TAC’s Michael Brendan Dougherty, from an interview with The University Bookman:
Your point about African-Americans is an interesting one. During the recent election, Republicans were often accused of making subtle (or not so subtle) racial innuendo, yet since at least Reagan conservatives have in fact opposed a lot of ways liberalism seeks to divide and organize along racial lines. Are the accusations fair, and how can Republicans revivify their color-blind conservative message?
This is a complicated question. At the abstract level, I think intellectual conservatives should understand that in a mass democracy, the conservative appeal may always have a tinge of fear and hatred for those “below” or “outside.” At the same time, liberals have to accept that their policies, however justly conceived, may be sold with resentment and envy. That’s a problem of mass democracy, not conservatism or liberalism. It is a problem that has to be carefully managed.
Granting the above, I don’t think liberals are wrong to point out the jagged racial edge to some conservative politicking. Look at some of the commentary by conservatives about black voters during the era of Obama: “Oh, they just want handouts.” This is a disgusting sentiment and one that makes anything that might appeal to black voters about conservatism toxic by association.
Most conservatives like to think that they have principles that are color-blind: the eternal verities and such. I think this is a kind of self-flattery that excuses historical ignorance on our part. Enslavement stripped Africans of their ethnicities, their languages, and their religion. That means more than any one other group in this country African-Americans are a people created by the history of our nation and its politics: commerce, slavery, the Civil War, emancipation, the civil rights movement. It is a naïveté bordering on psychosis to suggest that black politics should conform to some imagined color-blind set of principles. Just junk that and start reaching out into the black community. I sense a real hunger on their part for political competition for their vote and support.
There is an absolutely electrifying intellectual tradition of black self-sufficiency and independence that is a good fit within a big-tent conservatism. And it is larger than Booker T. Washington. Zora Neal Hurston endorsed Robert Taft in the 1950s. Malcolm X was in many ways both more radical than King and more conservative too. This tradition is not at all color-blind, but it is localist, communitarian, religious (Muslim and Christian), and entrepreneurial. I also think conservatives should start political discussions on our drug war, on prison reform, and on policing that can and should help us re-connect with African Americans.