting the party slightly away from Democrats on racial issues; in return for political power, Republicans had to move their politics and policies to where bigots wanted them to be. This alliance supposedly laid the foundation for a new American politics.

As Dan Carter, George Wallace's biographer, put it, "The Wallace music played on" in "Barry Goldwater's vote against the Civil Rights Bill of 1964, in Richard Nixon's subtle manipulation of the busing issue, in Ronald Reagan's genial demolition of affirmative action, in George Bush's use of the Willie Horton ads, and in Newt Gingrich's demonization of welfare mothers." More recently, it continues through inflammatory campaign ads ("Harold, call me!"), offensive tea party signs, Rand Paul's unusual-because-explicit skepticism about the Civil Rights Act--all the way to calls to end birthright citizenship for the U.S.-born children of illegal immigrants and to keep Muslim worship well away from the nation's hallowed ground in Lower Manhattan. In this interpretation, core conservative principles--limited government, tax cuts, welfare reform and toughness on crime--actually have race at their heart.

This reading of the conservative movement presents problems of logic and history, relying on assumptions that fall apart on close examination. First, it assumes that Republicans depended on white Southerners to become politically competitive in the 1960s. Second, it assumes that Republican presidents from Nixon forward swayed these voters by giving them the policies they wanted. Third, it assumes that the modern conservative policy agenda is best seen as racially motivated. Finally, it assumes that conservative positions on recent controversies are just new forms of that same white-heartland bigotry.

These assumptions are badly flawed.

First, Republicans did not decisively depend on white Southerners to create their modern presidential majorities when the race issue was at its most polarizing. The conventional wisdom is that the GOP had little choice in the 1960s but to seek out Southern white voters and tacked hard to the right on civil rights to do it. But Republican presidential candidates pried apart the New Deal coalition in the 1950s, with the performance of Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 and Nixon in 1960. This chronology has big implications. From 1952 through the 1980s, GOP presidential candidates consistently beat or nearly matched their Democratic opponents, with the clear exceptions only of 1964 and 1976. Republicans did this mostly by crafting majority coalitions in the Great Plains and Rocky Mountain states, in the industrial Midwest and mid-Atlantic, and ultimately in California--and only partially by realigning several Southern states. Moreover, these were the least "Southern" states, such as Florida, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia.

This means that the GOP presidential majority and much of the party's modern policy agenda were forged not in the racial heat of the 1960s South, but first in the 1950s and across the country.

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour (R) recently argued that race did not play a central role in the partisan shift in the South, saying the transformation was led by a younger generation of Southerners in the post-segregation 1970s. But the best evidence that things other than race mattered most in the shift was that it was an even older generation that moved to the GOP in the peripheral South. By the time Lyndon Johnson reportedly remarked that the Civil Rights Act would deliver the South to the Republicans for a generation, the GOP had already won nearly half the region's Electoral College votes three times in a row.

The remainder of the region--the race-obsessed Deep South--repeatedly tried to be a presidential kingmaker in the 1960s but failed. Instead of reforming the GOP in its image, the Deep South's white electorate was among the last to join an already-winning Republican presidential coalition in the early 1970s. Wallace voters ended up supporting Nixon, Reagan and other Republicans, but much more on the national GOP's terms than their own. The Republican Party proved to be the mountain to which the Deep South had to come, not the other way around.

This explains why the second assumption is also wrong. Nixon made more symbolic than substantive accommodations to white Southerners. He enforced the Civil Rights Act and extended the Voting Rights Act. On school desegregation, he had to be prodded by the courts in some ways but went further than them in others: He supervised a desegregation of Deep South schools that had eluded his predecessors and then denied tax-exempt status to many private "desegregation academies" to which white Southerners tried to flee. Nixon also institutionalized affirmative action and set-asides for minorities in federal contracting.

Not surprisingly, white Southern leaders such as Strom Thurmond grew bitterly frustrated with Nixon. This explains what Gallup polls detected in 1971-72: A large number of white Southern voters preferred Wallace to Nixon. Only when the Alabaman was shot in May 1972 did Nixon inherit Wallace's voters--not because of Nixon's policies on race but despite them.

After the mid-1970s, school desegregation and enforcement of the Civil Rights Act faded as the most decisive--or divisive--racial issues in the country. In the decades that followed, the conservative policy platform became the new focus of liberal cries of racism. Critics such as Thomas and Mary Edsall interpreted the Reagan agenda's major elements as indirect attempts to maintain white privilege: Tax cuts denied resources to a government that could be an agent of social change and lift up the underprivileged. Calls to limit government, especially federal power, stood to do the same. Reagan's attacks on "welfare queens" emphasized negative images of minorities and ultimately helped end an entitlement for the neediest. Campaigns against crime refreshed stereotypes of threatening African Americans and imprisoned millions along the way. Criticism of affirmative action assaulted a major mechanism of workplace advancement for minorities and women.

These policy positions remain central to the conservative domestic agenda, but calling them racist, the third assumption, presumes something very strange: that conservatives do not mean what they say about them. Welfare reform is deliberately anti-black (or anti-minority or anti-poor) only if conservatives secretly believe that welfare actually does help its beneficiaries and are being deceitful when they argue that long-term dependency devastates inner-city communities. Tax cuts are part of a racist agenda only if conservatives do not believe that lower taxes will enhance economic growth and social mobility for all. Conservative opposition to raising the minimum wage is anti-poor only if free-marketeers are feigning concern that increases will price less-skilled people out of the workforce (as when Milton Friedman called the minimum wage "one of the most . . . anti-black laws on the statute books") and secretly agree with liberals that increases will benefit the working poor over the long term.

By such reasoning, conservatives should oppose all government programs that they believe help minority groups. But at least one expansive policy area defies this expectation: education. Most conservatives, even as they turned against busing and welfare, continued to support large public education budgets. Many conservatives may support issuing school vouchers and shutting down the federal Education Department, but those positions concern which level of government should control schools--not whether government should pay for education for all. Overwhelming majorities of Republicans joined Democrats in 2007 to reauthorize Head Start, the early-education program in which well over half the students are from minority groups. And substantial majorities of whites (conservatives as well as liberals) have voiced support for what sociologist William Julius Wilson calls "opportunity-enhancing affirmative action," policies that would unofficially but inevitably direct disproportionate benefits to minorities.

All these programs aim to give beneficiaries not guaranteed incomes but better chances to succeed by boosting their skills. (It was George W. Bush, after all, who insisted that academic achievement by minority students had to factor into measures of school performance.)

Finally, there is reason to be skeptical of the latest assumptions of conservative prejudice. Conservatives have taken the lead in two major recent controversies: opposition to a planned Islamic center near Ground Zero and support for Arizona's law requiring immigrants to carry their papers and requiring police to question those they suspect of being here illegally. Liberal critics swiftly labeled both positions bigotry: Islamophobia and prejudice against immigrants from Latin America. To these critics, the racial resentment of past decades has simply been expanded into a more generalized prejudice against racial and religious minorities.

Of course, conservatives don't see it that way. A long-held conservative belief holds that a minimal amount of shared cultural content is required for a healthy American society. This content includes an understanding of the nation's history and virtues, including the opportunity and social mobility it has offered so many. This helps explain, for instance, why conservatives were long skeptical of bilingual education, suspecting that it slowed assimilation. They have logically been concerned about large numbers of immigrants whose presence in the United States is often transitory and whose relationship with the country is purely economic. And they have been cautious about high levels of even legal immigration when it involves people who arrive in large enough numbers and in a concentrated enough time and place to create zones in which pressures to assimilate are mitigated.

Most conservatives do not understand how Arizona's move to enforce federal immigration laws can be deemed bigoted--especially considering that they have long supported crackdowns on lawbreakers of all types. The planned Islamic center near Ground Zero raises alarms, in part, because the insensitivity of its architects to 9/11's emotional legacy suggests their deeper distance from American sensibilities. Lest that position seem anti-Muslim, conservatives of every stripe, including those who have led the charge against the center, roundly condemned the planned burning of the Koran by a Florida pastor. They did so on the same grounds: Just because someone has a legal right to do something (build a center, burn a book) does not mean it is a wise, desirable or respectful thing to do.

There is no doubt that the contemporary Republican electorate contains some out-and-out bigots, just as the Democratic electorate contains people who hate others on the basis of class. These very real prejudices occasionally erupt into public expression, whether in remarks about Jews over the years by Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton or in shocking signs at tea party rallies.

But most conservatives have been less concerned with the "hardware" of people's race or ethnicity and more concerned with the "software" of their values or culture. This is why the white Protestant core of the modern conservative movement has not merely integrated Catholic "ethnics" but also rallied behind the Irish American William F. Buckley and the Italian American Antonin Scalia. Jews, women and Hispanics have been similarly integrated into both its ranks and leadership; indeed, many white conservatives swoon when members of minority groups proudly share their values. This explains why, in the 2008 campaign, conservatives were at least as roused by Obama's ties to the white former radical William Ayers as the black Jeremiah Wright, both of whom seemed to make a living out of damning America.

Liberal interpretations that portray modern conservatism as standing athwart the "rights revolution" of the 1960s are hard pressed to explain the growing number of minority and female candidates favored by the conservative rank and file. Marco Rubio, Nikki Haley, Susana Martinez, Brian Sandoval, Tim Scott, Ryan Frazier, Raul Labrador and Jaime Herrera are GOP nominees for the Senate, governorships and the House because Republican voters preferred them over their white opponents. Allen West in Florida and Jon Barela in New Mexico were the consensus GOP choices to run for competitive House seats. Many of these candidates are well-positioned to win their races and help change the public face of modern conservatism.

The old conservatism-as-racism story has outlived all usefulness and accuracy. November might be a good time to start a rethink.

Gerard Alexander is a visiting scholar at AEI.

Photo Credit: iStockphoto/Larry Cole

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Gerard
Alexander
  • Gerard Alexander is also an associate professor of politics at the University of Virginia.  He is currently researching and writing a book on issues of race and the modern conservative movement in America.  His previous work has examined the conditions for stable democracy, America's policy of democratization abroad, and perceptions of the United States abroad after 9/11. He is the author of The Sources of Democratic Consolidation (Cornell University Press, 2002).
  • Phone: 202-375-7826
    Email: galexander@aei.org

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