Shelby Steele has written an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal which purports to explain why the Republican Party cannot make inroads among persons of color. According to Steele, conservatives (whom Steele conflates with Republicans) do not appeal to people of color because Democrats have seduced them with a mutated form of liberalism that rejects individualism and replaces it with a politics of redemption.
Steele argues that "redemptive liberalism" attracts persons of color because it offers "moral accountability" for the nation's history of racism. Steele argues that liberals have used this moral trope to justify "social engineering," achieved through activism around particular causes like "integration" and "diversity." Conservatives, by contrast, would rather "ensure individual freedom" and leave the rest to the "invisible hand."
Steele argues that conservatives' focus on individualism, discipline and market principles alienates people of color for a couple of reasons. First, individualism and limited government are wholly inadequate vehicles for constructing a narrative of moral accountability. Second, people of color expect "moral activism" because they -- "especially blacks . . . are often born into grievance-focused identities." Whereas moral political activism appeals to a grievance-based culture, the "invisible hand" does not.
Problems With Steele's Arguments
Steele's arguments are troubling on many levels. I will now turn to some of the weaknesses in his essay.
Internally Inconsistent. Steele argues that persons of color have a "grievance identity," which he portrays as antithetical to conservatism. But Steele also observes that "blacks and Hispanics often poll more conservatively than whites on most social issues," which he says should make them attractive candidates for the Republican Party. Steele's observation concerning the embrace of social conservatism among persons of color is correct, but this fact undermines his simplistic effort to link Democratic support among persons of color with a grievance culture. Instead, the situation is far more complex.
Voters of all races are complicated. They often make compromises and prioritize among many issues. Civil rights concerns appeal to persons of color because they believe that remedying ongoing and past discrimination is an important function of government. Steele, however, reduces this belief in and desire for concrete solutions to a pie in the sky fantasy concerning American innocence and morality. Opinion polls, however, tend to show that people of color -- especially blacks -- have a far more cynical attitude concerning the status of race relations and the prospect for racial change.
Conservatism Is Contradictory. While conservatives espouse the virtues of limited government, they often embrace governmental intervention into some of the most personal areas of our lives, including pregnancy, abortion, sexual orientation, marriage, and consumption of "obscene" materials like pornography and even "sex toys." They also support very strict restraints on liberty by expanding the criminal law, promoting heavy sentencing, and condoning highly permissive policing methods that invade personal privacy and autonomy. The "invisible hand" is only selectively invisible, and quite often, the results of conservative-sponsored governmental intervention has a disparate impact on persons of color. These policies, not a grievance culture, explain the inability of the GOP to appeal to many persons of color.
Steele's Claims Are Ahistorical. Steele argues that the 1960s civil rights legislation, busing, and Great Society programs form the redemptive glue that keeps people of color locked in the Democratic Party. But Steele's analysis could benefit from a richer appreciation of history -- and from a more deliberate effort to distinguish among different racial groups.
Blacks, for example, began voting for Democrats in great numbers in 1936, when Roosevelt received almost 80 percent of black votes. The only interruption in this pattern occurred when Dwight Eisenhower received 40 percent of black votes; his opponent, Adlai Stevenson, chose a southern segregationist as a running mate. The pattern has spiked in recent years (even before Obama) even though civil rights concerns have not dominated the Democratic Party's agenda. Bill Clinton dared to tinker with "welfare as we know it," but he maintained popularity among blacks, even though welfare is a New Deal/Great Society prized jewel.
Other groups of persons of color tend to vote for Democrats even though they do not fit neatly within the "redemptive" model Steele portrays. The busing controversy, for example, did not implicate Asian Americans as it did blacks and Latinos. And much of the civil rights legislation responded directly to black social movements. But a majority of Asian Americans vote for Democrats. On the issue of internment of Japanese Americans, a Democrat (FDR) issued the executive orders permitting the practice, and a Republican (Reagan) signed the reparations legislation into law.
Among Latinos, Cuban-Americans have voted for Republicans because the Republican Party has utilized governmental power to penalize Cuba. The "invisible hand' does not exist in this context, and Republicans have gained tremendously from governmental restraints on trade with and travel to Cuba. Perhaps what Steele calls a system of grievance and redemption is really old-fashioned political patronage, in which both parties engage.
Final Thoughts. I do not believe in an "us/them" dichotomy. Many essays on this blog, for example, criticize liberals and defend Republicans (even though I am a progressive). Only nonpartisan scrutiny of the nation's problems will produce workable solutions. Steele's essay is explicitly partisan.
I believe in a two-party or multiple-party political system, and for that reason, I hope that a credible second-party emerges (even if it is the GOP). Nonpartisans across the political spectrum must do the necessary work to make political and social progress a possibility.
(Updated/edited for style 3/17)