How NOT to Get a Conservative in the White House

Do conservative politicians need to have more heart? Do they just need to find snappy, appealing slogans to describe their existing economic policies? That’s the argument, apparently, in Arthur C. Brooks’ new book, The Conservative Heart. I’m no conservative myself, so I hope conservatives listen to Brooks. Because his argument just doesn’t match reality.

SAGLRROILYBYGTH will not be surprised to hear that I don’t really know what I’m talking about. I haven’t read Brooks’ new book. Based on the recent review by N. Gregory Mankiw in the New York Times, though, I feel justified in saying nertz to Brooks’ diagnosis.

Heart attack...

Heart attack…

Both Brooks and Mankiw hail from the free-market-conservative American Enterprise Institute. According to Mankiw, Brooks thinks that conservatives do not have a problem with policy. Rather, they have a problem with publicity.

As Mankiew recounts, President Obama is able to rally support for a minimum-wage hike by saying simply, “It’s time to give America a raise.”

Free-market conservatives, on the other hand, mumble through a complicated but correct four-point rebuttal. By the end, Brooks thinks, Americans just aren’t listening.

This Casssandresque portrait of market conservatives might be flattering to conservatives, but it just doesn’t match political reality. It’s not that overly nerdy conservatives lose their audiences mid-way. Rather, the public never even starts listening.

The problem for conservatives is not that they have too much Spock and not enough Kirk. Conservatives’ main problem has not been their overly logical public image. Rather, conservatives have struggled and failed to portray themselves as something different from their elitist, racist twentieth-century roots.

They need to do more to overcome their twentieth-century history. There are plenty of non-white conservatives out there, but they tend to think that voting for the GOP will be a betrayal. With good reason: This year, GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump insults Mexicans and Mexican-Americans. Last year, ham-handed GOP leaders denounced a voter-registration drive in Ferguson, Missouri.

It is not only these recent events that work against conservatism. Conservatism in the United States has always been perceived (with plenty of justification) as a movement of elite white racists. As I argued in my recent book about twentieth-century conservatism, by the end of the century conservative activists tried to refute their reputation for racism. It didn’t work.

When conservative leaders denied their racism, non-white voters did not believe them. In 1974-75, for example, most of the leaders of the conservative school boycott movement in Kanawha County, West Virginia adamantly denied that they were racist. Folks such as Avis Hill pointed out that he went to church with lots of African Americans. Conservative teachers such as Karl Priest pointed out that he coached a mixed-race basketball team.

Nevertheless, local African American leaders were not impressed. The Reverend Ronald English, for example, conceded that most of his African American friends and congregants were just as conservative as the book protesters. But because of the legacy of conservative activism; because of the presence of a weak and wilted Ku Klux Klan in support of the boycott; because many of the authors of the “offensive” books were African Americans, very few African Americans supported the conservative boycotters.

This legacy continues. In spite of Mr. Brooks’ recommendations, non-white voters—even staunchly conservative ones—will hate to vote for the party of white racism, even if those GOP leaders speak from the heart.

What should conservatives do?

They need to do more than simply insist that they are no longer racist. This will involve promoting non-white leaders such as Bobby Jindal, Nikki Haley, and Ben Carson. This will involve policing their own ranks to prevent any winking at old-fashioned white racism. This will involve highlighting cross-racial areas of conservative agreement on cultural issues such as abortion, same-sex marriage, and creationism.

Can it work? It can and has. When President Reagan appealed to working-class ethnic whites, he swept into the White House with the support of such “Reagan Democrats.” The next big conservative winner will do something similar. He (or she) will undercut the traditional lock between non-white voters and the Democratic Party. He or she will speak from the heart, for sure, but that heart will have to prove somehow that it has had an authentic conversion. Otherwise, voters just won’t listen.

Let’s Fight about Evolution and Climate Change

Put your money where your mouth is. That’s the message Trey Kay explores in his new Us & Them podcast. What happens when creationists and scientists put up a challenge to their foes? Trey talks with a creationist and a mainstream scientist, both of whom have put up big money to lure their enemies into a losing debate.

The two sides are represented by creationist Karl Priest and physicist Christopher Keating. Priest has offered a $10,000 Life Science Prize. Anyone who can debate Joseph Mastropaolo and can convince a judge of the evidence for evolution will win the money. Keating has put up $30,000 to anyone who can come up with scientific evidence against human-caused climate change.

For those of us interested in educational culture wars, it doesn’t get much better than this. Trey talks with both men alone, then puts them together for a culture-war conversation. What makes creationists so confident? Mainstream scientists?

As Trey concludes, both men offer their prizes in an attempt to get attention for their side. Neither really hopes to convince the other.

That’s been the case for evolution/creation debates for a long time now. Some of us remember the recent head-to-head debate between Bill Nye and Ken Ham. As we discussed at the time, this sort of debate tends to preach to the choir on each side. For mainstream scientists, Bill Nye’s arguments sounded iron-clad. For creationists, Ken Ham made his case.

As historian Ron Numbers has documented, these evolution-creation debates have a long and checkered history. Time and again, high-profile public figures have challenged their foes to debate the issue. Does anyone really hope to solve the issue this way?

As Trey Kay explores in this podcast, it is easy enough to talk politely to one another. But once creationists and evolutionists try to debate, we quickly end up just spinning our wheels.

What Do Conservatives Think?

I’ve been dying to know: What will conservatives think of my new book? Will they agree that I’ve tried to take an even-handed approach? Will they protest that I misunderstood the nature of “conservatism?”

Last week we received an encouraging review from a conservative ILYBYGTH reader. Today we read with interest the opinion of a conservative activist who played a leading role in the events described in the book.

Years ago, when I journeyed down to Charleston, West Virginia to research chapter five, Karl Priest was kind enough to take time to talk with me about his memories of the 1974-75 textbook protest. We also talked about his ideas of evolution, creationism, Christianity, and proper education. Since the 1975 protests, Priest has been an educational activist. On his blog, he recently posted a detailed review of my book.

According to Mr. Priest, the book has some good parts, but it also misrepresents the conservative side of the 1974-75 protest. He is consistently kind to me personally, noting that I am “a gentleman and a scholar.” He also concludes by saying,

For anyone willing to study, Dr. Laats’s book provides a comprehensive history of major conservative battles against progressivism.

Mr. Priest also concedes that at some points I capture fairly the thinking of Kanawha County’s conservatives. But he warns that my liberal biases blind me to the truth of the Kanawha County textbook battle. He insists that I “intentionally slurred” the book protesters in the opening of chapter five.

For those who would like to read his detailed critique of my argument, Mr. Priest has added a section to the review in which he moves point by point through the chapter.

Is he correct? In a few cases, I think he makes valid points. For example, he notes that I awkwardly wrote that one protester prayed with a fellow inmate and “saved” him. As Mr. Priest points out, no protester would use such language. The child was saved, but through the power of God, not through the doings of the protester.

More often, however, I think Mr. Priest is blinded by his own partisan interests. I say it with great respect and with gratitude for the time Karl has spent talking with me. In general, however, I think he is overly convinced that the textbook protesters could do no wrong. He assumes too much about the radical nature of textbook supporters.

For instance, he writes that the National Educational Association was not a mainstream group, but rather “an outside left-wing extremist group.” That does not seem a fair statement. The NEA was indeed generally associated with left-of-center politics, but it was entirely within the mainstream of American politics and culture.

As an historian, I have to examine the evidence and come to conclusions about controversial events. Karl is entirely correct that I’m influenced by my own biases, even when I don’t think I am. I encourage readers to check out his review and chime in with their own thoughts.

Do White Conservatives Hate Black People?

What is the connection between conservatism and school segregation?  A new “retro report” in the New York Times about the desegregation project in Charlotte, North Carolina assumes that “conservatives” obviously opposed desegregation.  Is that connection really as obvious as it seems?

The desegregation documentary describes Charlotte’s experience.  In the 1970s, Charlotte and surrounding Mecklenburg County became the focus of a newly aggressive court-ordered busing program.  Schools and school districts, the Supreme Court ruled, must do more to ensure racial balance in public schools.

The initial reaction in Charlotte was furious, but the program eventually became the poster child for busing.  So much so that a federal judge ruled in 1999 that the district had fulfilled its deseg obligations.  At least partly as a result, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools are now resegregated by race and income level.

For historians of race and education, the story is not news.  But for those of us trying to understand the meanings of “conservatism” in American education, the way it is told is important.  The New York Times piece includes comments by journalist B. Drummond Ayres Jr. In that “Reporter’s Notebook,” Ayres offers an explanation for the winning campaign to resegregate America’s schools.  As Ayres explains,

White parental anger was the most obvious cause of this rollback. But an equally important factor was the election of two conservative Presidents, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. They did not oppose the nation’s move toward racial equality, but as conservatives they favored a slower, more measured approach to desegregation and underscored that approach by appointing staunch conservatives to the Supreme Court and lower Federal courts. Concurrently, Congress took a more measured approach to desegregation, too, as voters began sending more and more anti-busing conservatives to Capitol Hill. [Emphasis added.]

In this telling, “conservatives” have been the brake on the progress of racial desegregation.  Politicians who considered themselves conservative had a prescribed opinion toward school desegregation.

Is that a fair accusation?  Did conservatives as a rule really push for slower desegregation?  More interesting, how did conservatism come to be perceived as the side of white racial status-quo-ism?

In my current book, I explore two twentieth-century school controversies in which race and school deseg played leading parts.  The first took place in Pasadena, California, in 1950, the second in Kanawha County, West Virginia, in 1974.

In Pasadena, a “progressive” school superintendent added racial desegregation to his list of progressive reforms.  Conservatives kicked him out.  In Kanawha County, a new textbook series included provocative excerpts from black militants such as Eldridge Cleaver.  Conservatives boycotted to demonstrate their dissatisfaction with the books.

Each time, the conservative side became the side of anti-black racism.  But in each case, conservatives insisted they were not racist.

In Pasadena, for example, one woman stood up at a heated school-board meeting and denied all charges of racism.  She opposed the desegregation plan but said she could not be racist, since one of her closest friends was African American.

In Kanawha County, too, book protesters often insisted they were not racist.  Teacher and activist Karl Priest, for example, has insisted for decades that the conservative protesters embodied the true anti-racist position.

But evidence contradicts these conservative anti-racist claims.  In Pasadena, conservatives rallied political support based on opposition to race mixing in public schools.  Conservatives accused the progressive superintendent of raising taxes and dumbing down white schools by including students of other races.  If that’s not racism, what is it?

And in Kanawha County, as documentarian Trey Kay has shown, conservatives really did see the book protest as a race war.  Steve Horan remembered in 2010 that a rumor spread among white conservatives in 1974: African Americans planned to invade.  The men readied their guns.   Women and children took shelter in church basements.  If that’s not racism, what is it?

There seems to be at least some justification for journalists’ assumptions that “conservatism” stands staunchly opposed to racial integration in schools.

But it is also important to recognize the complexity of conservative attitudes toward race and schooling.  It is not enough to simply say that “conservatives” block school desegregation because they dislike black people.

The case of Kanawha County helps make this more complicated point.  Many of the conservative leaders of the protest, such as Karl Priest and Avis Hill, belonged to conservative churches with a thoroughly biracial membership.  If that’s not anti-racism, what is it?

And conservative leader Alice Moore built her anti-textbook arguments on the work of African American activist Stephen Jenkins.  Jenkins had argued that textbooks that included only violent writings by African Americans actually represented the true anti-black racism.  Those who wanted to oppose the depiction of African Americans as violent anti-American criminals, Jenkins argued, needed to oppose the wrong-headed push for “multiculturalism.”  If that’s not anti-racism, what is it?

Across the country, “conservative” anti-busing protesters made similar claims to be the true anti-racists.  In Boston, for example, as Ron Formisano has shown, “conservative” anti-busers in the 1970s accused “liberal” federal judge Arthur Garrity of being the true racist.  Garrity had ordered busing to achieve racial balance in Boston’s schools, yet he lived in the affluent lily-white enclave of Wellesley, where his children would attend all-white schools.  Who was the racist in that scenario?

Did conservatives oppose busing and forcible school desegregation?  In most cases, yes.

Will we understand conservatism in schooling if we explain that position as simple racism?  In most cases, no.

White conservatives seem, in many cases, to have been motivated by anti-black racism.  But in almost all cases, that racism was only one component of a complex conservatism that also included issues of school funding, textbook content, religious rights, classroom practice, and a host of other issues.

Calling it “racism” and walking away doesn’t do enough.  Ayres deserves credit for noting that leading conservatives often supported anti-racist policies.  Conservatives often insisted that they opposed forcible busing and forcible integration.  They did so as part of a complicated conservative worldview, one that looked toward the status quo–including but not by any means limited to the racial status quo–for support.

So did white conservatives hate black people?  Did conservatives oppose school desegregation out of disdain for non-whites?

In some cases, probably.  But it is not very useful to assume that such racist attitudes are the end of our discussion.  Rather, understanding the complex attitudes toward race among conservatives–as among Americans as a whole–requires a more careful understanding of a complex conservative ideology.



Does Loving the Bible Make Americans Racist?

Yesterday on GetReligion Terry Mattingly asked a hard question: “does anyone have any hard evidence that moral conservatives are more likely to be racists?”

Mattingly critiqued a pre-election story on NPR, in which David Cohen, a University of Akron political scientist, opined that President Obama’s race was a factor for many conservative voters.

Mattingly suggests issues such as abortion weigh more heavily on the decisions of “moral conservatives” than do issues of race.

The connection between white religious conservatives and racism is one I’ve been wrestling with lately in a book chapter I’m working on.  In the 1974 school controversy in Kanawha County, West Virginia, white conservative protesters (usually) insisted they were not racist.  Yet their liberal/progressive opponents, including an investigating committee from the National Education Association, usually assumed that they were.

It was a generation ago, to be sure, but in the 1974 controversy, some book protesters did indeed seem to be motivated largely by anti-African American racism.  For instance, the local Ku Klux Klan held sympathy rallies for the conservative protesters.

But other conservative protesters presented what seems to me to be solid evidence for their anti-racist conservatism.  Many religious protesters, such as Karl Priest, Avis Hill, and Ezra Graley, noted the racial balance of their church communities, including African Americans in leadership roles.

More secular protesters such as Elmer Fike noted that conservatives voted in large numbers for a conservative African American candidate for the state legislature, while liberals did not.*

Many liberals dismiss all such conservative claims of anti-racism as mere window dressing.  As we’ve discussed here recently, there is a long tradition among conservatives of using coded language to express racist sentiments in an apparently non-racist way.

What would it take for conservative anti-racism to be taken seriously?  One comment on Mattingly’s essay noted a 2007 PhD dissertation by Inna Burdein at SUNY-Stony Brook, “Principled Conservatives or Covert Racists.”  In her study, Burdein concluded that social conservatives tend to privilege racial considerations, while economic conservatives did not.  In other words, Burdein found that white “moral conservatives”–what we’re calling Fundamentalist America–would tend not to vote for African American candidates.

I don’t think Mattingly would insist that all white “moral conservatives” would vote for an African American President.  Some white conservatives are likely motivated by racism, to some degree.  But I think Mattingly’s question is still very important.  It does not seem that NPR’s story consulted work such as Burdein’s.  Commentators such as David Cohen simply take for granted the preeminence of white racism in conservative politics.

*This claim is reproduced in James Hefley, Textbooks on Trial (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1976), pg. 171.

REQUIRED READING: Protester Voices

For those who hope to understand Fundamentalist America in the twenty-first century, a good place and time to start would be Kanawha County, West Virginia, 1974.

The raucous 1974-1975 school year in this county surrounding Charleston saw a burst of public controversy over the teaching in its public schools.  Protesters vilified a set of textbooks adopted by the school district.  At its peak, the protest and school boycott included a sympathy strike by the area’s miners and even a spate of gunshot attacks and the bombing of a school-administration building.  The fight in Kanawha County, as argued by both protesters and historians, can correctly be seen as the birthplace, or at least the midwife, of an emerging populist conservative movement.

The controversy has attracted its share of recent attention from scholars such as Carol Mason and journalists such as Trey Kay.

Thanks to the energetic activist Karl Priest, we now also have an account of the controversy written from a prominent member of the movement itself.  Priest’s 2010 book Protester Voices offers a view from inside the textbook protest movement.

Priest’s story is unabashedly partisan.  The tone and style of his book are those of a bare-knuckled culture warrior rather than those of a disinterested academic.  Priest has achieved a reputation as one of today’s leading anti-evolution internet brawlers.  In addition to his anti-evolution work, Priest is also currently active in Exodus Mandate.  This organization promises “to encourage and assist Christian families to leave government schools for the Promised Land of Christian schools or home schooling.”  Those who hope to explore the worlds of conservative Christian activism in twenty-first century America will soon run into the work of Karl Priest nearly everywhere they turn.  Indeed, when ILYBYGTH first starting imagining how intelligent, educated people could embrace creationism (see, for instance, here, here, here, here, and here), we were accused of being merely a front for Priest.

In his 2010 book, Priest takes other writers to task for their anti-protester bias.  He dismisses Carol Mason, for example, as someone who “concentrate[s] on the exception to the rule” (37).  The protest movement, Priest insists, must not be understood as an irruption of racism or vigilante violence.  The protesters themselves cannot fairly be dismissed as “wild-eyed ignoramuses” (xiii).  Such accusations, Priest insists, demonstrate the bias of left-leaning scholars more than the lived reality of the protest itself.  The leaders of the movement, in Priest’s view, “suffered financial loss. . . . [and] endured snide remarks and mocking.”  They did so in order to defend their schools and community against the imposition of taxpayer-funded textbooks that included aggressive racism and sexual depravity.  Priest defends the rank and file of this movement, also slandered mercilessly by other writers, as “Norman Rockwell Americans” (63).

Priest agrees with other commentators that this textbook controversy provided the launching pad for a new kind of conservative activism.  Kanawha County attracted national leaders such as Mel Gabler and Max Rafferty.  The fledgling Heritage Foundation sent legal advisers.  The 1974 protest, Priest claims, heralded the new generation of populist conservatism that continues in today’s Tea Party movement.

For anyone hoping to understand Fundamentalist America, this book is an important resource.  Not only does Priest’s account offer a staunch defense of the fundamentalist side of one of the most significant controversies of the late twentieth century, he also includes a reflection on the meanings of fundamentalism itself.  Though he prefers the term “Bible-believing Christian,” Priest insists that “Being a fundamentalist, contrary to what liberals have propagandized, is nothing to be ashamed of just by the attachment of the term” (3).


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