The sighs of relief from the left are almost audible. Racism lives! The hate is out there!
It would be unfitting to throw a party for the occasion of hateful comments from Donald Sterling and Cliven Bundy, but some liberal journalists are probably tempted. “I’m trying to wring some grim humor out of the news, but I’m getting my racists all mixed up,” quipped Robin Abcarian of the Los Angeles Times. “Believe it or not,” wrote Mary Curtis in the Washington Post, “something good might arise from the racist swamp of recent news cycles.” It’s all right, Ms. Curtis. You may proceed with your heel clicks. We all know that multiple high-profile racists in a 2-week period make for high times for liberals.
Liberals need racist foes to vanquish. Most of the time they have to resort to finding them where they obviously aren’t there. Ross Douthat could print his mother’s best cookie recipes, and his New York Times readers would still lambast him as a bigot. (Perhaps we would learn that snickerdoodles are a well-known symbol of oppression in certain sub-cultures.) Paul Ryan can hardly order a sandwich without liberal pundits combing through in search of the racist “coding” that they know to be hidden within all Republican rhetoric.
To conservative eyes, these accusations rarely achieve escape velocity from the farcical world of liberal paranoia. Figures like Bundy or Sterling predictably set off a tiresome string of rants about hidden racism and conservative denial, but the universality with which racist sentiments are condemned tells the real story. It’s hard to see how conservatives could sprint away from racists at top speed, while simultaneously wooing voters who mostly share their sentiments. As usual, liberal “reflections” on what Bundy and Sterling tell us about conservatives were mostly just silly.
It’s too bad to get back to business as usual in the racism blame game, because quite recently, Jonathan Chait’s feature in New York Magazine offered some surprisingly helpful insights into liberals and their need for conservative “racism.” Chait’s piece, and the firestorm that followed, make a fascinating tutorial in liberal paradigms concerning racism. Looking through their eyes for a moment, it almost starts to make sense why they’re so certain that racism is a significant moving force behind American conservatism.
The Paranoia of “Coding”
Initially it can be a bit startling to remind oneself that liberals really don’t see their accusations as the political equivalent to calling us poopy-heads; they actually believe that ethnic hatred is an important motivator for conservatives. Some even get frustrated that conservatives have gotten so clever about “coding” our racist messages, hiding them in subtle subtexts that liberal journalists can’t easily expose (even while our barely-literate backwoods voters apparently hear them loud and clear). You can almost picture liberals playing Ryan’s speeches backwards, hoping to catch that “Paul McCartney is dead” moment when the mild-mannered and professorial Ryan secretly taps into the seething cauldron of bigoted rage that he knows to be driving his base.
Apparently some of them do actually realize that they’re overreaching, though it isn’t something they like to hear. Chait poked the bear by explaining some of the history behind the “coding” paranoia and agreeing that conservatives have some reason to resent it. More importantly, Chait explains with admirable clarity one important reason why the racist-conservative dogma is so important for liberals. A second emerges from the responses to Chait’s piece.
Reason 1: Everyone Hates Reruns
The Ballad of the Civil Rights Movement has long been liberals’ favorite bed-time story. Martin Luther King Day may be the only day of the year when they feel completely, unambiguously proud to be Americans. It’s hard to exaggerate how important this is to liberal political thinking. They are perpetually looking for new ways to recapture that high.
Conservatives tend to miss this because we see the Civil Rights story as settled history. We’re all pleased to have sloughed off the bigotry of our ancestors. Of course we want people to be judged “by the content of their character” and not by their skin. What’s left to debate here?
Liberals have yet to turn that page. This is their favorite series, and like every loyal fan base, they always want another sequel. Indeed, as Chait acknowledges, one of the most appealing things about a 2008 Senator Obama was the perception that he could be the star of a particularly thrilling new episode. Of course, if that’s the storyline, it’s no mystery which role was available for conservatives. “Racial coding” became a convenient fix for a glaring plot hole: Republican politicians’ refusal to follow their racist script.
Of course, for conservatives this is a pretty bad deal. We can’t stop being the racist party if that’s the only “role” our political enemies have available. At most we can ask liberals to consider who is served by their implicit demand that racism never die. A film director can afford to keep resurrecting Moriarty or Lex Luther for the amusement of his story-hungry audiences; in politics we should leave our vanquished villains in their historical chapters. Modern liberal oppression narratives are far and away the most expensive dramas ever produced, and we all get dragged to see them whether we’re interested or not.
As grim as this sounds, it may actually be the more remediable liberal fixation. Another liberal paradigm (which is well articulated by Brian Beutler of The New Republic), leaves even less wiggle-room for a conservatism that actually serves the common good.
Reason 2: What Else Besides Racism Could Persuade Middle-Class Schmucks To Support Plutocracy?
Beutler is gracious enough to agree with Chait that, “the left’s racial analysis of conservative politics might lend itself to careless or opportunistic, overreaching accusations of racism.” But he doesn’t feel too bad about it, because as he goes on to argue, liberals are fundamentally right about conservative racism. White racial resentment is one of the primary sources of energy behind American conservatism. It has to be, because that’s the only plausible explanation for why anyone but the rich and privileged would support the GOP.
To his credit, Beutler doesn’t probe the sub-conscious of high-profile conservatives for unconfessed bigotry. He is cheerfully prepared to admit (and he thinks most liberals would agree) that racial hatred plays a small role in the motivations of the major players. For them, it’s all about greed. Their policies are pitched to protect their own wealth and privilege at the expense of the poor.
But the ultra-wealthy (as we have been reminded ad nauseum) are a small minority in America, and poorer voters have little reason to support a plutocratic agenda that doesn’t serve them. In order to stay viable, therefore, Republicans need a populist hook. That hook, Beutler believes, is racial resentment.
Conservative readers might be asking: why in the world would he believe that? To liberals it seems obvious. Conservatives are ferocious in their assault on programs that disproportionately enlist ethnic minorities, including Medicaid, food stamps and welfare. How else to explain that except as a manifestation of white Republicans’ racist schadenfreude?
It’s hard to know where to begin with such convoluted reasoning. The conservative distaste for entitlements is deeply connected to our political philosophy; all of our most cherished values come into play here. And we have plenty of sociological evidence to present, now that the scars of entitlement dependency blight every major city in America, bequeathing to our poorest children a legacy of dysfunction and vice. But sure, let’s write all of that off as a manifestation of conservative greed and hatred. That would make so much more sense.
In order to make sense of such an apparently-crazy view, we need to remind ourselves of some further features of liberal ideology. To conservatives it seems crazy and wildly uncharitable to dismiss their (well-grounded) views as manifestations of an irrational animus against ethnic minorities. But to liberals this seems reasonable, because embedded deep within the liberal worldview is the idea that the end of the day all political activity can be seen as part of a story about warring classes. It’s another trope that we can lay at the feet of our still-fashionable friend, Karl Marx.
Marx declares early in The Communist Manifesto that, “The history of all hitherto existing societies is a history of class struggles.” This is one of those sweeping interpretive claims that sounds silly to the uninitiated, but that starts to seem all-important to those who have adopted it as their central political paradigm. Marx was a wonderful storyteller, and his fairy tale still holds much power over the minds of modern people, as we’ve recently seen in the furor over Thomas Piketty’s “Capital in the Twenty-First Century.”
As Marx understands it, societies are made up of multiple classes that perpetually jockey for relative advantage. Open warfare is avoided through a complex balance of agreements that enable each class to “hold its own” in the larger social structure. Some are better off than others, but all have something to lose if the arrangement collapses and turns into open warfare. Before the Industrial Revolution humans had crafted a fairly well-functioning “class ecosystem”, but rapidly expanding markets interrupted that balance by massively empowering one particular class (specifically the medieval burghers) to bring all others to heel. Now called “the bourgeoisie”, these new overlords wielded the immense power of the modern market as a weapon, harnessing all the other classes in an exploitative system that overwhelmingly benefited themselves.
It’s a story we all know, whether or not we’ve read. For liberals especially, The Communist Manifesto is far more important than Cinderella. It wafts its way through their dreams and colors their entire social outlook. Of course we know that capitalists are castigated as exploiters and tyrants. That’s only the beginning, however. Everything is a zero-sum game in this outlook. That means that every move Republicans make must represent an attempt to win some marbles away from Democratic voters, which of course will be tossed into the overflowing treasure chests of Republican elite.
How do we know that Republicans are racist? Well, we don’t get much support from ethnic minorities, and we dislike entitlement programs. If you see the world through a Marxist class-warfare paradigm, that really does look like adequate evidence to make the case.
Spreading the Good News
Conservatives have favorite stories too. We love our Constitutional Convention and our melting-pot of immigration. We get misty-eyed over the Greatest Generation and their triumphs in World War II. We believe that America is a special country. Conservative narratives have a level of transcendence that liberals simply don’t understand, which means that they can reject the dreary sameness of perpetual class warfare.
In fairness, some of the ideas that spring from those commitments are surprising, and may even seem naive. For example, most conservatives seem fairly confident that the racism of our ancestors can just be discarded in the dust bin of history. Historically, this might seem unlikely, since racial resentment often burns on for centuries, consuming generation after generation in blood feuds and bitter grudge-matches. To Marxists, the cheerful conservative determination just to shut the book and move on comes across as childishly obtuse. Surely we at least need to roil in resentment and self-recrimination first?
Most incredible to liberals, however, is our claim that good economic policy (especially when combined with a well-ordered social structure) is actually good for everyone. We’re not all jockeying for the same pot of goods. It isn’t a zero-sum game. More opportunity for me can mean more prosperity for you, and vice-versa. We can all win.
This is the conservative Gospel, as it were. Conservatives tell Americans: we don’t have to fight over the pie! Let’s just make it bigger! Success is not a rationed commodity!
Like another piece of Good News two millennia ago, this just seems absurd to most liberals. Free markets are good for everyone? Get out. Can you people please just fess up and admit that you’re closeted racists?
Setting these two “political narratives” side by side, it’s not hard to choose the more appealing. Why aren’t we winning more elections, again?
Rachel Lu teaches philosophy at the University of St. Thomas. Follow her on Twitter.