Monday, March 16, 2009

If Conservatives Listen to Shelby Steele, They Will Never Win Support From People of Color

Steele's Arguments
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)

10 comments:

SteveIL said...

'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.

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.'

How is Steele's argument simplistic when a vast majority (over 75%, and usually higher) of African-Americans consistently vote only for liberal Democrats? Besides, the issues Steele discusses are all linked to the grievance culture (Great Society programs, etc.).

'While conservatives often 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."'

Actually, the Democratic left has been the group that has done this intruding, including what we eat, where we can legally smoke cigarettes, redefining marriage, etc. As far as abortion goes, most conservatives really want to see Roe v. Wade dumped so that a proper debate on abortion can occur.

I think some of the items mentioned after what I quoted above are abused mostly by those on the left, since the left runs every major city in this country and refuses to do anything substantial to reduce criminal activity.

'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).'

For someone who is a "progressive", I've found your blog to be eminently fair. Which is why I have taken the time to read it (usually when you are linked to by Glenn Reynolds).

'On nonpartisan scrutiny of the nation's problems will produce workable solutions. Steele's essay is explicitly partisan.'

I assume you mean "Only nonpartisan scrutiny". I disagree. For decades, the left has used arguments that are hugely partisan under the guise of rhetoric meant to look nonpartisan. Steele blows through those arguments nicely. And to do so, he has to be partisan.

UNRR said...

We probably disagree on many issues, but I thought your criticism of Steele's piece was well-reasoned. I expanded on your point about the GOP and the police in a post I just wrote:

The GOP, Minorities, & the Police

Infidel753 said...

Prof. Hutchinson -- interesting analysis. I'm curious what you think is the primary reason for most racial minorities' strong tendency to vote Democratic -- I think you pretty well debunked the "grievance culture" explanation by pointing out that the voting pattern extends further back in history than such a culture could have been an issue, but why is it, especially when blacks and Hispanics tend statistically to be more hostile to gays and abortion than the national average? I've always assumed it was mostly because blacks and Hispanics tend to be concentrated among the economically disadvantaged, and Democrats have been more interested in directly assisting the economically disadvantaged -- combined, of course, with the greater acceptance among conservatives of explicit racists during the pre-civil-rights period (which would leave sour memories even decades later), but I don't know whether those things were equally true as far back as 1936 either.

And do you think there's any way Republicans could substantially increase their share of minority voters? No matter how socially liberal the democrats get or how much they withdraw from issues like affirmative action or welfare, it just doesn't seem to happen.

Kansas City said...

Steele is an interesting writer and thinker.

But contrary to Prof. Hutchinson, African Americans voting 90% and above for democrats is not "complex." Such one sidedness, while bad for the country and probably for African Americans, reflects the simple proposition that democrats have bought/earned the votes of African Americans. I believe that the matter is now so settled and simple, and not complex, that African Americans give little thought as to who to vote for -- they simply vote democrat.

Steele says it is not likely to change significantly and he is almost certainly correct for the foreseeable future, absent a charismatic African American running as a republican. I'm not sure about his analsis of the reasons, but his conclusion seems almost irrefutable.

The answer to how Republicans can improve their votes with minority voters is obvious, even if unfortunate. They need to find a good Hispanic candidate to run for national office, and then the Hispanic votes will flood their way. And they better beat the democrats to the punch, or they will be in even worse shape than now.

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

Kansas City - thanks for your comments.
If blacks vote for Democrats, despite being social conservatives, they are making complicated choices. I would say the same thing about white poor people who vote for Republicans due to social conservatism, even though they might benefit from and actually support more governmental benefits. You can call that being "bought" or "earned" if you like. I suggested that it was patronage myself, but the choice is not simplistic.

Second, I would say that blacks, like any other demographic groups that votes primarily for one party, still put a lot of thought into their votes. During the nominating period, people must decide on which candidate to support, and Obama really is the only black candidate to have generated so much support among black people.

62% of white men voted for Bush in '04. Regionally, the numbers are even greater. And if you consider "where" black people live, you might see other factors being more relevant than race. Blacks are concentrated in cities and on the coast and in the Deep South. Big city dwellers tend to vote for Democrats, as do coastal states. While the Southeast is a different story, blacks in the large urban areas of the South vote like their white counterparts. Your conclusion that black voters do not "think" could apply across the spectrum to voters in all demographics -- who tend to favor one party over the other (women, men, Latinos, whites, Asian Americans, Catholics, white evangelicals, etc.).

Finally, simply having a "good hispanic" candidate will not necessarily cause Hispanic votes to "flood" to the GOP. richardson barely made a mark among Latinos; he even lost his home state to Hillary Clinton. Your argument, again, suffers because you assume that Latinos (like blacks) vote robotically.

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

Hi, Infidel. Thanks for your comment. When I analyzed the other Steele (Michael), I discussed the problems he would face going for minority voters. I agree that class and civil rights explain black and Latino support for liberal candidates, despite their social conservatism. I think that the GOP must become more moderate and have a less partisan discussion of the role of the state in our society. Democrats should do the same. I believe that both parties inadequately discuss the issue -- but the GOP's "free market" analysis will never create traction for people of color (S. Steele was right but for the the wrong reason).

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

UNRR -- thanks for the comment and for expanding my thoughts. I am intrigued by the idea of an "unreligious rightwing atheist." I will definitely return to your blog. Thanks for visiting.

Kansas City said...

Professor Hutchinson:

Thanks for your response.

But I did not state that blacks do not "think." I stated "African Americans give little thought as to WHO TO VOTE FOR -- they simply vote democrat." (emphasis added) They obviously think, or more accurately thought at some time in the past, about whether to vote democrat. It may well be perfectly understandable and logical that they have aligned with democrats, but at this point, I don't think their voting thought process is not complex. Allow me to pose a question.

What percentage of blacks do you think seriously considered voting for McCain? Or even for George Bush? I think very few and, if that is correct, then the vote of blacks in general is not complicated.

I am sure that a good percentage of blacks normally give thought to who to vote for in the democratic primary (although not really this year), but that seems to be an entirely different issue than their allignment with democrats.

You suggest there are other "demagraphic groups" that vote primarily for one party. I cannot think of any that approach the 90% of blacks for democrats or that would really be analogous to black voting pattern/thought process.

I think it is unfortunate that the black vote has broken one way and, honestly, I don't think there is any other significant demographic groups whose voting is comparable to blacks. Hopefully, it will change someday, but as Steele opined, no time soon.

The horse has left the barn, but I think it would have been great for the country if Colin Powell would have run for president on a number of levels, including changing the 90% black vote for democrats.

I also read again your post and you cited me as stating a "good hispanic," when I said "good Hispanic candidate." It is probably unintentional on your part, but if I was overly sensitive, I would think that you were trying to make me sound racist. Richardson was a buffoon, and by appearances did not even seem like he was Hispanic. I think there is little doubt that if the Republicans nominated an Hispanic, it would move substantial votes.

Kansas City said...

I meant to say "at this point, I don't think their voting thought process is complex" rather than "at this point, I don't think their voting thought process is not complex."

Stray Yellar Dawg? said...

While I agree that the analysis of how persons of color may vote is complex, and multifactorial .... perhaps the most complex "minority" of all is that of the female half of the population.

We are, in fact, not a "minority" at all. But, because we tend to divide ourselves ... we act like one.

If the GOP can cross the great divide, between conservative and progressive women, I posit that they will be a new, and powerful, "second party."

Sarah Palin and Michael Steele, I believe, get this. I'm watching them both closely. And I hope that we don't see some narrow-minded, old guard, "Conservatives" stomp on them.

(Good analysis, BTW, Dr. Hutchinson. I will most certainly be linking you in my blog again... soon.)

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