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‘What’s The Matter With Conservatives?’

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Writing in The Atlantic, Yoni Appelbaum offers a provocative essay whose thesis is that the US is in for a period of great political turmoil as the percentage of whites declines, and the Republican Party in turn loses power. He writes, in part:

What has caused such rancor? The stresses of a globalizing, postindustrial economy. Growing economic inequality. The hyperbolizing force of social media. Geographic sorting. The demagogic provocations of the president himself. As in Murder on the Orient Express, every suspect has had a hand in the crime.

But the biggest driver might be demographic change. The United States is undergoing a transition perhaps no rich and stable democracy has ever experienced: Its historically dominant group is on its way to becoming a political minority—and its minority groups are asserting their co-equal rights and interests. If there are precedents for such a transition, they lie here in the United States, where white Englishmen initially predominated, and the boundaries of the dominant group have been under negotiation ever since. Yet those precedents are hardly comforting. Many of these renegotiations sparked political conflict or open violence, and few were as profound as the one now under way.

Within the living memory of most Americans, a majority of the country’s residents were white Christians. That is no longer the case, and voters are not insensate to the change—nearly a third of conservatives say they face “a lot” of discrimination for their beliefs, as do more than half of white evangelicals. But more epochal than the change that has already happened is the change that is yet to come: Sometime in the next quarter century or so, depending on immigration rates and the vagaries of ethnic and racial identification, nonwhites will become a majority in the U.S. For some Americans, that change will be cause for celebration; for others, it may pass unnoticed. But the transition is already producing a sharp political backlash, exploited and exacerbated by the president. In 2016, white working-class voters who said that discrimination against whites is a serious problem, or who said they felt like strangers in their own country, were almost twice as likely to vote for Trump as those who did not. Two-thirds of Trump voters agreed that “the 2016 election represented the last chance to stop America’s decline.” In Trump, they’d found a defender.

Appelbaum makes the usual argument that if the Republicans don’t find some way to appeal to Americans beyond its white Christian base, it will be inevitably doomed, owing to demographic change. Republicans don’t see this, he says, and are doubling down on identity politics. He writes:

The GOP’s efforts to cling to power by coercion instead of persuasion have illuminated the perils of defining a political party in a pluralistic democracy around a common heritage, rather than around values or ideals.

Read the whole thing.It’s good, and the demographic problem for Republicans that he writes about really is undeniable. But the essays blind spots are at least as illuminating as its strengths.

By now we should all be aware that in general, conservatives understand liberals better than liberals understand conservatives. Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt wrote about why this is so. It’s not that every conservative understands every liberal better than the opposite; it’s a general trend, and it has to do, says Haidt, with different moral frameworks that we work into our psychology.

What I find so telling about Appelbaum’s essay is that he assumes that Republicans are the only ones practicing identity politics, as opposed to appealing to “values and ideals.” He apparently doesn’t see that the “values and ideals” promoted by liberals, and the Democrat Party, are explicitly or implicitly anti-white, anti-Christian, and anti-male. Obviously liberals don’t see it that way; what they call “diversity and inclusion,” we conservatives recognize clearly as left-wing identity politics aimed to exclude and disempower us. Remember earlier this year, rising Democrat Stacey Abrams, an African-American, said that her party should not pretend it doesn’t practice identity politics, because “identity politics is exactly who we are.”

I don’t know why an essayist as intelligent and as perceptive as Appelbaum can’t see what the world looks like to Christian conservatives like me. I wouldn’t expect him to share my point of view, as he is neither Christian nor conservative, but when we look out at the world, we see not simply a world in which we are not in power, but one in which people who regard us as evil and actively seek to punish us are coming into power. I know plenty of highly educated Christian conservatives with whom Appelbaum could have a deep, rich discussion about any number of topics, who are at ease with pluralism, and who think Donald Trump is a disgrace … but who are probably going to vote for him in 2020, because they understand well what a Democratic Party victory means for them. Most of these people are academics, and are small minorities within their professional milieux. They see up close and personal what’s coming for people like them.

My point here is simply that the demographic changes Appelbaum correctly cites as having a tectonic shift in American politics tell a far more complex story than he allows for. I do not see the Left as standing for ideals, as opposed to ethnic and identity-politics interests. The Democratic Party is far more an identity-politics party than the Republicans are, though this is not the narrative we get in the media, which is overwhelmingly liberal. Look, I’m not going to say that Republicans don’t play identity politics. They do — but all political parties do. I hope I don’t sound like a vulgar Marxist, but it really is true that sometimes, power-holders and power-seekers drape class interests in gauzy veils of moral idealism. I think Appelbaum completely misses the extent to which the Democratic Party has become aggressively hostile to those who don’t share its core ideals — and, in turn, how they too are driving the turmoil.

I want to go back to this observation by Appelbaum:

The GOP’s efforts to cling to power by coercion instead of persuasion have illuminated the perils of defining a political party in a pluralistic democracy around a common heritage, rather than around values or ideals.

This is awfully rich coming from someone within a political tradition whose most progressive, active wing constantly attempts to silence dissent on campuses. More importantly, it’s just not an accurate description of our situation. As far back as 1981, Alasdair MacIntyre observed that emotivism — a view that entails the substitution of emoting for reasoning — is the dominant driver of contemporary discourse. We all do this! Appelbaum’s argument reminds me of an exchange I had back in the 1980s with an elderly relative in my hometown, speaking about local politics:

Him: “The problem with the black folks around here is that they always bloc-vote for candidates.”

Me: “But white folks do the same thing.”

Him: “No we don’t. We always vote for the most qualified candidate.”

Me: “Who always happens to be the white one.”

He did not understand what I was getting at. To him, the political choices of white people were always well-reasoned, while blacks were the ones who voted on emotion. He was right: black voters in our parish bloc-voted for the black candidate, if there was one, or the white candidate that their pastors endorsed. White voters bloc-voted for the white candidate, if a black one was the opponent. If the candidates were all white, then it didn’t matter. Because of his own prejudices, my relative genuinely didn’t understand that white voting was every bit as emotivist as black voting. I think Appelbaum is making the same mistake from the other side in his essay.

The truth is, we are probably moving into a political world of irreconcilable differences. It is hard to see on what basis we could find political compromise, given how extreme people in both parties (as Appelbaum notes) regard the political other. Conservatives like me, who are accustomed to working in liberal spaces, are familiar with the unreflective liberal stance holding that the only reason conservatives don’t agree with liberals is irrational prejudice — in which case I would ask: Who is doing the emoting here, instead of reasoning?

Side note: The other day, I heard a very long NPR interview with LA Times reporter Gustavo Arellano, talking about the effects of Prop 187, the controversial 1994 California measure that prohibited illegal immigrants from receiving public services. Arellano, who’s a good writer and a great radio talker, spoke of it solely from a Latino point of view, as a moment of anti-GOP political awakening. I have no problem with Arellano speaking his opinion about this, of course, but if you go to NPR’s website, you’ll see that they had no interest in speaking with a conservative about Prop 187 (which died in a court challenge), and the subsequent demise of the GOP, and the overwhelming of the state by immigrants. If you read California scholar and writer Victor Davis Hanson on how immigration has changed the state, you’ll hear a fascinating counternarrative. But NPR — Diverse And Inclusive™ — doesn’t want to hear that. It knows who is right, and who doesn’t deserve to be heard from, because they are on the wrong side of history.

Sure, this is just one small example of the kind of thing conservatives are used to from our media. But it reveals to me the hidden biases in the diagnosis of even someone as smart as Yoni Appelbaum. To wrap up: he’s correct to point out that the GOP, and American conservatism, has a big demographic problem. But he’s very wrong to assume that Republicans and conservatives are reacting irrationally and emotionally to this crisis. In fact, a lot of what Republicans and conservatives do is reasonable in light of the policies and acts of Democrats and liberals. It ain’t paranoia if they really are out to get ya.


about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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