This may surprise you, if you haven’t been following it, but a pretty interesting dialogue has opened up on the right about whether it’s possible to build a conservative movement free of racism. I know. It sounds like trying to build a coal industry without pollution. But the conversation has been—to a point—encouraging. I’m going to walk you through the recent phases of the argument so you’re right up to speed.
It all began with a well-reported piece that appeared on the left-leaning web site Splinter, in which reporter Hannah Gais obtained some emails back and forth among some people in the conservative universe; none of them tier-one figures you see on cable a lot, but nevertheless people who occupy fairly prominent positions. I won’t try to summarize the whole thing, but just to give you a little taste, Gais was leaked a 2015 email in which one rightie writes to another: “In public places we avoid using certain terms. Like N and K. N’s are Alaskans. Hebes are Hawaiians.” Like that.
Writing off that story, conservative Tim Carney in the Washington Examiner wrote that while liberals too often caricature all conservatives as racist, sometimes these charges are true, as the Splinter story proves, and that it’s on conservatives to deal with that. Carney’s headline states the admirable goal: “It’s time to build a conservative ecosystem that doesn’t welcome racists.”
Then Ross Douthat wrote a column in The New York Times acknowledging that racism certainly exists on the right but, look, here are four examples of liberals unfairly screaming racism. Then Zak Cheney-Rice wrote a response in New York outlining the ways in which conservatism and racism are indelibly historically linked. Then, just Tuesday, Douthat fired back again, acknowledging many of Cheney-Rice’s historical points but arguing that their existence does not make change impossible.
Okay, you’re up to speed. What are we to make of it?
For me, three points are most salient. First: There’s a quality to some of Carney’s and Douthat’s analyses that assumes, or at least semi-assumes, that liberals and people on the left attack conservatives on race for cynical reasons. This assumption is mostly wrong and counter-productive.
There’s no question that that is sometimes true, and that some people see blatant racism where it may not in fact exist. However, Carney and Douthat and everyone on the right should understand that this point is manifestly and overwhelmingly truer: People on the broad left are repulsed by racial prejudice. Repulsed. If you asked me to list the reasons I could never be a Republican, race is far and away number one. Even more than the economic royalism, at least on an emotional level. The idea of overlooking Atwater-esque racial politics, to say nothing of the far viler Trumpian variant, and voting Republican because of “freedom” or small government or something else is inconceivable to me.
In other words, race is the central fact of American history for people on the broad left. Do some lefties go overboard sometimes? Yes. Can that be a problem? Sure. But 95 percent of liberal denunciations of racism are not over the top. In fact, there’s plenty of racism that happens every day in this country that we don’t even notice, it’s so unremarkable, un-newsworthy.
The question of which is the bigger problem in this country, anti-racist overreach or actual racism, answers itself. Conservatives who want to grapple with racism in their ranks can’t begin to do so before agreeing on this simple proposition and dropping the both-sides-ism.
Second point, and this one I make partially in conservatives’ defense: One reason conservatism has this problem is that going back to the 1950s, extremists of the right decided they could best influence American politics by joining the Republican Party, whereas extremists of the left mostly have not wanted to join the Democratic Party. It’s an important difference between the parties that’s hidden from the view of the casual observer.
Students of the modern right will know, for example, that the forces that urged Barry Goldwater to run for president (at first in 1960) considered a third-party bid (Arkansas segregationist governor Orval Faubus, speaking of the centrality of racism to the conservative project!) but decided it was better to take over the Republican Party. Left-wing radicals, meanwhile, who through their Marxian lens saw both parties as capitalist and therefore enemies of the working class, just weren’t drawn to the Democratic Party at all. (They are beginning to be, so the Democratic Party may go through a similar process in the coming years.)
So the Republican Party developed the problem, over time, that all kinds of looney-tunes wanted to become Republicans, which is a problem that the Democrats for the most part did not have save for occasional blips like 1972, when the youth movement did try to take over the party. Sure, Bill Buckley issued one salvo against the Birchers, but in the scheme of things that didn’t last long.
Much later, along came Jack Kemp, and he seemed sincere in his more enlightened beliefs, but he was swimming against a strong tide. In fact, the Kemp example leads us to an important side point, which is that the personal views of any single individual aren’t what’s really relevant here. That is, any given GOP pol or conservative intellectual may not be racist per se as an individual. But that isn’t what’s important. What’s important is the policies they endorse, and the rhetoric and tactics they wink at and fail to denounce.
This is why I said partial defense above. The barbarians flooded the gates, true. But Republicans and conservatives for the most part flung the gates open for them.
Third and most of all: All that history aside, there are things conservatives and Republicans can do today, right now, to drive racists away. Carney and Douthat recognize this. Carney counsels addressing the racial wealth gap and writes about the issue with apparent sincerity. Douthat doesn’t quite call for the GOP to take any different stands but argues that with luck, events will compel it to—for example, that if Democrats start turning states like Texas and Georgia, Republicans will be forced to see that voter suppression and base-maximization are doomed.
Um… there’s a much simpler way to repel racists: Adopt anti-racist policies! Say: You know, trying to discourage voters from voting in a democracy is wrong. And yes, the way the Republicans have been doing it is clearly racist. This gerrymandering is wrong, and, yes, it too is obviously racist. The Voting Rights Act—which Ronald Reagan (!) enthusiastically endorsed and reauthorized—is good, not bad. Trying to get rid of it is racist.
These are simple propositions, gents. And I guarantee you, your movement’s adoption of them will send the racists scurrying like rats from poison. Problem solved.
But, Carney and Douthat’s intentions aside, Republicanism, and today’s conservatism, will never, ever, ever adopt those simple positions, or anything remotely like them. It’s tragic, because the country would be so much better off. Imagine, for example, if African-Americans voted 60-40 Democratic instead of 92-8. That would also mean the white vote would be more mixed, which would have both parties competing to assemble different multi-racial coalitions around genuine competing principles. It would lower the temperature by about a thousand degrees.
But it ain’t gonna happen. Republicans, having opened those floodgates long ago, can’t close them, let alone with this president leading the party. They need to keep white people angry about those… Alaskans. They can’t do without those votes.
So we’re stuck. Still, don’t forget: Republicans have it in their power to change some of their positions tomorrow, and conservative intellectuals have it in their power to press the case relentlessly. You can be forgiven for doubting that either will happen.