Conservative intellectuals are saying the Republican Party is doomed because the ideals of conservatism have been inextricably marred by “white nationalism.” Leaders of the conservative movement, they say, must therefore abandon the Republican Party to “cranky old white people” and create a “new conservatism—a political vision that adheres to limited government principles but genuinely appeals to a more diverse America.”
This argument is wrong on two points. It fails to appreciate (1) how the politics of race is not just about race itself but the changing nature of politics since the 1960s (to see race within the frame of the 1960s and not 2016 is a grave error) and (2) how the Left has effectively used social psychology strategies to label, stigmatize, and delegitimize conservatism, principles of liberty, and traditional American values.
While I agree racism has stained the Republican Party, it’s not in the way conservatives like Avik Roy (whom I greatly respect) and those on the Left who make similar arguments assume. The relationship between race and politics in America has been misunderstood for quite some time, and it continues to be misunderstood, as is evidenced by those who are now beating the “white identity politics” drum and repeating mythologies about the inherent racism of the GOP that leftists started in the 1960s and are now assumed to be fact.
The argument that conservatism has never escaped the “racist” politics of George Wallace and Barry Goldwater, the GOP’s Southern strategy, and Richard Nixon’s “dog-whistle” law-and-order campaign has been effectively answered by conservatives such as Kevin Williamson of National Review, among others. But intellectuals like Roy aren’t buying it.
The problem, they say, is that conservatives have been blind to covert racism within the ranks of the GOP for too long precisely because they have accepted the “wishful thinking” of people like Williamson. As a result, they argue, conservatives have been blindsided by the white supremacy of Donald Trump supporters—and now they’re at risk of losing their party and influence (i.e., moral authority) on the political stage.
The Myth of Covert Racism
To believe the GOP is inherently racist, you have to believe in some degree of covert racism, which is—as described by Paul Sniderman and Thomas Piazza in “The Scar of Race”—“a racism that is disguised and subtle but real all the same.” Because racial prejudice is now socially unacceptable, “People therefore favor disguised, indirect ways to express their bigotry.”
They will not say they are opposed to blacks getting help from government because they are black; they will instead say that blacks are not trying to help themselves, and because they are not making a genuine effort on their own, they do not deserve help from others. The perception that blacks “violate cherished values,” particularly the values of hard work and individual initiative, has spurred a new kind of racism.
This new racism, by expressing itself symbolically as support for traditional American values, can disguise itself. Ironically, then, what is new about the new racism is its expropriation of traditional values as a cloak to hide its true nature, which consists of prejudice and bigotry.
Conservatives who believe this see Trump supporters as a manifestation of this new kind of racism. They argue that any adherence to conservative principles by these “cranky old white people” has been merely a sham to hide their true white supremacism.
I reject this assertion. This “new racism”—when applied across the board to define conservatives and even most Trump supporters—is merely a myth that has been popularized by the Left and debunked by writers like Sniderman and Piazza dating back to the 1990s. This doesn’t mean there aren’t actual racists who are mum about their true feelings—anyone can go to the comment sections on certain websites and see that there are racists among us. They’re there on the Left and Right, but they don’t have a dominant presence in American politics. As these researchers wrote in the 1990s (and it still applies today),
Prejudice has not disappeared, and in particular circumstances and segments of the society it still has a major impact. But race prejudice no longer organizes and dominates the reactions of whites; it no longer leads large numbers of them to oppose public policies to assist blacks [or other minorities] across-the-board. It is . . . simply wrong to suppose that the primary factor driving contemporary arguments over the politics of race is white racism.
Racism is what it has always been, but there is no new, covert racism, and neither conservatism nor the GOP has been cloaking clandestine bigotry. There is, however, a group of people reacting to a “race-conscious” agenda (racial identity politics), which “produces resentment and disaffection not because it assists blacks—substantial numbers of whites are prepared to support a range of policies to see blacks better off—but because it is judged to be unfair.”
Of course, those who argue that the GOP, particularly the Trump wing, is full of racists point to online trolls who attack both conservatives and liberals on various websites. But it would be a mistake to use anonymous social media basement-dwellers as proof of covert racism on the Right (just as it would be a mistake use online trolls to define any group, including those on the Left). We don’t know who these people truly are or even how many of them actually exist. The number could be very small, and they could just as easily be leftists pretending to be racists from the Right. It’s important, therefore, to step back and analyze exactly what the truth is about race in today’s politics.
The Interplay Between Race and Politics
An example of a race-conscious agenda and not racism impacting politics and people’s perceptions of minority groups is affirmative action. Conservatives oppose it, not because they hate black people, but because they think the policy is unfair. “At the deepest level,” Sniderman and Piazza write, “racial politics owes its shape not to beliefs or stereotypes distinctively about blacks but to the broader set of convictions about fairness and fair play that make up the American Creed.”
The “charge of covert racism is destructive,” and we’re seeing the result of it today. “Accusations of racism have been leveled so often and so recklessly that the public discussion of the place of race in American life has become politicized and deadlocked,” Sniderman and Piazza write.
Those accusations increased so dramatically during the Obama presidency that I would also add it has created an emotional backlash that has caused many Americans to develop negative feelings toward minority groups. We are seeing much of this negativity expressed in politics today. It is important to understand this development in the right context. It doesn’t stem from white supremacism, but frustration born of racial identity politics.
While race-conscious agendas can cause whites to have negative feelings toward minority groups, this does not mean whites think they are superior to blacks. They don’t. They simply find the agenda unfair, and associating the minority group with that agenda creates a negative response. Significantly, this negativity does not extend to individuals—a point that supports the premise that there is no covert racism. In fact, Sniderman and Piazza found that most whites have positive feelings toward black individuals and are willing to help those who are in need, but only develop negative feelings when a minority group is put in the context of a race-conscious agenda.
When comparing how conservatives and liberals react to black individuals (not groups), Sniderman and Piazza found that conservatives are willing to meet a black individual’s need even if they don’t approve of a race-conscious policy such as welfare. Surprisingly (or not), they also discovered that in these instances involving individuals, conservatives are actually more willing to help blacks than liberals are.
It is only common sense that is just as true today as it was in the 1990s. Americans have not suddenly become more racist during the past couple of decades—years marked by an expanded race-conscious agenda. More likely, whites today are angrily reacting to a race-conscious agenda that has been relentlessly imposed on Americans in every sphere of society than expressing covert racism.
Polls that show Trump supporters having negative feelings toward minorities reflect this backlash. Unfortunately, too many conservatives have misinterpreted such polling, using those errant interpretations to promote the false narrative that Trump supporters on the whole are racist, when they’re actually reacting to the charge of covert racism and to racial identity politics. (A warning: the longer the charges of racism continue, the greater the backlash, and the more likely to foment real racism. But even in this, it’s not the same as traditional racism, which is rooted in the fundamental belief that whites are superior.)
The other destructive aspect of this charge of covert racism is that it is no longer just directed at groups and individuals. It “has become a handmaiden of a larger argument to call into question the principles of American society. A generation ago, scholars and public commentators saw racism as antithetical to the central values of the American ethos. Now, some researchers see contemporary racism as an expression of these very values.”
Covert racism is alleged to be commonplace, reinforced by quintessentially American values such as self-reliance, individual initiative, the desire to achieve and to excel—above all, the master idea of individualism. Moreover, rather than being concentrated at the margin of American life, racism is now said to have entered the mainstream and to have become, if not ubiquitous, at any rate all too common throughout contemporary American society.
If American values themselves are racist, as new-racism liberals maintain, this begs the question: How can someone hide his racism behind something that is racist? One would have to assume that if covert racism were real, conservatism and traditional American values would have to be inclusive for it to be an effective cover for all the racists who’ve been hiding behind it. According to this logic, covert racism can only be found among groups espousing liberal ideologies.
The Scar of Labeling
Yet conservatism is not racist. Traditional American values are not bigoted, but many people think they are because the Left has effectively labeled them racist. This labeling has been reinforced by the education system, the entertainment industry, and the media.
With the Right doing very little to stop the labeling (and a big part of that is because it abandoned education, the arts, and the media to the Left), stigma has taken hold. This has robbed the Right of its moral authority and delegitimized its institutions: the GOP, conservative media and associations, the church, and even the family. Conservatism has been effectively negated in a society that is being transformed by an ideology that rejects limited government and personal liberty.
Zack Beauchamp, who interviewed Roy for the Vox story, says the Republican Party and conservatism are “wedded to and marred by white supremacism.” The Republican Party is in a very real sense scarred by racism, but it’s not actual racism. It’s the Left’s successful labeling of Republicans as racists, which has led to their stigmatization and consequent delegitimization.
Shelby Steele in his book “White Guilt: How blacks and whites together destroyed the promise of the Civil Rights Era” makes the case that the black power movement has sought to delegitimize whites to maintain its moral authority and gain power. This is true for liberalism as a whole in its quest to defeat conservatism, and it has been powerfully effective.
Instead of recognizing what the Left has been doing and fighting it with their own social psychology counter-strategy, conservatives have allowed themselves to be stigmatized. They have unwisely accepted the premise (consciously or unconsciously) that they’re somehow guilty for America’s racist past, and have set out to prove they aren’t racist. They have failed.
This “white guilt” is a “powerful, powerful force,” Steele wrote. “Not because people feel guilty, but because people are stigmatized, and again have to prove the negative all the time, and living forever under threat of being stigmatized.”
Conservatives have tried to prove they’re not racists by trying to be conciliatory on policy; ignoring the labeling and resorting to high-road intellectual arguments on points of principle; and—at worst—deflecting the label by joining in stigmatizing other Republicans by calling them racists (sexists, homophobes, fascists, etc.—we saw this in response to the religious right, the Tea Party, and now Trump supporters). At every point, they have only dug the racist hole deeper for themselves.
Conservative intellectuals like Roy argue that if only conservatives could set themselves apart by creating a new conservatism via a third party, or somehow actually purging the GOP of those cranky white bigots, then they will save the conservative movement from the blight of Trumpism and its stain of racism. But they’re wrong because they’re stuck with the label of racism no matter what. That’s true of anyone who embraces principles contrary to Leftist ideology.
Everyone Who’s Not a Liberal Is Branded a Racist
Not all opposing factions to liberalism are on the front lines at any given moment, but the minute one opposes a sacred liberal policy or supports a conservative position, the labeling begins and the stigma takes hold. In the end, all lovers of freedom are labeled and eventually delegitimized—libertarians, conservatives, populists, elitists, Republicans, even conservative intellectuals who want to rebrand conservatism with a more inclusive tone to make liberty more palatable to their fellow citizens. Try as they might, they won’t be able to get out the damn spot of racism.
That spot remains because they have already been delegitimized. The entire history of America’s founding has been labeled. Individualism has been labeled. Personal responsibility has been labeled. Free markets have been labeled. Christianity has been labeled. Conservatism has been labeled. The United States of America as a nation has been labeled and stigmatized.
That’s why so many people—millennials especially—want to be identified as globalists. They’re ashamed of their disgraceful nation, which has been effectively stereotyped as hateful and bigoted—a belief Barack Obama reinforced when he said “Racism is in our DNA” and reinforced by Hillary Clinton’s running mate, Tim Kaine, who recently called for whites to become a “minority” to atone for racism.
Everything conservatives hold dear culturally, politically, and socially has been labeled and stigmatized, not because of actual racism or covert racism, but because leftism has been a raging success. Groupthink has won, as a majority of people now believe the lies of the powerful in-group (liberalism), and shun anything the Left has deemed untouchable, including principles of liberty.
You can try to reason with them. You can put studies and evidence before them. You can try to clothe conservatism in a cool new dress, but it won’t work. As soon as the truth is revealed that your beliefs run counter to liberal ideology, you will be shunned.
Here’s the bitter truth all conservatives must come to grips with: Conservatism has been negated by stigma. People can’t see the truth because they’re afraid of the stigma. There is no beauty in traditional American values; there is only shame. This goes beyond even political correctness, which seeks to control speech. It seeks to assign blame. Conservatives are now the scapegoats of society’s ills. They—the stigmatized ones—are the cause of all our troubles.
Conservatives Are the Modern Scapegoats
Scapegoating is not just about control, it’s about disassociation, even eventual annihilation. One group (the most powerful, the in-group: Democrats and liberals) targets an opposing group (Republicans and conservatives) and blames them for all the problems of society—economic ills, racial conflicts, cultural clashes, even personal struggles and unhappiness.
This is a dangerous progression because hostility will inevitably break out against the out-group that has been maligned. We see some of this with the conflicts between Black Lives Matter and white cops (cops being the out-group). But, in time, it will spread beyond law enforcement. The scapegoating will eventually extend to anyone who opposed the liberal agenda.
Today, the violence is directed against police. Tomorrow, other stigmatized groups will be targeted. The question is, what is all this leading to? What’s the endgame? What happens when you stigmatize a group, negate it, make it powerless, and then blame it for all your struggles? They must be annihilated.
Some might wonder why the Left has done this. Was it even purposeful? Yes. By labeling and delegitimizing their ideological opposition, they retain and grow their power. The Leftist ideology is untenable, so it must not only hide the truth of what it is—a philosophy that strips individuals of their rights and liberty—but also transform the identity of its freedom-loving enemies into one so horrible that no one will want to be associated with it.
That’s how they win. Anything that threatens that power will be stigmatized with the label of racism (or sexism, homophobia, etc.) and devalued to the point of complete impotency. You’re a bigot, not because you actually are a one; you’re a bigot by the sheer force of social labeling.
No third party will change that reality. No accommodation of policies that are “sensitive to diversity” will make it go away. No form of compassionate conservatism will rip off the label. The values of liberty have been successfully marked Bigoted. The label has been sealed, like a hot brand on our collective skin.
Given this reality, Beauchamp’s original statement needs to be rephrased: “Republicans and conservatives are wedded to and marred by the stigmatized label of white supremacism,” not white supremacism itself. Understanding that difference will hold the key to figuring out how conservatism can be saved—and our country along with it.
The Truth About White Resentment
Beauchamp said, “Republican voters are driven more by white resentment than by a principled commitment to the free market and individual liberty.” He is in one sense right, especially when talking about voters in 2016. But his interpretation of “white resentment” is wrong.
There is resentment among white voters, but what we’re seeing is not white resentment; it’s out-group resentment, and not because they’re being infringed upon by minorities. It’s the resentment of a culturally delegitimized group whose beliefs, principles, and values have been stigmatized with the racism label.
There is hope, however. If this web of “manipulated stigma,” as Steele called it, and its impact on politics can be unraveled, if the stigma can be removed and legitimacy and moral authority once again brought to those who have been stereotyped in this way, then to conservatives’ relief, we will find that Americans on the Right do, in fact, care about individual liberty. Will there still be racists in America? Yes, but once we remove the stigmatized identity, we will be able to see the true racists for who they really are (and we’ll discover there aren’t that many of them).
For conservatives to successfully de-stigmatize their identity, they must do something that is not happening right now. They must unite with all stigmatized out-groups. Everyone who opposes the Left has been labeled by the same brand. To fight back, they must unite, overcoming differences to face a common enemy. If they don’t, if they continue to fight among themselves, reinforcing the labels of the Left instead of reversing them, our nation will be lost—and many lives with it.
This article has been amended to be more precise about which quotes were from Avik Roy directly and which were an interviewer’s characterizations of his words.