The Universal Message

Three Paradoxes of American Politics, Part 3

Just after November’s election, I posed three paradoxes of American politics, asking why certain demographic groups make up reliable voting blocs for the left, even though the pro-free-market ideas of the right have so much to offer them.

I have been addressing these paradoxes one by one. In part one of this series, I laid out the case for why the pro-free-market right needs to reclaim these key demographic groups—young people, racial minorities, and city dwellers—and why I regard these as natural constituencies for the free market whose lockstep voting for the left is a paradox.

Then I took on the first paradox, the question of why young people vote for the political equivalent of moving back into mom’s basement.

Now it’s time to address paradox #2: Why do racial and ethnic minorities, who ought to be seeking equality before the law, vote against the party that offers a universal ideology and in favor of the party that appeals to racial and ethnic divisions?

To put the issue differently, how did we allow the advocacy of free markets to be racialized—to be dismissed as an idea that supposedly only appeals to white men—when economic liberty is actually a universal principle that benefits everyone?

To show what I mean about a universal message, consider a story I recently came across from Thailand, about the impact of a politician’s scheme to buy votes by offering massive government subsidies for rice farmers. It works out about as well as you might expect.

“In theory, the policy makes perfect sense. If you pay farmers above the market rate for paddy they will earn more, Thai rice—already known for its quality—will rise in price and in turn force up prices on world markets.

“But at 15,000 baht a ton, and 20,000 baht for high-quality Hom Mali jasmine, critics argue that Thai rice has simply become too expensive. As the government has struggled to sell rice to foreign governments at cost price, an increasing stockpile has accumulated costing the taxpayer a spiraling bill….

“Meanwhile, the rice needed to fund this policy remains holed up in storage slowly going bad, according to rice millers. With Thailand in the middle of its second harvest, the government is under pressure to either sell off as much as possible or risk running out of warehouse space….

“When the Democrat Party quizzes the government on the scheme at the end of this month, it is widely expected to point to mounting evidence that warehouse owners are benefiting from the scheme with storage rents having risen sharply in recent months.”

The whole thing is worth reading, because it’s an instant classic in the folly of government intervention. But for our present purpose, the big point is that no white people were involved in the making of this debacle. It was conceived and executed by Asians and for Asians in an Asian country. Yet the laws of economics are the same everywhere and do not discriminate on the basis of race. Central government planning is a disaster for everyone, and free markets are a benefit for everyone.

Perhaps an even starker illustration of this fact is the ongoing economic rise of Africa, at long last, which raises the ironic prospect that capitalism may end up being embraced by black people in Africa before it is embraced by black people in America.

But that wouldn’t really be a surprise, because in America capitalism and free markets have gotten entangled in the nation’s history of contentious racial politics. How did this happen, and how do we disentangle it?

A good place to start is a recent Republican attempt at “outreach” to black voters: Rand Paul’s speech at Howard University, a “historically black” college. In his speech, Senator Paul outlined the long history of the Republican Party’s opposition to slavery, its support for the cause of civil rights, and it’s role—prior to the middle of the 20th century—as the natural home for black politicians.

But Paul’s speech was widely criticized for ignoring the so-called “Southern Strategy.” New York Times columnist Charles Blow, for example, explained:

“Republicans lost [the black vote] when Richard Nixon’s strategist Kevin Phillips, who popularized the ‘Southern Strategy,’ told The New York Times Magazine in 1970 that ‘the more Negroes who register as Democrats in the South, the sooner the Negrophobe whites will quit the Democrats and become Republicans.'”

The idea is that after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Republican Party adopted a deliberate strategy of winning over Southern whites, who had supported the Democratic Party since the Civil War, by appealing to racism.

Another Republican political strategist, Lee Atwater—whose career spanned from the Nixon era through the 1988 campaign of the elder George Bush—was the source of an infamous quote which seemed to admit that fiscal conservatism is just a hidden code for racism. I link to this quote by way of The Nation so you can see exactly how seriously the left takes this argument about the Southern Strategy and how deeply they rely on it to demonstrate the secret racial guilt of the pro-free-market right.

“You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘N—–, n—–, n—–.’ By 1968 you can’t say ‘n—–‘—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites…. ‘We want to cut this,’ is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than ‘N—–, n—–.'”

In keeping with contemporary standards, I have blocked out the “N-word” but not actual four-letter words like “hell.” The absolute prohibition on the use of racial epithets by a white man—even when quoting someone else—is a bit of etiquette I wouldn’t dream of complaining about. It’s a sign of progress. But when you combine it with the loosening of all inhibitions on everything else, it can produce some amusing ironies.

So if you want to know where the racial smear against the right comes from—well, this is where it comes from. Or at least, this is what the left hangs its argument on.

But as usual, this is not the full story. For example, the Atwater quote, the supposed smoking gun, wasn’t widely disseminated until 2005. (Because Atwater spoke off the record, it had been attributed only to an anonymous political strategist and thus remained somewhat obscure until after his death.)

And note what even The Nation admits about the context for that quote.

“‘My generation,’ [Atwater] insists, ‘will be the first generation of Southerners that won’t be prejudiced.’ He proceeds to develop the argument that by dropping talk about civil rights gains like the Voting Rights Act and sticking to the now-mainstream tropes of fiscal conservatism and national defense, consultants like him were proving ‘people in the South are just like any people in the history of the world.’…

“Then Atwater, apparently satisfied that he’d absolved the Southern Republican Party of racism once and for all, follows up with a prediction based on a study he claims demonstrates that Strom Thurmond won 38 percent of South Carolina’s middle-class black vote in his 1978 Senate campaign (run by Atwater).

“‘That voter, in my judgment,’ he claims, ‘will be more likely to vote his economic interests than he will anything else. And that is the voter that I think through a fairly slow but very steady process, will go Republican.’ Because race no longer matters: ‘In my judgment Karl Marx [is right]… the real issues ultimately will be the economic issues.'”

So Atwater actually thought he was making the case about a universal economic message that would bring black voters into the Republican Party—even as he undercut that argument with his political cynicism.

In fact, the Southern Strategy has been wildly overblown. Larry Elder points out that the man who is often blamed for the Southern Strategy, Richard Nixon, actually had a record as a civil rights pioneer when he was Eisenhower’s vice-president. And it was Nixon, after all, who launched “affirmative action” in 1969—after he had supposedly adopted the racist Southern Strategy. That strikes me as a peculiar way of appealing to racism.

The horse-race expert at RealClearPolitics, Sean Trende, looks at the real history and utterly demolishes the whole mythology of the Southern Strategy, noting that the South’s shift toward Republicans began long before the civil rights movement—and continued even as the Republicans were at the forefront of that movement.

“In truth, the white South began breaking away from the Democrats in the 1920s, as population centers began to develop in what was being called the ‘New South’ (remember, at the beginning of the 20th century, New Orleans was the only thing approximating what we currently think of as a city in the South)….

“In 1956, Eisenhower became the first Republican since Reconstruction to win a plurality of the vote in the South, 49.8 percent to 48.9 percent. He once again carried the peripheral South, but also took Louisiana with 53 percent of the vote. He won nearly 40 percent of the vote in Alabama. This is all the more jarring when you realize that the Brown v. Board decision was handed down in the interim, that the administration had appointed the chief justice who wrote the decision, and that the administration had opposed the school board….

“Perhaps the biggest piece of evidence that something significant was afoot is Richard Nixon’s showing in 1960….

“Two civil rights bills pushed by the Eisenhower administration had cleared Congress, and the administration was pushing forward with the Brown decision, most famously by sending the 101st Airborne Division to Arkansas to assist with the integration of Little Rock Central High School.

“It’s impossible to separate race and economics completely anywhere in the country, perhaps least of all in the South. But the inescapable truth is that the GOP was making its greatest gains in the South while it was also pushing a pro-civil rights agenda nationally. What was really driving the GOP at this time was economic development. As Southern cities continued to develop and sprout suburbs, Southern exceptionalism was eroded; Southern whites simply became wealthy enough to start voting Republican.”

In reality, the actual racial fallout from the so-called Southern Strategy may have been its flipside—not the Republican Party’s attempt to appeal to Southern whites, but its abandonment of the black vote. The electoral success provided by their gains in the South allowed them to think they could still win elections without fighting for black voters. From a purely political standpoint, the worst part about that Kevin Phillips quote about “Negrophobe whites” quitting the Democrats for the Republicans is how he prefaces it: “From now on, the Republicans are never going to get more than 10 to 20 percent of the Negro vote and they don’t need any more than that.” It is political malpractice of the highest order to counsel that a major political party deliberately abandon the vote of any major demographic group—even more so when losing that vote then allows the other party to smear yours as racist.

The attempt to attract the votes of Southern whites by appealing to them on economic issues was entirely valid, but it needed to be matched by an effort to remain competitive in the black vote by making the same appeal to them—especially as the elimination of segregation allowed more blacks to move up into the middle class and gain precisely the kind of economic status that makes them ready targets for the entrepreneurial, small-government message.

But the reality of the Southern Strategy hardly matters at this point, because as the reaction to Rand Paul shows us, the reality has long ago been superseded by the myth. This explains why Republicans get no credit for the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which they voted for in greater numbers than Democrats, or for an entire prior century—going all the way back to Lincoln and the Free Soil Republicans—of championing civil rights for blacks. In a stunning act of misdirection, the left has managed to use the mythology of the Southern Strategy to wipe out this history, and to make sure that Republicans somehow get the blame for all of the old racist Dixiecrats, despite the fact that virtually all of them remained Democrats.

You can’t get away with this unless you have some help from larger cultural forces. One of those forces, I suspect, was that the end of segregation and the economic progress of a rising black middle class led to an influx of young blacks into the universities—just as the universities were becoming the exclusive ideological preserve of the far left.

But behind all of this, as the specific idea that was transmitted through the universities, was the massive cultural shock wave of “white guilt.”

I have written before about the illuminating power of Shelby Steele’s book by that title. Steele’s key insight is that the elimination of segregation and the discrediting of institutionalized racism should have been celebrated as a sign of progress and as a point of national pride—but they were instead experienced as a sudden realization of guilt and thus as a crisis of moral legitimacy. Here is how Steele puts it.

“Whites (and American institutions) must acknowledge historical racism to show themselves redeemed of it, but once they acknowledge it, they lose moral authority over everything having to do with race, equality, social justice, poverty, and so on.”

This is a crisis of legitimacy, not just for individuals and not just on some issues, but for all institutions and on all issues across the board.

“[W]hen white supremacy was delegitimized, whites did not simply lose the authority to practice racism. The loss of authority generalized well beyond that, so that whites also lost a degree of their authority to stand proudly for the values and ideas that had made the West a great civilization despite its many evils.”

The old saying indelibly associated with the 1970s sums up this worldview: the whole system is out of order. Steele notes how this loss of legitimacy was transferred over to the institutions of capitalism, though I argued that he gets the cause and effect, and the chronological order, backward.

“It is not that Americans realized the evil of racism and then began to doubt everything else about our system. Rather, there was a strain in American politics that wanted to delegitimize the whole system long before the civil rights movement and for reasons that had nothing to do with race. They wanted to delegitimize America for its capitalism and its individualism. But they could never make it stick. They could never make Americans feel fundamentally guilty about these things.

“And then they discovered the issue of race. They found something that Americans really did have to feel guilty about, something which did undermine the legitimacy of our system. So they finally had their opportunity to portray the American system as such as evil and illegitimate—and to extend that collapse of moral authority into issues other than race.”

This explains why the left so eagerly embraced the concept of white guilt—why they experience it, not as demoralizing, but as a powerful source of legitimacy—and why they have sought to make it a perpetual and unchallengeable social institution. Steele explains how the loss of moral legitimacy created a need to regain legitimacy by demonstrating one’s disassociation from the old racist system, which is done by showing how much you embrace the economic agenda of the left, particularly its advocacy of the welfare state.

If you think Steele is making any of this up, consider a very recent op-ed in the New York Times in which a young man sums up the white guilt assumptions he has absorbed: “If you’re born Caucasian, male and middle class in the United States, your job is to check the manifestations of the entitlement bred into you by your native culture.” To a lot of us—particularly those of us who grew up in the notably non-privileged, ordinary American middle class—this seems like an absurdity. But pervasive, unseen white “privilege,” and the constant need to apologize for it, is considered gospel in the political culture of the universities.

This is what gives the “post-racial politics” of the Obama era its unique character. The great progress ushered in by Obama’s election is that racial politics is no longer about blacks accusing white people of racism. It is about white people accusing other white people of racism.

I noted this pattern some time ago when Sam Tanenhaus claimed, rather implausibly, to be able to trace contemporary conservative ideology back to the pre-Civil War pro-slavery advocate John Calhoun. You can see once again how white guilt is supposed to switch the legacy of racism from one party to another: Calhoun was, of course, a Democrat arguing against the faction that would soon become the Republican Party. The other irony that was widely noted about Tanenhaus’s article is that it was published in The New Republic, whose staff is about as lily-white as Calhoun’s Democratic Party. See what I mean? The white guilt game has turned into an exercise in which whites on the left accuse whites on the right of being racist.

Thus we get the pallid Chris Matthews giving his view of the real motive behind scrutiny of the scandals embroiling the Obama administration.

“They can’t stand the idea that he is president. And a piece of it is racism. Not that somebody in one racial group doesn’t like somebody in another racial group, so what. It is the sense the white race must rule. That’s what racism is. And they can’t stand the idea that a man who is not white is president….

“Not all conservatives. Not even all right-wingers. But it always come through with this birther crap and the other references and somehow trying to erase Obamacare, erase his record in history and a big part of it is bought into by people like John Boehner, who is not a bad guy, but he knows the only way to talk to the hard right is talk their language.”

This is “not all conservatives,” you see—just everyone from John Boehner on down.

With Matthews we see this same notion that economic arguments are just code for racism, but it is a crude act of psychological projection, because that is precisely how he uses them. In the left’s worldview, middle-class, college-educated progressives are supposed to support the welfare state as a way of demonstrating that they aren’t racist. So for them, it’s true: economic issues are partly a code for an underlying message about race.

The big point about all of this is that the racism smear against the right is more than just an opportunistic political tactic, and it is about a lot more than the specifics of how Republicans voted on a particular piece of legislation or the tactics they used for a particular election. For the left, and particularly for the black voters who have accepted the left’s narrative on this issue, the idea that Republicans are secret, closet racists is a deep part of their personal identity. It is how they know they are good people: by defining themselves as tolerant and enlightened in contrast to those bigots on the right.

If they no longer thought of the right as bigots or as the pawns of evil big corporations, and if they then had to confront the actual ideological and factual arguments in favor of the free market, they wouldn’t really know what to do with themselves.

As with the college-educated middle class I discussed in the previous installment of this series, equating the policies of the right with racism has become part of the cultural identity of blacks in America and an article of faith among whites on the left. Which is why well-meaning Republicans like Rand Paul are met with such skepticism and scorn, and why it takes so much courage, and a thick skin, to come out publicly as a “black conservative.”

I have so far described this in terms of the black vote, but all of this carries over, by association, to the Hispanic vote. After all, if the right is defined as secretly and indelibly racist when it comes to blacks, it stands to reason that they would also be prejudiced against brown-skinned Latin American immigrants. (“Hispanic” is not a racial category but a linguistic one, but in the context of American politics it largely refers to Central American immigrants of mixed European and Native American descent, which allows the left to treat it as if it were a racial category.)

As with the Southern Strategy, there is an element of truth that gives the left something to hang their argument on: the conservatives’ deep suspicion of immigration. You can see now why it is so important for Republicans to push through some form of immigration reform, if only to put the issue behind them, because it is about more than just appealing to the Hispanic vote: it is part of the racism smear against the right.

But this is a part of the right’s message—not the pro-free-market right, but the conservative right—that is not a universal message. Because the conservatives define their agenda in terms of maintaining traditional American values, they tend to be suspicious of any large cohort of immigrants who, by definition, come from outside of established American traditions. They are consumed by fear that these new immigrants will not assimilate our traditional values and thus will undermine American civilization.

And to be sure, immigrants do tend to reflect the societies from which they came. Hispanic immigrants come to America to escape the political and economic pathologies of Central and South America, while still carrying some of the habits and assumptions that produced those pathologies.

In case you think that I’m looking down on those foolish foreigners, I should add that I’ve noticed the same thing with Americans who flee from California to Texas, or from Northern Virginia down to the center of the state. They invariably want to recreate exactly the same kind of high-tax, high-regulation environment that drove them out of their previous home. If you want to see what I mean, just try building a Walmart in Charlottesville. I dare you.

In the case of Latin American immigrants, this means that they are susceptible to the kind of populist, anti-capitalist demagoguery that fuels Venezuela’s Chavismo. (That’s also why Cuban-Americans—like Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz—are the biggest exception, because their parents specifically fled this kind of leftist regime.)

Yet this indicates why Hispanic Americans’ allegiance to the left is still unnatural—as is black Americans’ allegiance to the left. Why? Because the virtue of free markets and economic freedom really is a universal message. In Latin America, socialism has mired Cuba in permanent poverty and sent the Venezuelan economy down the toilet—literally—while relatively free markets have made Chile into the region’s most vibrant economy. In America, blacks embraced the left and the welfare state, and their economic advance—which had been a record of steady upward progress since the end of the Civil War—was promptly stalled. And what does the left have to offer them? It continues to infantilize them as helpless victims who need paternalistic government to survive—and which has an interest in keeping them dependent on government. They might reflect that the Obama economy—with its record levels of long-term unemployment and record enrollment on food stamp and disability programs—is the left’s vision for how it intends to “help” them.

No one needs the message of individualism and self-reliance more, and no one has more to gain from the vibrancy of a free economy. And in fact, the majority actually do live by the values pro-free-markets appeal to. Blacks are still rising into the middle class in large numbers, and Hispanic immigrants are famously hard-working, entrepreneurial, and upwardly mobile.

There is strong evidence that Hispanic immigrants in particular are following the same long-term path toward assimilation as Italians. That path begins with a fierce loyalty to the Democratic Party and its ethnic pressure-group politics. As to where it ends, I would refer you to a governor’s race here in Virginia that features a rising conservative star by the name of Cuccinelli.

All of this is to say that the Democrats’ death grip on the votes of ethnic minorities is relatively recent. For blacks, it dates to the 1960s. And there is nothing about it that is inevitable.

So what are the specific steps needed to break this monopoly?

The first step is what Republican are already doing: simply showing up and making an effort. You can’t convince someone if you’re not even talking to him. As I said, the really devastating legacy of the Republican conquest of the South is that it caused Republican politicians to learn the language and concerns of the rural South—while losing touch with urban minority voters. So showing up and talking is one part of the answer.

Listening is the other. The cause of free markets is a universal message, applicable to everyone, but we can look at it in terms that are too universal—or perhaps not universal enough. We tend to look at the parts of that message that affect us, and we haven’t been struggling to find the parts of the message that will resonate most among minority voters. The cost the Republican Party has paid for contenting itself with 10% to 20% of the black vote is that this keeps them on the outside and keeps them from discovering the best ways to bring the universal message to that specific audience. What Republicans need to do is to offer a reform agenda aimed at minority voters which is designed to demonstrate to them the value and utility of small government on the issues that matter most to them.

In effect, we need to find equivalents of that story about Thai rice subsidies—the stories about the obvious failure of government intervention, to which the free market offers the solution. Given the economic disaster in many big cities, there are myriad such examples, and if there were ever a greater need for populist rabble-rousing against an entrenched, corrupt establishment, I don’t where it is. (Well, OK, maybe the IRS.)

One of the most promising aspects of this agenda is reform of the public schools, where inferior education—exacerbated by a government monopoly under the control of teachers’ unions—offers young people inferior opportunities and poses the biggest barrier to upward mobility for inner-city minorities.

I will look later at more specifics for this agenda, but the important thing is simply to be looking for such an agenda. And in the process, Republican can recruit black and Hispanic spokesmen who will help to shape the message and to sell it.

There is no reason why it is impossible for people to grasp universal principles from whoever advocates them. There is no reason why black voters can’t be convinced by white politicians, commentators, and intellectuals. But Americans are stubbornly empirical. They like to hear from someone who has been through the same circumstances in life and can talk in terms that relate to their own experience. We may have a universal message, but it needs particular messengers who come from the right time and place and background—and as the cavalcade of up-and-coming black and Hispanic leaders at 2012’s convention shows, Republicans are just starting to get to that goal.

For now, leftists are sneering that there are more black and Hispanic leaders in the GOP than there are rank-and-file followers, but that’s partly just the way it usually works. First you need the leaders and spokesmen, who can then recruit the audience. At some point they will reach the critical mass they need to gain a significant audience among black and Hispanic voters and break the existing taboo against the “black conservative.”

In the left’s sneering about Republican “tokenism,” I think you can detect an element of fear—fear that it isn’t just tokenism. A false moral authority derived from demagoguery on the issue of race is the only remaining ideological foundation for the left. If they are forced to make the argument for government handouts and central planning on its own merits, what do they have? Where are the idealistic projections about the economic superiority of socialism?

In fact, if you ask the left what they are relying on to win electiosn, their entire strategy is explicitly to rely on an appeal to race. The left’s answer to the Southern Strategy is called the “Emerging Majority“—the idea that Democrats can rely on a coalition of the black and Hispanic vote, plus educated young people, while throwing away the votes of blue-collar whites in much the same way that advocates of the Southern Strategy threw away the black vote.

This strategy may seem like it targets the Democrats’ strengths, but it also deepens their biggest weakness: an over-reliance on appeals to race. If the argument over free markets and the size of government is ever deracialized, they’re finished.

This is a long and difficult task, because the right has to overcome a deeply entrenched prejudice against it among black and Hispanic voters. But as I put it over at RealClearPolitics, “haven’t we seen how persistent effort can overcome prejudice? That should be the GOP’s new motto: ‘We shall overcome.'”

This means that we should keep our eyes on the prize, to borrow a phrase. The deracialization of free-market economics and the return to a debate based on universal ideas and a universal message would be good for the cause of small government and good for the country, since it would actually start to put the poisonous politics of race behind us.

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