A Non-Racist Conservative Movement Must Look Beyond the Bipartisan 1990s

President Bill Clinton with a police officer.
President Bill Clinton with a police officer. Photo: Dirck Halstead/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images

Ross Douthat’s Tuesday column for the New York Times responds to a piece I wrote last week about how American conservatism without racism is a doomed electoral project. He charts a cautiously optimistic path forward for those on the right who wish to leave behind the racist appeals — if not necessarily the racist policies — that have enabled their movement’s political relevance for much of the past 50 years. He acknowledges that a daunting number of stars would have to align for the Republican Party to simultaneously default on its debt to bigotry and avoid electoral ruin. He helpfully outlines what these preconditions might be: bipartisan agreement on immigration that isn’t too far left; religious conservatives rebuking racism en masse; electoral defeats for Republicans in Georgia and Texas in 2020; and statesmen who can attract moderate voters repelled by the Democrats’ recent leftward shift — especially on issues of race, where Douthat says white liberal pessimism has leap-frogged that of even nonwhite people.

His evidence for the plausibility of this celestial alignment has two components: First, he argues correctly that, despite its racism, the modern Republican Party has backed enough non-racist initiatives — from Nixon’s support for some elements of the Great Society to Reagan’s more liberal immigration policies — that it would be false to cast the party as one exclusively dedicated to defending white supremacy. This is not as revelatory as Douthat seems to think: Few people would argue that the GOP’s main function is to perpetuate racism — nor is doing so necessary to convey that its reliance on racism for votes is so profound as to render such a distinction irrelevant. But his second piece of evidence is more revealing: the bipartisan consensus of the 1990s. In Douthat’s telling, the early part of this decade was “dominated by racially polarizing controversies over crime, welfare and affirmative action” that “had receded” by the second Bush presidency “because the racialized issues dividing the country circa 1992 were somewhat successfully addressed by politicians of both parties.” For Douthat, the fruits of comity were successful social policy and economic growth: “The Clinton-Gingrich years brought compromises on welfare reform and affirmative action, successful policing strategies that helped bring down the crime rate, and an economic boom that made every policy debate seem somewhat less zero-sum.”

If similar circumstances are required for the GOP to forsake racism today, then there’s little reason for optimism. Douthat insists that the bipartisan alliance on crime and welfare during the 1990s “was not just a case of white America making deals at black America’s expense and congratulating itself”; but his evidence for this — opinion polls from the time showing a “relatively optimistic view of race relations” shared by black and white Americans — is unconvincing. If the draconian restrictions on public assistance and spiking incarceration rates of the Clinton-era consensus didn’t engender hard feelings, it’s also worth noting that optimism is a poor measure of racism’s material reality. One can be optimistic about inequality even as it persists, even to a dramatic degree. This is especially true if, like black Americans in the early 2000s, past decades were almost always — and by many measures, more — restrictive. A more compelling argument might be that the 1994 crime bill signed by President Clinton and supported by Republicans enjoyed significant black support at the time. But even this glosses over how poorly these policies have aged and the desperate circumstances that facilitated their passage: Pleas for safety in black neighborhoods wracked by violence as a result of segregation and concentrated disinvestment had been ignored for so long that many black people were willing to try anything — even those who warned of the ruinous impact such policies would eventually have on their communities.

And that’s leaving aside that Democrats and Republicans finding common ground on welfare and crime was all but preordained. Ever since the Nixon presidency, the GOP had been successfully painting its Democratic opponents as soft on crime — a designation meant to signal the GOP’s comparative unwillingness to indulge black protesters, rioters, and criminals. That protests and crime were twin responses to the material conditions imposed on black people by white people failed to resonate with enough Americans to preclude the use of harsher policing as a primary countermeasure. Social problems that stemmed from dismal economic, educational, and housing opportunities were thus greeted with police bullets, batons, and handcuffs — often at the expense of comparable investments in the areas of greatest need.

This approach was devastating for low-income black people. But it drew so many white people to the GOP that Democrats had good reason to fear electoral disaster if they didn’t respond in kind. Ronald Reagan’s salvos against welfare recipients — represented in his speeches by references to a black “welfare queen” who routinely abused government largesse — further advanced the notion that working-class white people were the backbone of America’s economy and the custodians of its culture of self-reliance, while black people were leeches bleeding it dry. By the time Reagan’s vice-president, George H.W. Bush, cemented his 1988 presidential-election victory by invoking a Massachusetts furlough program championed by his Democratic opponent, Michael Dukakis, that freed Willie Horton from prison long enough to commit a brutal rape, it had become clear that voters yearned for leadership that would protect their bodies from black criminals and their wallets from black freeloaders. In this light, Bill Clinton’s presidency was largely a rebuke of conservative efforts to cast Democrats as soft — and a shining example of what can be accomplished when the parties set aside their differences and agree that punishing black people is the solution to many of their problems.

Decades later, there’s still no expert consensus that expanded policing and more prisons during the Clinton era were actually the cause of the quarter-century drop in crime rates that followed. There is, however, abundant evidence that Douthat’s vaunted period of consensus was enabled by the arrest and imprisonment of record numbers of people, most of them black, and many for milder crimes and longer sentences than at almost any other point in American history. But the more fundamental problem with his frame is that it locates racial harmony somewhere between the platforms of the Democratic and Republican parties. Democrats have rarely been paragons of non-racism — as the era that Douthat describes in glowing terms starkly illustrates. Even the Obama presidency was defined in large part by activist pressure to get the party to end disparities in the criminal-justice system. That electing Trump was the conservative retort suggests that, even amid record-low crime rates and a growing economy, the interracial discord that Douthat describes had less to do with material conditions in America than the degree to which white people felt their anxieties were being catered to. The Republican brand has long been to indulge them. But a non-racist politics, including a non-racist conservatism, must demand more of itself than merely finding a middle ground between the wants of frightened white people and those begging them for mercy. It must aspire to more than a precarious “muting,” to use Douthat’s term, of racial polarization predicated on Jerry Falwell Jr. discovering his conscience and John Cornyn losing his Senate seat. If the 1990s and early 2000s are the best we can expect from American conservatives for the foreseeable future, there isn’t much left over to recommend salvaging their political project from what it has become.

A Non-Racist Conservatism Must Look Beyond the 1990s