According to recent polls, Ben Carson has surged in popularity among likely Republican voters and now finds himself at the top of the GOP presidential primary pack. A recent poll of Iowa Republicans, for example, found Carson tied with Donald Trump for first place. That an African American that has never held political office is now a front-runner in the Republican primaries has surprised many observers.
But his candidacy is perhaps less surprising if you consider two things: the long traditional of black conservatism in America, and how black Republicans like Carson have often appealed to largely white voters.
The idea of a black conservative or a black Republican often feels like an oxymoron. Black people are overwhelmingly loyal to the Democratic Party. In 2012, more than 90 percent of black voters cast ballots for Barack Obama. Their partisanship reflects the advances in racial and social justice championed primarily by the Democratic Party. Given that and the Republican Party’s opposition to some parts of the civil rights agenda, black voters would appear to have little in common with the Republican Party and also modern conservatism.
But clearly there are exceptions to this rule. According to the Pew Research Center, between 5 and 11 percent of blacks either identify as Republican or lean Republican.
Moreover, Carson is not the first black Republican to run for president, and he won’t be the last. He’s also not the first black Republican to be discussed as part of a potential Republican presidential ticket. In 1968 Richard Nixon toyed with tapping liberal Republican Edward Brooke as his vice-presidential running mate, while Gerald Ford placed Brooke high on a private list of potential vice-presidential appointees in 1974. Speculation has also long surrounded Colin Powell, who has declined to run.
Carson, Powell and Brooke, of course, all exhibit different forms of black Republicanism, ranging from liberal to conservative. But to some degree, their belief in Republicanism is undergirded by a kind of general black conservatism.
African Americans are no strangers to conservatism. It crops up in the 19th and early 20th centuries, especially among black churches, despite their political radicalism. Conservative thinking was evident even in some of the most progressive civil rights leaders of the 1960s and 1970s. Even today, studies have shown that about a third of black people self-identify as conservative, although their conservatism rarely translates into support for the Republican Party.
And this is how we make sense of Ben Carson. He comes from a long conservative tradition, one that is rooted in a belief in religious morality, personal responsibility, self-help, individualism and free-market enterprise, and one that sometimes exists outside the boundaries of partisanship. Some have attributed Carson’s switch from ardent Democrat to conservative Republican as a matter of opportunism. That may very well be true, but Carson’s book, Gifted Hands, indicates that he has long exhibited the kind of “everyday black conservatism” that defines a portion of black communities.
Carson also comes from a partisan tradition that has given us figures like Clarence Thomas, Mia Love, Tim Scott and many others. Organizations like the Black Silent Majority Committee in the 1970s, and the Lincoln Institute for Research and Education in the 1980s and 1990s, built on black conservatism and cultivated both Republican activism and the type of partisan rhetoric that Ben Carson currently articulates.
It’s a rhetoric that conservative audiences, almost exclusively white, embrace. Still, Carson is unusual in attracting so much support. And although there are many possible reasons for Carson’s appeal — his religious roots, his “niceness” especially when contrasted with Donald Trump, his career as a surgeon, his position as a political outsider — his message on race may also be a factor.
For white conservative audiences, Carson is “safe.” His words on racism, for instance, while profoundly critical of racist acts, differ sharply from the words of black liberals. For Carson, racism is something to be changed through individual acts rather than something to be eradicated through structural change. Conservative voters can thus look at Carson and have their personal beliefs on race validated, especially because a black man is articulating these same beliefs.
This has happened before. In 1975, for example, Republicans cited the Black Silent Majority Committee’s conservative platform to validate their views on racial issues – even as African American voters routinely rejected the organization’s positions. This fraught relationship even led Clarence Thomas to quip that blacks wanting to be accepted in the GOP needed to become a “caricature of sorts, providing sideshows of anti-black quips and attacks.”
Carson may be a long shot for the presidential nomination, and even the vice-presidential nomination. But even if he doesn’t end up in political office, he could easily become an important consultant to various public and private Republican factions. Thus, there’s a very real chance that Carson may ultimately end up influencing public policies, either directly or indirectly. That is why we should take his candidacy seriously.
After all, over the course of the last 80 years, the GOP has implemented black Republicans’ policies and programs, often favoring those ideas that were firmly couched in conservative thought. And many previous Republican contenders have been able to use their popularity to influence public opinion and party politics. Carson may eventually do the same.
Leah Wright Rigueur is an Assistant Professor of Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. She is the author of The Loneliness of the Black Republican: Pragmatic Politics and the Pursuit of Power (Princeton University Press, 2015). An earlier version of this post appeared at the Princeton University Press blog.