Ross Douthat’s Tuesday column for the New York Times responds to a piece I wrote last week about how American conservatism without racism is a doomed electoral project. He charts a cautiously optimistic path forward for those on the right who wish to leave behind the racist appeals — if not necessarily the racist policies — that have enabled their movement’s political relevance for much of the past 50 years. He acknowledges that a daunting number of stars would have to align for the Republican Party to simultaneously default on its debt to bigotry and avoid electoral ruin. He helpfully outlines what these preconditions might be: bipartisan agreement on immigration that isn’t too far left; religious conservatives rebuking racism en masse; electoral defeats for Republicans in Georgia and Texas in 2020; and statesmen who can attract moderate voters repelled by the Democrats’ recent leftward shift — especially on issues of race, where Douthat says white liberal pessimism has leap-frogged that of even nonwhite people.
His evidence for the plausibility of this celestial alignment has two components: First, he argues correctly that, despite its racism, the modern Republican Party has backed enough non-racist initiatives — from Nixon’s support for some elements of the Great Society to Reagan’s more liberal immigration policies — that it would be false to cast the party as one exclusively dedicated to defending white supremacy. This is not as revelatory as Douthat seems to think: Few people would argue that the GOP’s main function is to perpetuate racism — nor is doing so necessary to convey that its reliance on racism for votes is so profound as to render such a distinction irrelevant. But his second piece of evidence is more revealing: the bipartisan consensus of the 1990s. In Douthat’s telling, the early part of this decade was “dominated by racially polarizing controversies over crime, welfare and affirmative action” that “had receded” by the second Bush presidency “because the racialized issues dividing the country circa 1992 were somewhat successfully addressed by politicians of both parties.” For Douthat, the fruits of comity were successful social policy and economic growth: “The Clinton-Gingrich years brought compromises on welfare reform and affirmative action, successful policing strategies that helped bring down the crime rate, and an economic boom that made every policy debate seem somewhat less zero-sum.”
those who warned of the ruinous impact such policies would eventually have on their communities.
welfare queen” who routinely abused government largesse — further advanced the notion that working-class white people were the backbone of America’s economy and the custodians of its culture of self-reliance, while black people were leeches bleeding it dry. By the time Reagan’s vice-president, George H.W. Bush, cemented his 1988 presidential-election victory by invoking a Massachusetts furlough program championed by his Democratic opponent, Michael Dukakis, that freed Willie Horton from prison long enough to commit a brutal rape, it had become clear that voters yearned for leadership that would protect their bodies from black criminals and their wallets from black freeloaders. In this light, Bill Clinton’s presidency was largely a rebuke of conservative efforts to cast Democrats as soft — and a shining example of what can be accomplished when the parties set aside their differences and agree that punishing black people is the solution to many of their problems.
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