19 February 2013

Is Republicanism a white ideology?

Sam Tanenhaus, the editor of the New York Times Book Review, is writing a biography of William F. Buckley. He may be naturally inclined to make large claims for Buckley and his magazine, National Review. In the current New Republic, Tanenhaus echoes the warning heard with increasing frequency that Republicans are likely to find themselves ethnically marginalized in the future, unable to appeal to nonwhite voters. Seeking a reason for this, Tanenhaus picks up an obscure intellectual trail leading from National Review to the 19th century slaveholding ideologue of minority rights, John C. Calhoun. To an extent this is a familiar story told from an unusual angle, an attempt to define the intellectual origins of the GOP's ultimately successful "Southern strategy" of the 1960s. Tanenhaus notes that Republicans supported civil rights as late as the Eisenhower administration, but began to change its tune with the advent of Barry Goldwater, aided by Buckley and National Review. These elements added a strident libertarian note to traditional Republican conservatism, particularly a fresh hostility to centralized government that led self-styled champions of liberty, in their resistance to federal civil-rights legislation, to rank state rights above individual rights. Here Tanenhaus sees Calhoun's influence. Calhoun argued that each state retained inviolate sovereignty over social relations within its own borders, and that the rights of individuals within states, except where enumerated in the Bill of Rights, were none of the federal government's business. That is, Calhoun denied federal right or authority to mandate racial or gender equality throughout the Union. Perhaps more influentially, Calhoun challenged the sovereignty of "numerical majorities" on the national level, fearing that their tendency toward absolute power inevitably trampled on the rights of sovereign communities or economic interests. He believed that the country would be best governed by "concurrent majorities" in which each recognized interest was equally represented and retained a right to veto government action. If Calhoun retains much influence today, however, it's an influence the man himself might have repudiated. He never reconciled himself to party government, believing political parties the forces most likely to use numerical majorities to tyrannize the states or other core interests. Yet 21st century Republicanism seems to be tending toward seeing parties themselves, or the ideologies parties seem to represent, as rightful members of an ideally concurrent majority. At least it seems as if they believe that the rights of "conservatives," for instance, are violated in some unacceptable way when conservatives are shut out of political power. They may also believe that democracy itself, at least as expressed in votes for the Democratic party, inevitably violates individual (economic) and group (cultural) rights unless adequately checked. But what is "white" about this, apart from its historical parentage? Why does the anti-statist, pro-local, individualist stance of 21st century Republicans seem to be a nonstarter with most nonwhite (and many nonmale) voters?

Tanenhaus joins many other observers in assuming that Republicans envision the "takers" or the "47%" as darker people than themselves. You can't hear Mitt Romney say that, of course, but Tanenhaus blames both Romney and his running mate, Rep. Ryan, for expressing patronizing attitudes during their rare appearances before black audiences. He finds it patronizing, for instance, for Romney to tell back students to form two-parent families when they grow up, or for Ryan to recommend "good discipline and good character" to another black crowd. This might be enough evidence to show that Tanenhaus may be half right. Republicans like Romney and Ryan may have an irrepressible contempt for groups they perceive as constituents and clients of the enemy party, but I've always been reluctant to accept that Republicans feel that way only about "minorities." White people still form 72% of the American population as of 2010, and thus must form a good portion of Romney's despised 47%. I understand, however, that Tanenhaus and others are trying to account for the demographic concentration of Republican voters in the white South. Voters are inevitably less intellectual than politicians and propagandists, and bigotry is probably a bigger motivator of Republican votes than Republican leaders care or dare to admit. But that's only half the equation. Republicans boast of being a party of ideas and values. Those ideas and values may be tainted by association with racism, but are they themselves inherently bigoted. Do blacks or Hispanics have some cultural antipathy toward the ideas of limited government or laissez-faire capitalism? Or is the perpetuation of class hierarchies that are also often racial in nature the original motivation for those ideologies? Tanenhaus's brief account seems to make bigotry the driving force, but Joseph Crespino's recent biography of Strom Thurmond (mentioned only in passing by Tanenhaus) argues a subtler point about class rather than race. Crespino writes that Republicans began to grow sympathetic toward a South long seen as impenetrably Democratic when they discovered, not necessarily a common hatred for blacks, but a shared antipathy toward federal interference with business, and specifically with hiring practices. The South appealed to increasingly reactionary Republicans not so much because it was racially segregated but because it was the region most resistant to organized labor. Republican contempt for the working class persists today, the party's avowed desire to accelerate job creation notwithstanding, and that alone could explain increasing antipathy toward the GOP everywhere but in the South. Maybe they don't believe in solidarity or equality down there, but that might be more a "South" problem than a "white" problem. It's a Republican problem either way, and the GOP's challenge is to reach back beyond the South without alienating the South, or to take the same risk of losing the region (to whom?) Lyndon Johnson took when he came out for civil rights. We can't test whether racial minorities will ever embrace conservatism until more conservatives are willing to take that risk in whatever form.


Anonymous said...

In a word: YES. Republicanism, or rather the conservatism it is based on, has one underlying basis. To conserve the status quo. Part of that status quo is the fact that it consists of a white "majority", based on the value and moral system of the christian "majority".

Or at least that is what the dirt clods insist. Based on reading a wide and random assortment of letters-to-the-editor, comments on news articles and the occasional blog written by dirtclods.

Samuel Wilson said...

I might agree only to the extent that, given our history, that ideology can't help but have a "white" taint. Under different circumstances, had nonwhites had a greater share of the plunder at the start, more of their descendants might echo the hatred of haves for have-nots regardless of color, religion, etc. But maybe there's also some paradoxical link between rabid tribalism and rabid individualism, so that some people strive to exclude others on the basis of color, religion, etc., but less to keep more for their own group than to make sure there's more for themselves. I still don't know if there's something particularly white/christian/european about that attitude, but historical circumstances determine the complexion (if you will) of that mentality anywhere.