Several months back a statistic emerged that was revealing yet misunderstood. Presidential candidate Mitt Romney would receive 0% of the black vote in spite of the fact that many blacks agree with conservatives on some social issues. The point of this series is to examine the roots of this supposed contradiction and shed some light on the relationship between people and policies.
I do not believe that the facts above are contradictions at all. One’s personal views, no matter how ‘conservative’, do not neatly align with conservative philosophy or policies until a bridge is built between the personal and the political. The planks in this metaphorical bridge are things like identity, mytho-history, information, experience, enemies and scapegoats. We can imagine others of course, but the point of these planks is to create a complete construct leading the individual from his or her ideas to a philosophy and set of policies.
Political conservatism is characterized by a deep suspicion of egalitarianism and a set of policies intended to combat it: limited government, limited regulation, limited unionization, and states’ rights to name a few. The individual who believes in traditional values, family, God, and strong national defense will not be a political conservative unless he or she can be convinced that conservative “limited regulation” addresses his concerns for family in some way, or that unionization is somehow at odds with his traditional values, or that “states’ rights” will help preserve his religious views. Based on most cultural indicators, Jimmy Carter for example would be a political conservative. He was an evangelical Christian, a southerner, a veteran and a white male, but Jimmy Carter was not a conservative. He viewed states rights as an obstacle to justice; tax cuts as handouts to the wealthy; and regulation as a necessary tool for the public good. The bridge was not there for Jimmy Carter, but he would become the exception not the rule.
Before the twentieth century Americans might claim to have a conservative view of a particular issue or to be conservative when it comes to something or other, but it was rare for anyone to say that they were a ‘conservative’. This trend continued in the middle and working classes until the 1950s and the advent of ‘movement conservatism’1. The 1960s especially provided conservative intellectuals with opportunities to take their ideas mainstream. Radicals, hippies, and domestic communists were scapegoated creating a major plank. The everyday individual with conservative views was mythologized as a ‘hard working American’ or a member of the ‘silent majority’ being preyed upon by a rapacious federal government, creating another plank. An army of conservative and libertarian economists and philosophers emerged filling the information plank for many. Conservatism’s commitment to promoting the church and Christianity filled the faith plank for others. By the 1980s conservative leaders had bridged the gap for whites and many post racial minorities creating a reliable voting bloc.
Blacks on the other hand, no matter how conservative their personal views, found political conservatism wanting. States’ rights, for example is a tactical imperative for the conservative, because most egalitarian measures (desegregation, regulation, etc) originate at the federal level. It makes perfect sense for the conservative to advocate using states as ‘labs’ to avoid federal interference, but for blacks most racist legislation originated at the state or local level and federal action was necessary to oppose it. The conservative counter argument is that big government initiatives like Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society or minimum wage laws did more damage to blacks than Jim Crow, but most black Americans believe that the destruction of Jim Crow was essential to our advancement and that the only way to accomplish it was through ‘judicial activism’ and federal intervention: tactics that conservatives despise.
Market fundamentalism is another pillar of conservative ideology that blacks find wanting. Conservatives accept and expect inequality, so efforts to set prices or wages strike them as unnecessary and destructive interferences. This belief in the sanctity of the free market extends to anti-discrimination law as well, which conservatives deem unnecessary instead arguing that if a company discriminates and is made to pay for its discrimination through inefficiencies, then it will become less competitive and overrun by companies who are more competitive and do not discriminate. So, the company that refuses to hire blacks will have to pay more to hire whites and companies that refuse to pay more will out-perform them in the marketplace. Naturally, most blacks would like to see companies suffer for their discrimination, but most see the government as a necessary tool in carrying out that punishment.
We will be looking at other examples in this series and I will try to explain both sides of arguments as best I can. Many conservatives are eager to explain why the black ‘welfare queen’ or ‘food stamp buck’ doesn’t embrace conservatism, but black veterans or entrepreneurs are no more likely to vote for a Newt Gingrich or a Rick Santorum or a Mitt Romney than a black government employee. The dependency explanation for the black vote is one of those “convenient truths” that is really more convenient than true.
If I have learned anything about conservatism in my reading it is that it is hardly boring. Conservatives are radical, inventive and relentless which makes them formidable opponents. Our next post will be a further examination of conservatism itself.
- The Conservatives, Patrick Allitt, p.2 [↩]