In Part One of this two-part post, I outlined the roots of white supremacy in the Southern Strategy. As a top-down process, leadership in the Republican Party chose to abandon black voters in favor of courting white supremacist Democrats as a strategic electoral decision. This allowed the GOP to flip the south from being a staunch Democratic stronghold to a region that would reliably vote “R” up and down every ticket. But the Southern Strategy was just part of the story. Perhaps more importantly, emerging suburban communities began to exert themselves as voting blocks that would nationalize the embedded white supremacy of the new “conservative” GOP.
The south has long gotten a disproportional amount of attention when it comes to issues of race and society. While I do not lose much sleep over this– mainstream southern culture, particularly the way they bitterly hold on to openly racist symbols of the Confederacy and their “way of life” deserve every bit of the scorn it receives– it paints an inaccurate picture. Sure, anti-black racism takes on its most cartoonish form in the south, but more impactful forms of institutionalized racism that oppress blacks are present across the country. When we think of civil rights we see Selma and Birmingham. But we should also think of major northern cities, like Chicago and Detroit. We should think of great west coast cities, like Portland and Los Angeles, too. The challenges to segregated housing patterns, control over who goes to school (and where the school is), highway construction, and policing were and are national issues. You’ll find them much the same in Ferguson and Cleveland as in Phoenix and Atlanta.
These issues must be viewed through the lens of white flight. My friends and family have responded with loud disapproval when I have used this phrase in the past. They feel attacked by the notion that they have moved to the suburbs out of anything but a desire for a better life. They sought safety, space, privacy, and good schools. To my knowledge, none had ever been the victims of violent crimes committed by strangers in their homes, had their privacy invaded, or needed the all the space their monstrosities of homes have. And their search for “better schools” did nothing to change the educational outcomes their children will achieve (I’m willing to explain this to anyone who questions it– message me!).
I am sure that they believed moving to the suburbs would ensure a better life for their children when they made the choice. I am also sure that the ways they were defining better life were largely driven by misconceptions and propaganda from what historian Kevin Kruse calls the “politics of suburban secession.” White flight to the suburbs represented a form of resistance to the civil rights revolution. For many of the people establishing and building these new communities, these were explicit goals. They marketed the new communities that way– come escape the danger/poverty/schools/declining property values of the city and live in a homogenous community of people who share your values and culture. They were not shy about saying that this meant whites only, at least not in the early years of the movement.
The world built by Federal investment in highways, the Social Security system, unemployment compensation, the minimum wage, protection of the right of workers to join labor unions, and the G.I. Bill made home ownership, higher education, investment, and a leisure-oriented retirement a realistic goal for unskilled working and middle-class families. In turn, they also created a new type of living arrangement. A new American Dream. Like earlier American Dreams, this dream was not open to all.
For example, many of the laws that raised wages and working rights for unskilled whites did not apply to black workers. Agriculture and domestic workers were explicitly excluded. This was no accident. Nor does it mirror the arguments today over minimum wage levels for fast food workers– these were not temporary careers for young people or entry-level jobs to a better life. They were simply the long-standing occupations of blacks. Members of Congress from the south demanded that these occupations be excluded from things like minimum wage, Social Security, unemployment, and workers’ comp. They explicitly stated that they were safeguarding their “way of life.”
As egregious and harmful as these discriminatory acts were, they pale in comparison to how the wealth gap was exasperated by the G.I. Bill. While the G.I. Bill is rightly celebrated as a key piece of legislation that made the prosperity of the post-WWII period possible (and proof that the nation CAN find ways to financially provide education for her citizens), the prosperity it “unleashed,” to borrow from how President Bill Clinton once described it, was for whites only. Jim Crow had his filthy hands all over it.
Of the 16 million veterans who used the bill to attend college, start a business, and purchase a new home, nearly all were white. Again, this was no coincidence. Southern Congressional leaders demanded “local control” over who directed the programs, ensuring that local white businessmen, bankers, and college administrators would “honor” existing de facto practices. As a result, blacks across the nation were denied housing loans, business loans, and admission into white-only (both state and private) colleges and universities. They were denied entry into vocational training programs in the careers of the future– especially electronic and mechanical fields. The only places they could get their federally gaurenteed “rights” or benifits honored– ones they earned serving this country in World War II– were for low-paying traditionally black occupations (which were being excluded from other benifits packages as mentioned above) and historically black colleges that lacked the resources and personel to meet the needs of a suddenly large number of black men who could afford college.
This was all exasperated by the “one person, one vote” doctrine. While this legal theory is not racist in nature, in practice it led to a new form of malapportionment of representatives. The doctrine overturned the traditional slant to districting which had long been tilted in favor of rural communities over urban ones. Instead of flipping the script and making urban communities the dominant force in electoral politics– which would make sense given their concentration of population and their importance to the regional economy– it made the fast growing suburbs the new center of the political universe.
Social scientists in the early 90s developed a term for these fast-growing, annexation resistant suburbs: “The Gunbelt.” The interests of the military-industrial complex in the aftermath of WWII helped spawn changes in our physical, economic, and social landscapes. From military bases to high-tech industries, federal funds were allocated to create both major employers and new housing that would entice both blue collar and white collar workers to move to these sprawling sites. The blueprint they were following was not new– it mirrored that of the decentralization of the auto industry out of Detroit. Tax breaks to build factories further away from the core, federal funding for new homes in these formerly rural areas (for whites only, either by law or extra-legal means), lower wages (due to the lower cost of living), and lax regulations which helped the company curtail increased costs associated with transportation.
The scholarly consensus on where this originates from is a bit muddled. The orthodox position is that it was part of a larger “southernization” of the United States due to the out-migration of both black and white southerners in the 20th century. While there has been a significant change to our national culture caused by this phenomenon– from country music to evangelical Christianity– I think it misses the mark when it comes to what fueled white backlash to the civil rights movement and the rise of suburbs. I stand with the revisionists, like Sugrue and Kruse, who argue that the dynamics of suburbanization themselves were part of a national white supremacist movement. Nixon’s Southern Strategy may have done well to shift the voting patterns of southern whites, his silent majority was not limited to the south. Indeed, Nixon’s appeal was rooted in a pledge to protect white-middle class neighborhoods from very particular parts of the civil rights movement. A vote for Nixon meant a vote against court-ordered busing. It was a vote against low-income housing in your community. Above all, it was a vote against sending your hard earned tax dollars to poor blacks in the inner-city. Nixon spewed this message from Los Angeles to Detroit: he would protect you from the government forcing integration on your community.
Nixon’s message carried the day. Not only in his election and re-election but in public policy across the nation. The only places that faced something resembling true integration were the public schools in countywide school districts like Miami-Dade. The Supreme Court’s rejection of federally ordered busing of suburban whites into urban black schools (and vice versa) made sure that any place where suburbs had avoided annexation would continue on as though Brown v Board of Education had never happened. Places like Boston and Chicago would be just as segregated as Atlanta and Richmond.
This is what gave rise to the conservative era of governance from 1970 to the early 2000s. New white residential communities from the Sun Belt to Rust Belt embraced the conservative revolution. And all seemed well for a while. Economic growth tied to the suburbs went a long way towards entrenching this view. Much of this growth took place in areas developed with federal investments (from regional pork to national infrastructure investment) that concentrated many of the new growth industries in these white communities. Increasingly fields like engineering, high-tech electronics, extractive industries (mining, fossil fuels, and agribuisness), real estate development, and the military-industrial complex were concentrated in these places. They began siphoning off older industries– notably, the auto industry– and increasingly became the new hubs of economic growth in the country. This was a national movement. And the people who supported them were not simply southerners– they were whites of various socioeconomic stripes from nearly every corner of the country.
If Nixon was more explicitly Southern Strategy than Suburban Strategy, the Suburban Strategy found its voice in Ronald Reagan. A substantial majority of white voters elected Reagan in ’80 and ’84 behind his promises to spend fabulously on the military (appealing to Jacksonian foreign policy leanings and suburban economic desires) and to lower taxes by dismantling the social welfare system. In doing so, Reagan painted social welfare as government corruption meant to reward undeserving minorities with money and goods paid for by the sweat of (white) working men’s brows.
Of course, Reagan’s popularity also shows how messy such narratives can be. While suburbanization was certainly not a southern phenomenon, the southern outmigration got folded into the suburban political movement in a host of ways. None were more impactful than the Religious Right. As Lisa McGirr outlined in “Suburban Warriors,” a brilliant case study on the rise of the modern conservative movement in Orange County, California, the exportation of a very specific kind of evangelical Christianity found itself not only at home but wildly popular in the new suburban landscape. These Protestant mega-churches advocated for a muscular and politically active form of Christianity. They encouraged the economic policies of the new right, promoting a gospel of prosperity that claims (among many noxious things) that God blesses the righteous with material blessings (and punishes the wicked with poverty). Proponents like Oral Roberts, Kenneth Hagin, and Kenneth Copeland touted this ideology, interlacing it with moral protestations against “liberal/secular society”– namely abortion, sex education, gay rights, and multiculturalism. These churches emerged and thrived in white middle-class suburbs. Increasingly, the people of these communities saw their interests in direct competition with those of urban minorities, who their faith told them were immoral and deserved their fate.
While the 1980s might be remembered as the glory days of the new right (it is certainly when the political desires of their elities and intellectuals hit thier peak), the highwater mark of the Suburban Strategy came in the 1990s. As the GOP’s economic policies became the standard for both parties after Bill Clinton’s election in 1992, the right increasingly turned to the cultural issues of the religious right. I think that a quote of Newt Gingrich from 1994 soundly illustrates how the suburban movement of that period helped create the racist, nostalgia-loving, white supremicist undercurrent that is now drowning the Republican Party in a sea of Trump. In describing his north Atlanta suburban constituents, Gingrich said they represented the ideal mixture of traditional family values and the new white collar, future-oriented economy of the Sun Belt, calling them “a sort of Norman Rockwell world with fiber-optic computers and jet airplanes.” The people of Cobb County, and suburbs across the nation, “believe big cities have failed” and were working to create a new American dream in the suburbs of “owning our own home, raising our families, giving our children a better life with safe streets, and a future built on self-reliance and hard work.” That this dream belonged to whites didn’t need to be said– it was borne out in the demographics and coded language of saftey and “self-reliance.” Gingrich’s white suburban community represented a rebirth of the old order. It was a thriving, future oriented economy with all the folksy charm of an all-white utopia that never existed (readers should note, as Lassiter and Kruse did in their article “The Bulldozer Revolution: Suburbs and Southern History since World War II,” that Cobb County, home of Gingrich’s American Dream loving, hard-working, self-reliant middle-class whites was the recipent of more federal dollars per capita than all but one other suburban county in the nation in Arlington County, Virginia).
Both strategies appear to be at their breaking point. The Southern Strategy is simply no longer viable. Without wide-spread minority voter suppression the, math will not add up in favor of bigotry on a national level. The Suburban Strategy is also fraying. The influx of blacks migrating back to the south has drastically changed the composition of southern suburban areas, complicating gerrymandering in the region and putting it back into electoral play. The economics of the Suburban Strategy have also come back to haunt the GOP, as many of their coalition members who considered themselves part of this Moral Majority and the embodyment of Gingrich’s hard-working, self-reliant man are starting to realize that this didn’t actually include them. Free-trade, unregulated finance, tax-breaks for businesses, and breaking up the unions did not bring prosperity for the working and middle-class whites– it just accelerated the decline they had been on since the late 1950s. And no amount of pining for a Leave it to Beaver world of “traditional” gendered and racial order can bring it back.
Are conservatives racist? Not substantially more than any other grouping by political ideology is.
Has the modern conservative movement in America been racist? Absolutely. From the Goldwater nomination in 1964 on it has been the party of opposition to civil rights. This is undeniable. Goldwater opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964– this is historical record. His arguement was not explicitly racist. Goldwater oppossed it on free market grounds, claiming that the federal government had no right to force private businesses to desegregate. This arguement ignored both the historical record (the federal government had forced private businesses to do a great many things for common good, like only sell food that was safe to eat or give up your human property, to name two) and social context. His position would retrench Jim Crow, an odious system that violated blacks human rights in the south (clearly an infringement upon their constitutional rights). This made the GOP the pro-segregation party and turned the Democrats into the anti-racist party.
As we outlined in Part One with the Souther Strategy, this had a double barrelled effect. First, it abandoned black voters, who had traditionally voted for the GOP (Party of Lincoln) when they were allowed to vote. More cravenly, it did so that it could welcome white racists who had previously been Democrats to the party. Despite long being the champions of black rights the post-1964 GOP became the party of aggrieved whites.
Many conservative intellectuals continue to claim that this is not true. Instead, they concoct bizarre revisionist histories that ignore how and why this demographic shift took place. Google some of Dinesh D’souza’s tripe if you want to see a conservative “intellectual” contort themselves into a pretzal trying to dance around this issue. This nonsense allows them to brush off claims of racism in their platform by claiming they are and have been the champions of civil rights. You cannot claim to be an intellectual or a historian if you willfully leave out parts of the past that simply do not conform to the narrative you prefer. That is sophistry. That is Trumpism.
The real motivating factor, as we see in the Southern Strategy and Suburban Strategy that have dominated their top-down and bottoms-up approach to campaigning and governance, has more often than not been one of white identity politics and not a commitment to conservative ideals. This is where the major disconnect comes from. For conservative intellectuals (I’ll even vouch for the ones I know here), they really believe in the philosophical and economic principles of their movement. It was never about race, just ideas. And for decades they believed that the base thought this way too. This is not true. As Avik Roy, a Republican health care policy wonk and editor at Forbes who worked for three Republican presidential hopefuls (Mitt Romney, Rick Perry, and Marco Rubio) recently told a reporter at Vox, “the gravitational center of the Republican Party is white nationalism.”
Roy said this mournfully. Like a true believer, he seemed genuinely hurt by the realization that individual rights and equality were double-speak for his base. That when they advocated for local control it wasn’t just because they better know the problems (and theoretically, the solutions) to local problems than some desk jockey in Washington. It was because they wanted to use that power to discriminate against others.
As Roy says:
It’s a common observation on the left, but it’s an observation that a lot of us on the right genuinely believed wasn’t true — which is that conservatism has become, and has been for some time, much more about white identity politics than it has been about conservative political philosophy. I think today, even now, a lot of conservatives have not come to terms with that problem.
All of the dog whistles become audible when you realize this fact. The way conservative news sites label blacks as thugs and criminals, justifying (even praising) the use of extreme and often deadly force of the state against the individual (as serious a violation of conservative principles as you could have). The way their candidate for the highest office called Latinos rapists (and their news outlets subsequently began running stories on any crime or offense committed by an illegal immigrant regardless of statistics or context). That support for the Confederate flag and their “heritage” cannot be seperated from what that heritage stood for: owning blacks (doubly rich coming from the dumb bumpkins in the north who have no connection to that festering wound on our national character). The rallying cry of “Radical Islam,” which to the believers is a common sense statement, but to those who can open their eyes to see clearly is a blanketed statement meant to dehumanize vast swarths of humanity (over 1 billion people) so that whatever measures are taken against them militarily will seem just.
These positions, undeniably odious and completely against the dogma of conservative ideology, won out with the base. Many intellectuals and news outlets that are ashamed of this are trying to paint this as a takeover by outside elements. Neither demographics or history suggests this is true. Instead, it is as historians have long said: the GOP voting base is composed of the people who violently opposed civil rights and have never dropped that torch.
The way forward is clear. For the conservative movement to thrive in the 21st century it must drop its association with racism. Both strategies, the Southern and Suburban, must be abandoned. The first step is admitting that it happened. Be honest about who was in the GOP coalition, how they got there, and what effect it had on policy proposals. Understand that white nationalism is what brought Trump to power. You were powerless to stop him because he was making all the arugements the GOP has been trotting out for the last 30 years only he didn’t bother to veil them. You must make a concious choice to cast this element out or be forever beholden to them.
There are conservative intellectuals out there writing about what a non-racist GOP or conservative movement might look like– as I’ve said before, while I don’t always agree with them I really respect and enjoy the works of David Frum, Conor Friedersdorf, Andrew Sullivan, Ross Douthat, and David Brooks (among many others). They argue that conservatives should drop the racist “law and order” approach of big government and embrace the reforming of law enforcement from the perspective of limited government and individual freedom. They argue in favor of promoting a pluarality of community values rather than one sect of Christianity’s favored version. Features like a strong military, but a restrained application of force; free trade and limited regulation of businesses (only to protect consumers, prevent unfair market manipulations, and gaurentee the saftey of the American public); an embrace of science and intellectual knowledge in general (believing that experts DO often know more about a subject than talk radio personalities and poorly educated religious leaders); and protecting the rights enumerated in the Constitution– especially speech, assembly, religion, and to bear arms. It limits government in the places where people are hurt by government and uses the power of the state to bring justice to those who oppose our self-evident truths.
This is a message that can win over college educated conservatives, moderates, and a whole host of minority voters. It uses the principles of conservatism to make the lives of these people better. This is a winning ticket.
The current conservative base prefers the vision put forward by intellectual midgets like Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter– people willing to stir up violence and hate against blacks and Latinos in the pursuit of green. They want to uphold and retrench segregation. They want to recapture “their America” from the blacks, liberals, and immigrants that have “stolen it.” They want America to be (white) great again.
Morally, ethically, and politically this is a loser. They have lost every major battle they have fought– abortion and civil rights are still on the books, gay marriage has joined it. Muslims and Latinos have become part of our national tapastry. Young people believe more in science than religion. And the demographics will never flip. Short of a horrifying pogram, you will not return this country to the whites only disgrace it was in the past. The days of the angry, white voter being able to bull their way to political victory are over. Donald Trump is your last hurrah.
Conservatism in America is at a crossroads. Follow the pied-piper of racism and stupidity off the cliff into political obscurity or turn on the racist foundations of your movement and scurry back to the safety and sanity of a reformed GOP or a moderated Democratic party. These are your only options.