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David Brooks says conservatism has failed, but he misses the biggest reason: race

'No Labels' Political Organization Launches As Counterpoint To Tea Party (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

New York Times columnist David Brooks thinks things look great for the conservative movement — despite the looming disaster in November.

In Friday morning’s column, Brooks laments the state of the GOP under Donald Trump but argues that the future belongs to a new class of young, urban conservative intellectuals. The night, in Brooks’s telling, is darkest before the dawn.

“As conservatism has become a propagandistic, partisan movement it has become less vibrant, less creative and less effective,” Brooks writes. “But I confess I’m insanely optimistic about a conservative rebound.”

Brooks’s diagnosis of the conservative predicament is that the conservative movement has been led astray by a combination of media hucksters like Rush Limbaugh, “evangelicals” who care more about electoral victory than moral values, and the movement’s own failure to update its policy solutions for changing economic times.

But, he says, these are all fixable problems. Trump’s likely defeat should discredit the figures who have backed him, opening up space for a younger generation of conservatives to repair the movement and the Republican Party.

“A Trump defeat could cleanse a lot of bad structures and open ground for new growth,” he writes. “It was good to be a young conservative back in my day. It’s great to be one right now.”

Brooks does identify real problems with the conservative movement. But he leaves out the biggest issue the party faces: race.

In the column, Brooks paints a rosy version of conservative history, one that skates over the movement’s dependence on racial dog whistling to appeal to the voters that Trump has openly courted. He ignores the historical and ongoing Republican reliance on these votes — but it’s at the heart of the problems he identifies in the column. Without acknowledging that openly, and trying to fix it directly, Brooks’s favorite conservative “reform” ideas leave a lot to be desired. If you can’t explain how the GOP will address a more diverse America, you’ve lost the plot.

Or as ESPN’s Tom Junod put it in a perfectly pithy Twitter response: “The great conservative crisis is that [David Brooks] can write a whole column on the great conservative crisis without mentioning race.”

Brooks’s conservative origin story is a whitewashed myth

Martin Luther King Jr. during his renowned “I Have a Dream” speech.
Pictured: not conservatism’s favorite person.
AFP/Getty Images

Brooks’s column centers on a history of the modern conservative movement — one in which towering thinkers like William F. Buckley pushed out the fringe crowd and turned the right into a sophisticated intellectual force.

“The Buckley-era establishment self-confidently enforced intellectual and moral standards,” Brooks writes. “It rebuffed the nativists like the John Birch Society, the apocalyptic polemicists who popped up with the New Right, and they exiled conspiracy-mongers and anti-Semites.”

Note that Brooks does not mention this establishment exiling the racists. That’s because the conservative establishment was itself racist.

National Review, William F. Buckley’s magazine, avowedly rejected the civil rights movement. In a 1957 editorial, the publication defended the political disenfranchisement of black people, arguing that “the White community is so entitled [to deny blacks the vote] because, for the time being, it is the advanced race.”

The publication reiterated the same stance in a 1960 follow-up. "We offer the following on the crisis in the Senate and the South: In the Deep South the Negroes are, by comparison with the Whites, retarded,” the editorial explains. “Leadership in the South, then, quite properly rests in White hands.”

The conservative movement first gained control over the Republican Party in 1964, when movement heartthrob Barry Goldwater won the nomination for the presidency. Goldwater’s defining stance, at least in the eyes of black Americans, was his opposition to the Civil Rights Act.

Now, Goldwater, unlike other leading conservatives, was not personally racist. He opposed the act on libertarian grounds, arguing that forced desegregation of businesses was unacceptable government interference in the marketplace. National Review made similar arguments when it wasn’t talking about the “advanced race.”

But the nominal race blindness of the position was not why it was popular. Extensive historical and political science research shows that the rise of the Republican Party in the South came directly from winning over racist Democrats disillusioned by the party’s embrace of civil rights under Kennedy and Johnson.

“The timing of the onset of serious state-level Republican campaigns [in the South] ... coincided with the commitment of the Democratic Party nationally to a civil rights agenda,” CalTech historian J. Morgan Kousser writes.

This was not an accident. The conservative movement needed some way to make its ideas about limited government appealing to a large constituency. Southern whites had, prior to 1964, favored government assistance for the poor — as long as it only benefited whites. The conservative movement forced a choice: Either support government intervention in the market OR oppose civil rights. You can’t have both.

Southern whites picked the latter. They glommed onto conservative ideology not because of a deep commitment to libertarian ideology but because it was the best vehicle for opposing the expansion of civil rights.

Brooks’s contention that the early GOP “enforced moral standards” only makes sense if you exclude anti-racism as a moral value.

Race is why the Republican Party remains broken

Black Lives Matter demonstrators in Ferguson, Missouri.
Picutured: not conservatism’s favorite movement.
(Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Why does all this history matter? Because it explains how the Republican Party got to the state Brooks lamented — and why his proposed solutions are entirely unpromising.

Brooks thinks the Republican Party’s basic problem is its old elite class. As these people die off, he theorizes, the GOP will emerge fresh, buoyed by a young class of thinkers who have gotten past all of these racial hangups:

While most of the crazy progressives are young, most of the crazy conservatives are old. Conservatism is now being led astray by its seniors, but its young people are pretty great. It’s hard to find a young evangelical who likes Donald Trump. Most young conservatives are comfortable with ethnic diversity and are weary of the Fox News media-politico complex. Conservatism’s best ideas are coming from youngish reformicons who have crafted an ambitious governing agenda (completely ignored by Trump).

This assumes, though, that there’s a base for conservative ideas when they’re untethered from racial resentment. But as the above history shows, that’s never actually been the case. Limited government ideology has only been able to find a large enough audience to be nationally viable when it has served as a vehicle for white supremacy. Racism plays a major role in the growth of fringe right-wing media and allows the party to get away with the failure to update its ideological views that Brooks laments.

This is a point that Avik Roy, one of those young conservative reformists that Brooks admires so much, made forcefully in a conversation with me this July. People like Brooks, Roy argues, are deluding themselves — and it’s preventing a true conservative rhetoric about the rise of Trump.

“Conservative intellectuals, and conservative politicians, have been in kind of a bubble,” Roy says. “We’ve had this view that the voters were with us on conservatism — philosophical, economic conservatism. In reality, the gravitational center of the Republican Party is white nationalism.”

The available research strongly backs him up. Lee Drutman, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, charted Republican and Democratic feelings of "warmness" toward blacks (rated on a 1 to 100 scale). He found a consistent gap, one that has widened over time:

Javier Zarracina

This kind of voter powered Trump’s victory. Michael Tesler, a professor at the University of California Irvine, took a look at “racial resentment” scores (a way political scientists measure racism) among Republican primary voters in the past three GOP primaries. In 2008 and 2012, Tesler found, Republican voters who scored higher were less likely to vote for the eventual winner. The more racial bias you harbored, the less likely you were to vote for Mitt Romney or John McCain.

With Trump, the opposite was the case. The more a person saw black people as lazy and undeserving, the more likely they were to vote for the self-proclaimed billionaire.

(Javier Zarracina)

The party’s base, according to Tesler, is increasingly being whittled down to people who hold anti-black, anti-Hispanic, and anti-Muslim prejudices. That’s how Trump, a man who couldn’t give a damn about the conservative movement’s august intellectual tradition, won the Republican nomination.

"The party’s growing conservatism on matters of race and ethnicity provided fertile ground for Trump’s racial and ethnic appeals to resonate in the primaries," Tesler wrote at the Washington Post in August. "So much so, in fact, that Donald Trump is the first Republican in modern times to win the party’s presidential nomination on anti-minority sentiments."

It might be the case that younger conservatives are less racist than their older peers. But that ignores the fact that in virtually every poll, younger voters are far more liberal than older ones. This is in part because younger voters are less white than older ones, and nonwhite voters increasingly see the Republican Party and its ideas through the lens of race.

It’s also because, again, there’s never been much of a constituency for Republican-style conservative without the racial appeals. There’s a reason why conservative parties in every other advanced democracy have made their peace with the welfare state and socialized medicine.

Brooks can write all the columns he wants about a hypothetical non-racist Republican Party. His young conservatives can write a thousand white papers, a million magazine editorials. But until they reckon with the fact that conservative ideology has only been able to shape government through an alliance with white supremacy, the future of the right will be grim indeed.