“… government had always been big for people like us [whites], and we were fine with that. But beginning in the 1960s, as people of color began to gain access to the benefits for which we had always been eligible, suddenly we discovered our inner libertarian and decided that government intervention was bad …”
― Tim Wise,
For four decades, the story of American politics has been the story of the triumph of conservative ideology in government. From the rise of Reagan to the impeachment of Clinton and the triumph of Trump, conservative messaging has driven political debate in the United States. Even at their lowest point in 2006-9, the conservative-dominated Republican Party was able to push back against liberals and moderates in both Federal and Sate government. The high point of Democratic legislative power, the Patient Protection And Affordable Care Act of 2010, was based on conservative ideas, took the form of a giveaway to private industry, and was explicitly modeled after Gov. Romney’s popular health care reform in Massachusetts. The “public option” idea for the legislation was removed to get conservative Democratic support in the Senate.
In broader strokes, public higher education, which was once almost free in much of the country, is now increasingly unaffordable for families without substantial savings, placing education and opportunity out of reach for a large and growing share of America’s youth. The top tenth of one percent of income earners, deriving most of their revenue from investments, pay a fraction of the tax rate of those they employ. Financial services represent the largest sector of the economy. Business regulation has been largely dismantled, permitting multi-billion dollar companies to operate with illegal business models. Education and health care are increasingly influenced by politicized Christian radicals.
With all this success, it was natural for GOP leaders to assume that the broader public supported their anti-government, pro-business views for the same ideological reasons they did, thumbing through well-worn copies of Von Mises, Hayek, or Rand. With the ascension of Donald Trump and the collapse of Paul Ryan’s American Health Care Act under the weight of angry town halls across the nation and a 17% approval rate, that assumption has earned some scrutiny. The question remains, however: If middle-aged white voters didn’t share the minarchist ideas of the House GOP caucus, why did they keep returning them to office?
One answer that suggests itself is that the pro-police, pro-military, theocratic, anti-government platform of the Republican Party appeals to people with, ahem, ethnonationalist, views.
You start out in 1954 by saying, “N*gger, n*gger, n*gger.” By 1968 you can’t say “n*gger”—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “N*gger, n*gger.”
- Lee Atwater, 1981
The roots of the modern War On Drugs are to be found during the Presidency of Richard Nixon, whose chief domestic policy advisor told Harper’s writer Dan Baum:
“You want to know what this was really all about? The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
If the public has been absorbing this ‘dog whistle‘ message for two generations, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that they got the message loud and clear, or when the Lieutenant-Governor of South Carolina opposed providing free school lunches to poor children because, as with stray animals, it encourages them to breed. Nor should we be shocked when former Speaker of the House and all-around great guy Newt Gingrich calls Barack Obama the Food Stamp President.
Nor should be be completely blind-sided when, decades into this process of racialized radicalization, some of the those the Party manipulated this way become the Party’s leaders and the dog whistle becomes a megaphone:
‘Racial Anxiety‘ or ‘Racial Resentment‘ have become the largest drivers of support for Republicans and their policies. For a crucial margin of white voters, feelings of white victimhood are their conservatism. Far from laissez faire, they’re closer to the ideology of Herrenvolk Democracy, in which democratic participation and the benefits of the State should be reserved for members of the majority culture.
Enter Paul Ryan, from youth a believer in Austrian and monetarist economics and in Ayn Rand, the novelist and pop philosopher who viewed the wealthy as the possessors of all moral merit. Ryan probably believes that refraining from taxing the wealthy would produce more wealth overall, but supports it regardless as a moral value. He may be tactically pragmatic, but has demonstrated an unwavering commitment to shrinking the role of the State as a moral and ideological crusade, which is what he has in common with the ideological leadership of the Tea Party and the members of the House Freedom Caucus. Unlike Lee Atwater and John Ehrlichman, they no longer see law-and-order and anti-tax policies as racial code. The grifters fooled their successors.
So, when Caucus members and Republican “mainstream” congresspersons, who are ideologically identical, ran into a buzzsaw at town halls from red-state crowds dependent on Obamacare, they had a conceptual as well as tactical problem. They had made the mistake of taking the sales pitch for the product because they are the generational inheritors of the modern conservative movement, not its architects. They either will not acknowledge or don’t realize the role of white racial resentment in forming conservative allegiance in the general population.
For a decisive minority of white people in the nation’s interior, the consequences of deindustrialization can naturally be blamed on trade, aid, the rising minority share of the population, and immigration, even if the facts do not support that conclusion. Neither do they see any conflict between that view and the other tenets of modern American conservatism. Unlike the ideologues in the conservative media and on the Hill, they see no conflict between interventionist, protectionist Herrenvolk Democracy and “religious freedom” laws, the Drug War, and “tax reform.” This explains why, despite the protestations of pundits, the vast majority of Republican voters had no trouble touching Trump on their voting screens. Paul Ryan may have forgotten he was talking in code, but the voters didn’t. They wanted the benefits of the State, as manifested in the ACA, at the same time as they wanted the racially-specific “undeserving” excluded from such benefits. That’s why the House GOP’s American Health Care Act, which would have penalized exactly the modest-income middle-aged whites who were Donald Trump’s margin of victory in the Rust Belt, had a 17% approval rate even though it was what the GOP had been promising for years.
Ultimately, American Conservatism is in a crisis because its leaders don’t know what movement they’re leading.