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.

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  1. You think the GOP plying voters with candidates who look and/or sound “white” indicates they are have moved beyond racism? I think it emphasizes and clarifies the deep nature of the nativist white supremacism all the most clearly.

    Maybe they should to to stand for something, like conservation and justice, and quit denying pro-life environmental and social values are compromised by structural inequalities and disordered incentives/disincentives.

  2. Patrick

     /  August 3, 2015

    You wrote, “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.” The greatest trouble here, I believe, is that many liberal politicians and their supporters will always find it politically advantageous to accuse the conservative movement of racism whether it is true or not. It helps win elections. No amount of penance on the part of Republicans will ever be acceptable to those who have something to gain by smearing them. They will always be “the party of white racism” as long as their enemies keep up the accusation. Even if there was only one racist conservative left in the entire country, someone would find him and trot him out as somehow representative of the entire Republican Party. Yes, I’m a conservative so I’m a bit biased, but this seems glaringly obvious to me.

    • It’s very simple to be immune to sticky charges of racism; it’s also very obvious why conservatives are not so immune. If they weren’t so guilty they could attack liberals as racists too because they aren’t immune from it either.

      • Patrick

         /  August 4, 2015

        They do that very thing from time to time, but I’m not sure many people listen.

      • That’s like a PR and marketing firm complaining that nobody listens to it. Whose fault is that? The Republicans have difficulty attracting non-white and female voters for a reason.

        In the 1990s I lived in Jesse Helms’ territory in North Carolina where young native southern Republicans revered the old Dixiecrats like Strom Thurmond. These were men who were pro-segregationists who defected from the Democratic party when it became opposed segregation. Most ended up Republicans who now have mostly non-southern/southeastern counterparts who vocally oppose “illegal immigration” by stoking racial prejudice, fear, and resentment. Open comments about “wetbacks” come from members of congress from Iowa and Alaska today.

        Conservative racism is expressed many ways, like all the current candidates’ refusal to say anything remotely critical about the confederate flag or a cop or vigilante who shoots an unarmed black person. It takes openly racist ravings from Trump to push Bush to such desperation that he suggests a policy of mass amnesty for undocumented immigrants — if he can get elected and miraculously circumvent the massive hostility for amnesty in his party.

        That sort of thing is a huge and lasting blow. It’s not just one politician who can be dismissed as an outlier, and Trump himself is not an outlier. He, like Palin, was created by a desperate and foolish mainstream GOP nominee. Romney curried favor with Trump as Trump was leading the scandalously racist “birther” slander. This was encouraged by much of the GOP which gave speaking positions to major “birthers” at their Tampa convention while blocking the Ron Paul supporters — not that Paul had a very clean record on race either.

        Once elected, John Boehner refused to let President Obama speak to a joint session of congress, which is something no president was ever refused. Gingrich and Palin made awful statements about Obama as a “food stamp president” who “shucks and jives.” A Republican state senator from South Carolina called the president a “raghead.”

        The Republican southern strategy since Goldwater focused on accepting desegregation for the most part but shifting racial fear and anger to dog whistle politics where things like “welfare queens” become powerful, viral concepts with a strong racial register. Goldwater started the assault on “socialism” that convinced conservative whites that undeserving racial minorities rather than white people were (as whites remain) the biggest beneficiaries of entitlement programs and other social spending.

        That is why Colin Powell, as a young man, supported LBJ and the Dems when Goldwater was nominated by the GOP. As MLK put it, “While not himself a racist, Mr. Goldwater articulates a philosophy which gives aid and comfort to the racists.” Jackie Robinson also flipped to the Dems after having been with the GOP the previous cycle in 1964.

        Mitt Romney lectured the NAACP convention in 2012 about “welfare dependency,” thinking this took integrity rather than a shocking lack of perspective. This paternalistic lecturing stance of the white nativist is where he most wants to be, where he thinks he has the right to be. The conservative white male base is addicted to this type of scoldy white supremacism with their network of pundits that talk like Trump, Santorum, and Romney about non-white minorities explicitly and through coded connotation words like “welfare dependency.” (Sometimes they slip and mention “bla[ck] people.”)

        It’s true many GOP elites do hate being saddled with the angry, poor, and racist lower classes of white America, but it’s their propaganda, policies, and popular pols who keep pouring gas on the fire.

    • I think a similar phenomenon goes on for Democrats. Remember how hard President Obama tried to prove that he was seriously religious? It will take more than just one candidate’s sincerity, I think. What each party needs to do is prove–over time–that it is not just paying lip service to either anti-racism (for the GOP) or religion (for the Democrats).

      • Patrick

         /  August 4, 2015

        Good point. One of my favorite conservative authors, Stephen Mansfield, got a ton of criticism from fellow conservatives when he published his book The Faith of Barack Obama. They just couldn’t believe Obama could be sincerely religious, as Mansfield argued.

      • Neither party has the discipline to whip their people into shape on race or religion. Both subjects converge on abortion, and neither side has ever been capable of a serious dialogue about that where fundamental values are questioned, especially the economic values that form a near bipartisan consensus. Worse, it’s not as if Democrats have race right or Republicans have religion right. I would argue they both have them wrong in dangerously popular ways.

        The Dems for their part are still ruled by white boomers — people like Biden and Reid who are mostly able to be polite and politically correct in public. Even their worst slips are intended as compliments — e.g. marveling that Obama is so clean, articulate, and able to switch in and out of a “negro dialect.” Those are the slips of a party that has long operated on the soft bigotry of low expectations, just as conservatives have charged.

        On the other hand, the Republican religious base corrupts religion with a vision of a (rather white) “Christian America” that is a mix of secularism and theocracy. This is bad for the integrity of both secularism and religion, especially when state-level politicians like Kansas house speaker Mike O’Neal use the Bible to justify killing the president, widowing the first lady (referred to as “Mrs. YoMamma”), and making orphans of his children.

        I’d like to think these problems are the dying legacy of the last generation of white people to grow up in a country that was rigged in their favor, in an America segregated into black and white, Protestant, Catholic, and Jew. Boomer religious conservatives and their parents do still think of religious identity as an acceptable guise for the ethno-racial and class status indicators that every religious denomination formerly carried in the US. it is hard for them to imagine their churches and their communities as diverse, multicultural, and pluralistic without fearing this means losing status and control, which of course it may mean. But to react to this as a kind of deracination and assimilation to anti-religious forces makes the culture wars into an extinction crisis for the outgoing white population. That’s dangerous; people who are facing their exit from history as an erasure effected by their foes are liable to disrupt what the rest of us see as our rational self-interests. A Republican Party that feeds this type of fear on the right is not helping us make a huge, historic generational transfer.

        Worst of all, both parties are blind to how their corporatist hand-holding under the table means socialism for the rich and devil take the hindmost for everyone else. Neither party admits this is both racist in effect and irreligious in its intent.

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