Does small-government conservative ideology have racist roots? Academics offer a history lesson.

"It's been a rather important week or so for debates over race in America," one Civil Rights scholar wrote to me this week.


Rancher Cliven Bundy speaks at a news conference near Bunkerville, Nev., Thursday, April 24, 2014.  (AP Photo/Las Vegas Review-Journal, John Locher)

First came the Supreme Court's ruling on an affirmative action case, then racially insensitive comments by Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, and then the firestorm created when an audio tape of a racist tirade allegedly unleashed by LA Clippers' owner Donald Sterling was published by TMZ on Saturday.

While all three had political angles (the Sterling one being the most brief, fleeting, and illegitimate of them all), the Bundy saga was the narrative that drove the most interest in political circles. The rancher has refused to pay grazing fees owed to the federal government for decades and, earlier this year, had an armed standoff with federal officials who attempted to seize his cattle.

The standoff prompted vocal support from some Republicans -- who quickly backtracked after the New York Times published Bundy's comments on race. Even as Republicans scrambled to get away from Bundy's now-toxic views, several liberal academics suggested that Bundy's comments should come as no surprise. They argued that the anti-government rhetoric espoused by the likes of Bundy go hand-in-hand with the GOP's views of minorities. (This wasn't the first time that there had been a robust discussion about whether conservative rhetoric about small government, government social programs, and minorities stem from racist roots. A similar conversation emerged after former GOP vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan made comments about inner city poverty that some interpreted as a coded racial attack. For more on that, check out this Paul Ryan profile by Buzzfeed's McKay Coppins, published yesterday, in which Ryan discusses the controversy.)

"[Bundy] is a window into the soul of modern conservatism,” said Ian Haney López, a law professor at the University of California at Berkeley, who wrote a book called “Dog Whistle Politics, told us last week. “A demonization of minorities and a demonization of the government in modern conservatism — those are inextricably linked.”

Conservatives counter that both parties have racially questionable histories – with both Democrats and Republicans once supporting policies that would now never be considered. When asked about it during an interview last week, former Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele said the idea that small government rhetoric is rooted in racism is "just b******t."

Republicans argue that a distrust it was often the federal government that implemented, or failed to police, racially discriminatory laws of the past and that there is nothing inherently prejudiced about a desire to keep the federal government small and its mission narrow. (In fact, most data suggests that's what a majority of people want from their government.)

We reached out to several academics who have written on Republican ideology and race, and asked them to explain Bundy in the context of the broader conversation about race in the country. Their answers are below.

Haney López, wrote in response:

When Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy laments that today’s “Negro” has not learned to pick cotton, is he merely a racist crackpot or instead an avatar of modern conservatism? The answer is both, in ways that help us understand racism in contemporary politics.

Let’s be clear: modern conservatism is not fueled by rampant hate-every-black-person racism. Almost every American—Republican leaders and supporters included—genuinely condemns Bundy’s bilious statements. Yet rejecting any account that paints conservatives as secret Klan members is where we should start, not the end, the conversation.

Half a century ago, Republican leaders set us on our present course. In 1963, in the midst of rising anxiety sparked by the civil rights movement, GOP leaders fatefully decided to exploit racial appeals. As the conservative journalist Robert Novak reported, “A good many, perhaps a majority of the party’s leadership, envision substantial political gold to be mined in the racial crisis by becoming in fact, though not in name, the White Man’s Party.” The goal was two-fold: use race to win votes, and to convince voters to distrust liberal government.

Because evolving mores increasingly ruled out naked racial appeals, this new strategy would employ dog whistles—coded terms that were superficially silent about race but triggered strong racial reactions. Back then, seemingly race-neutral phrases like “states’ rights” communicated fierce resistance to the federal government’s push for school integration. Now, without directly mentioning race, “inner city culture” and “food stamp president” implicitly frame the government as wasting whites’ hard-earned tax dollars on welfare for freeloading minorities.

Testifying to the success of dog whistle politics, Republican candidates have won the white vote in every single presidential election after 1964. The vision Novak reported of a “White Man’s Party” now looms: whites make up almost nine out of ten Republican voters, as well as 98 percent of its elected state officials. Meanwhile, a recent study found that roughly four of five Republicans express resentment against African Americans, a staggering 79 percent (this contrasts with a still discouragingly high 30 percent among Democrats).

Listen again to Bundy, excoriating federal overreach while musing on whether slavery or government assistance was worse for blacks. Even out on his middle-of-nowhere ranch, with few people of color in sight, Bundy deeply internalized modern conservatism’s core message: liberal government takes from hardworking whites to coddle irresponsible minorities. Yet if he’s a conservative avatar, he’s also a cowboy crackpot, brashly riding past the stricture to always speak in code. Thus conservative leaders, who until his outburst hailed Bundy as a hero, now publicly flee him—but will they stop whistling the same shrill tunes?

Timothy Thurber, a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University who specializes in Civil Rights, political science, and race who authored "Republicans and Race", argued that anti-government rhetoric by the GOP builds skepticism among black voters and remains a major impediment in GOP efforts to attract minority voters.

I would stress that though the federal government, from the very beginning, has often directly and tacitly supported (slavery, segregation, denial of voting rights, etc.) various forms of white supremacy, and has at other times fostered it in its own programs (see some New Deal initiatives of the 1930s, for example), many African Americans have looked to federal authority as a bulwark against forms of discrimination and oppression at the hands of business leaders and state and local governments. The federal government has sometimes acted forcefully to protect African Americans' rights (the Voting Rights Act, for example). Those laws, to be effective, need vigorous enforcement (and the federal personnel to do that).

There is also a strong economic element; African Americans are heavily tied to the forms of federal spending that the GOP has tended to want to cut. Since the early 1970s, public sector employment has been a path to a higher standard of living for many African Americans. Republicans, particularly in the past decade or so, have favored cutting those areas of the budget (even as they favor increased spending elsewhere) that employ many African Americans. Likewise, the recent controversies over Medicaid expansion at the state level have racial aspects. It's not simply about race, but there are ways that race becomes part of these debates.

A politician may not intend to be hostile toward blacks, but for many African Americans intent doesn't really matter. It's the effect of GOP policies that counts.

Donald Critchlow, an Arizona State University history professor who has written extensively on conservative ideology, including "The Conservative Ascendancy: How the GOP made Political History" insisted that Bundy is not representative of a broader problem with conservative ideology.

Bundy should not be used as a Republican poster child.  His offensive comments on inner city black culture in north Las Vegas play into the hands of Democrats who want to make every issue about race. Bundy and the support he has drawn from the right should be a warning to Republicans and Democrats alike that there is wide-spread voter discontent with both parties and a growing anger toward the federal government as too powerful and coercive.

Wesley Lowery covers Capitol Hill for The Fix and Post Politics.
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