Let me heartily endorse Krugman and Herbert’s respective takedowns of David Brooks on St. Reagan and race. Even excluding Philadelphia (which shouldn’t be excluded), Reagan’s race-baiting is beyond dispute. It happened too often, for too long, and too systematically. The more interesting question is why modern-day defenders of the Order of St. Reagan (like David Brooks) continue to whitewash it. Why not just say, “Yes, that part was shameful, but that’s not the complete picture.” Let’s just be honest about it.
The answer, I think, hits upon a much larger and more interesting theme. Modern conservatives – the majority of which are certainly not racist – have successfully ignored the racist foundations of much of modern conservative political power and even thought. It’s not so much that the doctrines remain racist today – or that they lack non-racist interpretations. It’s that they are historically rooted in racist backlash. In this respect, Reagan’s dark side is simply one part of a much larger pattern.
The more conventional argument about ignoring race relates to the idea of race as “The Great Contradiction.” Quite literally, since the founding of this country, race has “contradicted” the American ideal. In 1776, we were the slave-holding nation that fought a war for liberty. In 1789, we created the most modern, rationalist, democratic government in history, but one that reduced black people to 3/5 of a person. We erect statues and monuments to great men, who happened to own slaves. In World War II, we rightly fought a war against hideous doctrines, while we tolerated Jim Crow. During the Cold War, we wrapped ourselves in rhetorical cloaks of freedom, while churches burned in Birmingham. Even today, we praise American markets and prosperity, while hurricanes (ever so briefly) force our eyes upon urban black poverty.
This is important stuff, but it’s not really what makes Brooks’ op-ed so significant. What’s significant is that Brooks – like so many before him – is trying to ignore the debt of modern conservatism to race. To be 100% clear on this, I am not accusing Brooks – or conservatives more generally – of being racist. I don’t think they are. The problem today is less racism, than an unwillingness to deal honestly with the consequences of prior racism (check out this old Legal Fiction piece on post-racism for more). Rather than coming to terms with this reality and moving on (like Mehlman did, to his credit), Brooks is pretending it didn’t happen.
Most obviously, Republican political power today rests on the race-based realignment that George Wallace first exploited. That’s why the term “Reagan Democrats” should actually be “Wallace Democrats.” Nixon and then Reagan both ruthlessly exploited white resentment to reshift the map. If you think these efforts don’t matter, check out how the bloc of Southern states voted in the 2000 and 2004 elections.
But more abstractly, much of modern conservative doctrine has foundations in racial issues. The clearest example is state rights and federalism. It’s true that progressives used states rights at times (e.g., to attack anti-labor federal judges in the early 20th century). But for pretty much all of American history (and certainly from 1948-88), it was code for race issues. Today, one can be a good federalist without thinking of race at all. But that doesn’t change the history of the ideology.
Same deal for welfare and “law and order” slogans. This stuff was a bit before my time (I’m a post-Kaus Democrat), but I think Nixon’s law and order message was lost on no one. Neither was Reagan’s “welfare queens.”
Judicial conservatism provides a particularly good example of this dynamic. The modern legal conservative movement is rooted in backlash to the Warren Court. But love ‘em or hate ‘em, understand that the Warren Court wasn’t acting in a vacuum. They weren’t expanding 4th Amendment rights after listening to Helter Skelter. They were thinking of state troopers in Alabama. They were thinking of slain civil rights workers in Mississippi. Race was the silent backdrop of much of the Warren Court’s decisions – to act neutrally was to reaffirm a wretched status quo (critically, one immune from political correction because of disenfranchisement).
Again, I’m not saying the modern Federalist Society and its comrades are racist. I don’t think they are – some of my best friends wear bow ties. But the larger movement was certainly rooted in racial resentment. Just check out the early Reagan DOJ or the great Justice Rehnquist.
What annoys about all this today is not that conservatives still believe it but that so many ignore it. Or even worse, they try to argue that it’s not true (see, e.g., Brooks).
But if they’re not bad people (which they’re not), why doesn’t it bother them? Part of the reason is the sense of white victimhood that people like Reagan cultivated. People don’t like thinking of themselves as bad people. And, they don’t like thinking of themselves as racists – hell, even the people throwing rocks at school buses in Boston in the 70s had to justify their actions in their own head somehow. And they probably did so by convincing themselves they were victims (much like people justify torture by convincing themselves of imminent attack). Affirmative action is particularly valuable for many white people in this respect. They can ignore what Katrina shows us because, hey, they would have gotten into Yale Law School if only they had been an ethnic minority. (Personally, I think minorities would be appalled at how widespread the latter sentiment is among white people).
Others just flat-out ignore race and pretend that things like grinding poverty rooted in historical discrimination doesn’t exist. They squeeze the contradiction out from the ideal. Every now and then, though, the contradiction comes bubbling up to our gated-community eyes, Masque of the Red Death-style – just like it did in New Orleans. But that's the exception - many of us can go about our daily lives, blissfully ignorant.
That’s what makes me mad about the Brooks column. Krugman has – Katrina-style – forced the issue again into the public eye. Brooks’ column attempts to help otherwise good, non-racist people avoid nasty cognitive dissonance about St. Reagan. But acknowledging the source of this cognitive dissonance would be a welcome first step. Much better than ignoring it, anyway.