Conservatism and White Supremacy

Bloom Briefing 58: Reflections on Contemporary Conservatism's Contradictions

Two thoughtful pieces this week made similar arguments about why the Republican Party is ideologically lost.  For Intelligencer, Eric Levitz wrote about conservative intellectuals trying to make sense of a party whose ideological commitments are in conflict with each other. For the New York Times, Peter Suderman wrote about the lack of coherence of Republican economic policy. 

The subtext of both is: how does a party this confused continue to function?  If the party is ideologically incoherent, the natural (though unstated) conclusion is that some realignment is to be expected.  These pieces are both excellent, but I think they overlook the glue holding the Republican Party together: white supremacy.

These couple of paragraphs from Levitz’s piece neatly sum up the current challenge confronting the Republican coalition:

One prominent explanation for the GOP’s ideological confusion goes something like this: American conservatism’s flagship institutions — its think tanks, legal societies, and highbrow publications — remain faithful to free-market theology. And, uncoincidentally, the GOP’s largest donor networks have also retained their hostility to social welfare, progressive taxation, and state direction of the national economy. But market fundamentalism is empirically discredited and politically obsolete. The Reaganite commitment to free trade decimated America’s industrial base and facilitated China’s rise. Now, a new communist superpower threatens U.S. global dominance. And unlike their American competitors, China’s leading exporters can count on state-sponsored investment and subsidy. Republicans tried to answer this economic threat the “small government” way, but the Trump tax cuts did little to increase business investment in the U.S. Thus, the objectives of minimizing non-military public spending — and safeguarding America’s economic and geopolitical supremacy — have come into tension.

Meanwhile, as college-educated professionals have moved left, and low-income whites have moved right, Republicans have grown increasingly reliant on the support of Americans who have more use for transfer programs than supply-side bromides. And such disaffection with market fundamentalism is not limited to red America’s new arrivals. The party’s best-organized mass constituency — Christian social conservatives — have grown increasingly dissatisfied with the role of “junior partner” in a coalition with Randian plutocrats. The four decades since Reagan’s election have been very good for country-club Republicans, who’ve seen their share of national income and wealth grow precipitously. Yet over the same period, America’s moral traditionalists have witnessed a collapse in their cultural influence. They were promised an end to Roe and a restoration of “family values”; instead, they got same-sex marriage, plummeting birth rates, emptying pews, Drag Queen Story Hour — and, to add insult to injury, “woke” corporations that spit in the face of the very movement that gifted them rock-bottom tax rates.

The implication seems reasonably clear.  If the party’s two major ideological commitments are to free-market economics and an evangelical vision of Christian morality, both commitments can be pursued simultaneously (thought there are inevitable tensions).  The party can pursue laissez-faire capitalism economically and conservative Christian priorities socially. 

But once the economic demands of the white working class are added to the mix, the Republican Party contains two constituencies with directly-at-odds priorities.  In this model, the transnational free-market commitments of the GOP’s think tank and donor class can’t be reconciled with the economic and social welfare demands of the white working class. 

The problem is that this model treats the various ideological commitments of different parts of the Republican coalition as equally important.  For all the support that Biden’s economic policy and management of the pandemic enjoys, even among conservatives, it remains to be seen whether or not this support translates to voting behavior.  Here, the analysis would be helped by an understanding of what the conservative movement’s conservative commitments really are.

Contemporary Conservative Commitments

At its core, conservatism is about the maintenance of tradition.  As reactionary as the contemporary conservative movement has become, it’s still possible to sketch the outlines of a set of tradition-preserving commitments.  Those tradition-preserving commitments are largely around the white supremacist aspects of American history.

Consider, for example, the mainstreaming of the white supremacist “white replacement theory.”  This theory posits, with varying levels of conspiratorial thinking, that legal immigration is explicitly designed to displace white people as an American majority, destroying some “Anglo-Saxon” or “Judeo-Christian” heritage.  These terms, themselves, have become watchwords of white supremacy.

Last month, Tucker Carlson did more to popularize this lynchpin of white supremacy than anyone in recent memory.  In a segment of his show devoted to it, he dialed up not just the notion of demographic change, but that Democrats are engineering demographic change to wrest political control from white people.  Of course he can’t help himself from a bit of racist stereotyping of “Third World” immigrants as obedient order-takers.

The Democratic Party is trying to replace the current electorate, the voters now casting ballots, with new people, more obedient voters from the Third World… If you change the population, you dilute the political power of the people who live there. So every time they import a new voter, I become disenfranchised as a current voter.

Historically, the United States has been a country run by white men.  Europeans stole native land, trafficked and expropriated enslaved Africans to work the land, barred women from political participation, restricted immigration from non-European peoples, and erected myriad barriers to social, economic, and political life for African Americans. 

Conservatives have resisted every effort to reform and/or redress each of these historical injustices in the name of tradition.  Abolition was a threat to the southern way of life.  Women’s political participation was a threat to the traditional family.  The end of Jim Crow was a threat to the safety of white southerners.  Reparations are an unjustifiable tax on white people’s resources.  And, in Carlson’s imagination, immigration is a threat to the political power of white people. 

Republicans’ Governing Priorities Reflect These White Supremacist Commitments

This philosophy isn’t just broadcast by Fox News and consumed by its viewers.  Throughout the country, Republicans have been working to enact policies at the state level designed to reflect these white supremacist values.

The various voter-suppression bills passed by Republican state legislatures have gotten a significant amount of coverage, but it bears covering the ground again briefly.  These are all specifically designed to curtail voting in diverse metropolitan areas that produce large margins for Democratic candidates.

1.      In Georgia, Republicans passed and Governor Kemp signed a bill designed to limit the amount of early voting in predominantly Black counties (it expands early voting elsewhere), including a looming threat to take control over election oversight in those counties.

2.      In Florida this week the state legislature passed a bill that restricts the number of ballot drop-boxes and puts new restrictions on voting by mail.

3.      In Michigan, Republicans, unable to enact voter suppression over the inevitable veto of Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer, are considering an attempt to pass voter restriction via public referendum.

4.      In Texas, the two Republican-controlled houses of the state legislature are going back and forth with different proposals for how to best restrict voting.

In addition to these voter suppression bills that are designed to make it harder for Black and other Democratic-leaning voters to vote, Republicans in a number of places have also taken up bills to criminalize protesting.  The most egregious of these bills is the Florida one, which indemnifies motorists who drive their cars into protestors occupying streets.

Alex Pareene summarizes the issue for The New Republic:

Ari Weil, a researcher at the Chicago Project on Security and Threats, counted six states that considered laws shielding drivers who attack protesters in 2017, but most of those “hit and kill” bills (as the ACLU refers to them) went nowhere. It took a few more years for the right-wing propaganda apparatus to fully numb conservative consciences, and prepare them to openly endorse an idea as plainly depraved as this one. In the meantime, the car attacks kept coming: In 2020, Weil tracked “72 incidents of cars driving into protesters across 52 different cities,” over the span of just over a month. The online far right memed about running over demonstrators regularly, and cops openly encouraged it in social media comments. Cops also, in cities such as New York and Detroit, participated in the practice themselves.

Nor is the Florida bill that indemnifies vehicular assailants anomalous.  As Reid Epstein and Patricia Mazzei report for the New York Times, Republican state legislatures in Oklahoma and Iowa have passed similar bills.  And other states have moved to restrict certain benefits and opportunities to those convicted of unlawful assembly.  Indiana Republicans are trying to prevent those with such a conviction from holding office, and Minnesota Republicans are moving to deny such people student loans, unemployment assistance, and housing benefits.

Republicans Are Unified Around Conserving White Supremacy

Making it harder for Democrats to vote and criminalizing protests (which have disproportionately been undertaken by Democrats and left-leaning activists) are both principally about maintaining the political power of white people.

This goal, divorced from any policy priorities, isn’t popular.  But such is the structural inequality of American electoral politics that Republicans are capable of attaining power with only minority support.  Two out of the last three Republicans presidential victories were achieved without gaining the most votes.  In 2020, Biden won just over 7 million more votes than Trump, but the result hinged on roughly 43,000 votes (in Wisconsin, Georgia, and Arizona).  And Democrats and Republicans have an equal number of Senators despite the Democratic senators representing 41 million more people.  Republican priorities don’t have to be popular for them to secure and maintain power.

In a sense, then, while long pieces investigating a different ideological direction of Republican politics are interesting, it’s not clear we need some new overarching theory to explain what’s going on.  Contemporary Republican politics may have some interesting new twists, like Marco Rubio supporting the unionization effort at the Amazon factor.  But seen in context, Rubio’s support for Amazon’s workers was nothing more than a way of getting back at a company that had become too aggressive in its (let’s be real, pretty tame) efforts to challenge white supremacy.

Levtiz’s and Suderman’s pieces are both great analyses of some of the internal contradictions within the current ideological framework of the Republican Party.  I recommend them both.  But I also don’t think their conclusions (lack of ideology or internal incoherence) are totally merited.  Contemporary conservatism remains as contradictory as ever, but its white supremacist core remains unchanged.  Twas ever thus.

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Additional Reading:

At the Washington Post, Greg Sargent writes about how Republican radicalism comes from a shared delusion of violence on the American Left.