After I wrote about Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy’s remarks about the benefits of slavery, and the ways in which conservative narratives benefit from the idea that African Americans were better off in the past, the calls for balance started rolling in.
Sean Spicer, communications director at the Republican National Committee, pinged me on Twitter to complain that my piece had not included similarly stupid remarks by members of the left. I am entirely happy to say that it is really, deeply stupid for a Democratic campaign — in this case, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn’s — to tweet out a foolish piece calling black conservatives race traitors and comparing them to Jewish Nazis.
This sort of tribalism is awful communications strategy. And trying to paint black Republicans as deluded is no substitute for actual legislative, regulatory and legal accomplishments that meet the needs of African American voters. But a single, swiftly defeated tweet is also not the same thing as a pattern of denying the historical truth of slavery.
Similarly, a reader wrote in to complain that I must be biased because I had not also written about the remarks of Alvin Holmes, a Democratic Alabama state representative. Holmes recently said of white legislators who opposed abortion, “if their daughter got pregnant by a black man, they are going to make their daughter have an abortion.”
Again, I have no issues saying that these sorts of remarks are ridiculous. Holmes may have been trying to make a point about the extent of what he sees as white legislators’ antipathy for Alabama African Americans, but suggesting that they would be only too happy to abort mixed-race pregnancies is not a way to make that point land. Holmes scores no points by attributing motives to white legislators, in much the same way that Phil Robertson and Cliven Bundy’s projections onto black cotton field workers or public housing residents only makes Robertson and Bundy look blinkered.
But once again, saying that your opponents think nasty things is not actually the same thing as suggesting slavery and Jim Crow were beneficial. The former is nasty and low, but it is also different in scope and significance from trying to recast the wound of slavery and segregation as a condition devoutly to be missed.
The differences in these kinds of rhetoric matter, as does the reception that greeted people who uttered them. Bundy’s radically anti-government views were on the way to making him the sort of figure who might have grandly received Republican primary contenders at his ranch, up until the moment when he started talking about race. But if I missed the news cycle where national Democrats held Holmes and Quinn’s campaign as a heroic truth-tellers, much like national Republicans did with Bundy, please do let me know.
When you feel like your side of the aisle is in a siege, it is tempting to insist that the other side ought to get some of the same shrapnel. But instead of trying to manufacture equivalence where none exists, it might be more productive for the kinds of conservatives who wrote to me to try to be dispassionate about the differences between the sorts of speech that make national headlines and the small-potatoes ridiculousness that stays local. And it might be useful for conservatives to evaluate why these messes keep happening.
Some of that work is already underway. At the Daily Caller, Matt K. Lewis has written that using liberal-bashing as a credential has elevated any number of embarrassments into major figures. “Just because someone is being victimized does not bestow upon them the quality of virtue. What is more, the fact that someone is standing up to our political enemies (think Donald Trump, Ted Nugent, et al.,) does not, in and of itself, make them a worthy or honorable partner.”
On Fox News, my colleague Charles Krauthammer goes further, making the point that romanticizing a rejection of federal authority often ends in embarrassment. “This is a man who said that he doesn’t recognize the authority of the United States of America. That makes him a patriot?” Krauthammer asked. Anti-government language has been a powerful rhetorical tool, but it is difficult to sever those sentiments from the neo-Confederate sentiments that trail stubbornly behind it. Maybe it is time to try to elevate a different path to conservative stardom.
That such routes might be tough to walk given the Republican Party’s recent history does not mean they do not exist. The libertarian writer Jonathan Blanks, who is a friend and a powerful influence on my own thinking, is a powerful advocate for two ideas that could be made in concert more frequently: that defenses of secession are obscene on libertarian grounds and that African-Americans have plenty of reasons to seek limits on government power.
I would never deny that liberals can do better. But I also see a lot of work on race underway, whether it is young feminists trying to elevate the particular concerns of women of color or calls for Mayor Bill de Blasio to make good on his campaign promises on everything from “stop and frisk” to the treatment of the Central Park Five.
Attempts to create false equivalence between the left and the right on race are not just a problem because they attempt to assert an ethical equality that makes everyone look bad. They are an excuse not to act at all, rather than to seek specific solutions for both conservative and liberal failings on race. If we are all equally bad, neither conservatives nor liberals have to do better on race for moral reasons or for strategic ones.