Race, Republicans and Realignment

So long as I’m arguing with Jonathan Chait about the nature of the Republican Party, I should say something about his recent case for treating white ethnocentrism as the core of contemporary conservatism. Here, from his sometimes-perceptive, sometimes-less-so essay on the Republican Party in 2012, is Chait’s race-based read on the making and unmaking of a conservative majority:

… the dominant fact of the new Democratic majority is that it has begun to overturn the racial dynamics that have governed American politics for five decades. Whatever its abstract intellectual roots, conservatism has since at least the sixties drawn its political strength by appealing to heartland identity politics. In 1985, Stanley Greenberg, then a political scientist, immersed himself in Macomb County, a blue-collar Detroit suburb where whites had abandoned the Democratic Party in droves. He found that the Reagan Democrats there understood politics almost entirely in racial terms, translating any Democratic appeal to economic justice as taking their money to subsidize the black underclass. And it didn’t end with the Reagan era. Piles of recent studies have found that voters often conflate “social” and “economic” issues. What social scientists delicately call “ethnocentrism” and “racial resentment” and “ingroup solidarity” are defining attributes of conservative voting behavior, and help organize a familiar if not necessarily rational coalition of ideological interests. Doctrines like neoconservative foreign policy, supply-side economics, and climate skepticism may bear little connection to each other at the level of abstract thought. But boiled down to political sound bites and served up to the voters, they blend into an indistinguishable stew of racial, religious, cultural, and nationalistic identity.

Obama’s election dramatized the degree to which this long-standing political dynamic had been flipped on its head … Today, cosmopolitan liberals may still feel like an embattled sect—they certainly describe their political fights in those terms—but time has transformed their rump minority into a collective majority. As conservative strategists will tell you, there are now more of “them” than “us.”

In a follow-up blog post last week, he made a version of the same point, arguing that “the glue holding together the contemporary Republican agenda – the fierce defense of entitlement spending on the elderly, the equally fierce opposition to welfare spending on the young, the backlash against illegal immigration, the nationalist foreign policy, the cultural traditionalism – is ethnocentrism. Republicans are defending the shared cultural prerogatives of a certain group of people.”

I’ll go this far with Chait: Conservative identity politics is a real phenomenon, and its various tropes (a “real America” menaced by Europhiles and “takers”) owe a great deal to a Jacksonian, Scotch-Irish understanding of Americanness that’s always been more tribal than ideological. Certainly it’s impossible to listen to Glenn Beck or Rush Limbaugh for any length of time without hearing hints of what you might call a politics of white grievance – not white supremacism, but a “who’s looking out for us?” resentment that resembles nothing so much as the left-wing identity politics of a figure like Jesse Jackson. And I’ve argued before that the changing demographic composition of the United States is likely to make debates over taxes and entitlements more polarizing than they otherwise would be, by making the old-young gap a white-brown gap as well.

But there are also problems with leaning too heavily on race and ethnicity as explanations for party platforms and coalitions. For one thing, the racial element, once cited, tends to crowd every other truth — encouraging partisans to impute the lowest possible motives to their ideological rivals, and to sidestep legitimate debates by casting their opponents as purely tribal actors in thrall to a “stew of racial, religious, cultural, and nationalistic” appeals. The racial element in the crime debate, for instance, was invoked by liberals throughout the 1970s and 1980s as a means of delegitimizing conservative arguments about criminal justice. But conservatives werelargely right about crime in the 1970s and 1980s and liberals were very often wrong. Likewise the immigration debate today: Restrictionists may or may not have the better of the argument (I think they do, in many cases), but either way Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s birtherism tells us very little about what our immigration policy should look like. So too the debate over higher education funding, cited in Chait’s follow-up: Complaining that stingy old people don’t want to invest in our multiracial future is a good way to evade the question of what, exactly, all our existing higher education spending is really buying us. And I could go on.

A second problem is that race-centric theories of politics often break down as soon as you move from the general to the particular. The broad liberal narrative of a Nixon-era Republican Party that exploited racial tensions to win over white Southerners has some truth to it, for instance. But as Gerard Alexander has argued, the Republican takeover in the South started in the periphery rather than the Deep South, among younger voters rather than older ones, among New South transplants rather than Old South segregationists, among upper-middle class suburbanites rather than rural whites, and so on. Apart from the unusual 1964 election, when the Republican nominee was explicitly associated with opposition to the Civil Rights Act, whites in the least racially-polarized areas of the South moved toward the Republican Party first; the Bull Connor/George Wallace demographic followed later.

The same complexities show up in Republican politics today. If defending the privileges and prerogatives of white seniors were as essential to contemporary conservatism as Chait suggests, you would expect the most right-wing and Tea Party-identified Republicans to be the most committed to “the fierce defense of entitlement spending on the elderly.” But from Rick Santorum to the DeMint-Paul-Lee troika in the Senate, more conservative figures in the party tend to be more committed to phasing in entitlement reform sooner rather than later, and the Paul Ryan plan’s senior-friendly promise to preserve Medicare as-is for the over-55 population looks more like a play to the center than to the base. Likewise, Chait’s “old white people” analysis would lead one to expect that Santorum, the last not-Romney True Conservative left standing, would be cleaning up among seniors in the primary campaign and losing among the young. But in most recent primaries, the opposite has happened: Santorum is winning younger voters, while the more moderate-identified Romney wins the elderly.

Finally, in a polarized country, a racialized read on politics can easily cut both ways. To show you what I mean, I’ll conjure up a race-centric portrait of the liberal future that mirrors Chait’s race-centric portrait of the conservative past (and that helps explain why a politics of white grievance resonates with many Americans). Describing trends in American politics between the 1980s and the present, Chait writes that time has transformed the Dukakis-era “rump minority” of “cosmopolitan liberals” into a “collective majority.” But the word “collective” is doing most of the work there, since obviously cosmopolitan liberals themselves are still just a fraction of the electorate. In reality, the realignment he’s describing is primarily being driven by America’s rising minority population, rather than by the (much more modest, and possibly tailing off) growth of liberal white college graduates. And this minority population is mostly a rising Hispanic population, whose votes the contemporary Democratic Party tends to court not with dog whistles or racial codes or vague identity-politics appeals, but with very explicit and specific promises of special legal treatment (in hiring, government contracting, college admissions, immigration policy, etc.) based on their ethno-racial background. If these promises help cement a new Democratic majority, then (to repurpose Chait’s analysis) the new progressive era he envisions will depend, no less than the conservative era that preceded it, on “ethnocentrism” and “racial resentment” and “ingroup solidarity.” If anything, the racial element will be even more explicit: Chait’s emerging Democratic majority will be less a rational coalition of ideological interests and more a kind of a race-based spoils system, in which progressive elites exploit a system of racial preferences designed to provide temporary assistance to the descendants of slaves to supply a permanent form of race-based patronage for America’s fastest-growing ethnic group.

Is this an unfairly reductionist take on liberalism, the Hispanic vote and Democratic coalition politics? Absolutely. But it’s no more reductionist or unfair than Chait’s race-based analysis of what makes modern conservatism tick.

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