March 13, 2012, 2:29 pm
Race, Republicans and Realignment
So long as I’m arguing with Jonathan Chait about the nature of the Republican Party, I should say something about his recent case for treating white ethnocentrism as the core of contemporary conservatism. Here, from his sometimes-perceptive, sometimes-less-so essay on the Republican Party in 2012, is Chait’s race-based read on the making and unmaking of a conservative majority:
… the dominant fact of the new Democratic majority is that it has begun to overturn the racial dynamics that have governed American politics for five decades. Whatever its abstract intellectual roots, conservatism has since at least the sixties drawn its political strength by appealing to heartland identity politics. In 1985, Stanley Greenberg, then a political scientist, immersed himself in Macomb County, a blue-collar Detroit suburb where whites had abandoned the Democratic Party in droves. He found that the Reagan Democrats there understood politics almost entirely in racial terms, translating any Democratic appeal to economic justice as taking their money to subsidize the black underclass. And it didn’t end with the Reagan era. Piles of recent studies have found that voters often conflate “social” and “economic” issues. What social scientists delicately call “ethnocentrism” and “racial resentment” and “ingroup solidarity” are defining attributes of conservative voting behavior, and help organize a familiar if not necessarily rational coalition of ideological interests. Doctrines like neoconservative foreign policy, supply-side economics, and climate skepticism may bear little connection to each other at the level of abstract thought. But boiled down to political sound bites and served up to the voters, they blend into an indistinguishable stew of racial, religious, cultural, and nationalistic identity.
Obama’s election dramatized the degree to which this long-standing political dynamic had been flipped on its head … Today, cosmopolitan liberals may still feel like an embattled sect—they certainly describe their political fights in those terms—but time has transformed their rump minority into a collective majority. As conservative strategists will tell you, there are now more of “them” than “us.”
In a follow-up blog post last week, he made a version of the same point, arguing that “the glue holding together the contemporary Republican agenda – the fierce defense of entitlement spending on the elderly, the equally fierce opposition to welfare spending on the young, the backlash against illegal immigration, the nationalist foreign policy, the cultural traditionalism – is ethnocentrism. Republicans are defending the shared cultural prerogatives of a certain group of people.”
So you start your column off with these choice Chiat quotes and one of the first things I think to myself (after the obvious, “what is he smoking?”) is how can he say with a straight face that today’s Republican party is committed to a “fierce defense of entitlement spending on the elderly”?! I just heard Rand Paul on the radio this morning speak eloquently about unsustainable debt and how his 5-year plan to balance the budget didn’t leave anything off the table while reforming Social Security and Medicare (i.e. reforming = cutting spending). Well, sure enough as I make my way through your column, I come to this delightful section:
The same complexities show up in Republican politics today. If defending the privileges and prerogatives of white seniors were as essential to contemporary conservatism as Chait suggests, you would expect the most right-wing and Tea Party-identified Republicans to be the most committed to “the fierce defense of entitlement spending on the elderly.” But from Rick Santorum to the DeMint-Paul-Lee troika in the Senate, more conservative figures in the party tend to be more committed to phasing in entitlement reform sooner rather than later, and the Paul Ryan plan’s senior-friendly promise to preserve Medicare as-is for the over-55 population looks more like a play to the center than to the base. Likewise, Chait’s “old white people” analysis would lead one to expect that Santorum, the last not-Romney True Conservative left standing, would be cleaning up among seniors in the primary campaign and losing among the young. But in most recent primaries, the opposite has happened: Santorum is winning younger voters, while the more moderate-identified Romney wins the elderly.
I couldn’t have said it better myself. Which is why you are the token conservative columnist for the NYT and I’m an anonymous blogger. Keep up the good work!