The Magazine

Red Alert

A Blue journalist misunderstands America.

Feb 12, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 21 • By GERARD ALEXANDER
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

So what glue holds together the Republican coalition? Edsall draws on a long line of political commentary and academic research to portray modern American conservatism as a bundle of prejudices and dislikes against minorities and the poor. Foremost, he argues that conservatism is in many ways the heir to George Wallace's electoral base and policy agenda. Conservatives are also reacting against women's liberation. The combination leads Edsall to say succinctly that conservatives aim at "unraveling or reversing the rights revolutions of the 1960s." The Republican party is also where the economically dominant reside, and Edsall notes conservatives' "contempt for the weak." So Republicans are the party of the social, economic, and racial haves, fending off and even exploiting diverse have-nots.

The problems with this interpretation are legion. Historically, Republicans became a competitive and then dominant party in presidential politics by winning "peripheral" southern states like Texas and Florida where racial politics loomed far smaller than in the Deep South. And they did so by attracting votes first, most, and most durably in the South among the more educated, affluent, and urban and suburban voters who formed the GOP's base elsewhere in the country.

That is not Wallaceism. Even less racist are major Republican initiatives to attract Hispanics, and overwhelming support among average Republican voters in 2006 for black candidates like Michael Steele, Kenneth Blackwell, and Lynn Swann. As for Edsall's claim that, even now, conservatives want to reverse the civil rights movement, George Will says, "Please. Who favors rolling back guarantees of voting rights and equal access to public accommodations?" By the same standard, women hold leadership and staff positions throughout the conservative movement. In Edsall's accusations, we are in the realm of either fantasy or demagoguery.

But there's a deeper problem with his analysis. By portraying conservatives the way he does, Edsall is saying that members of the conservative coalition are motivated by narrow self-interest. Whites, males, straights, and the economically comfortable are simply out for themselves, often seeking gains at the expense of others. That's why conservatives oppose affirmative action and gay marriage, are tough on crime, and want to cut taxes and slash welfare. But it is important that Edsall barely discusses foreign policy, which he acknowledges he hasn't covered as a reporter.

Throughout the Cold War, and especially after Vietnam, strong anti-communism and interventionism were distinguishing conservative characteristics. Conservatives and liberals may have clashed on national security policies, but surely these were disagreements about what was in the public interest. This matters because, if we acknowledge the possibility that conservatives had public interests in mind when it came to foreign policy, we risk the parallel possibility that they also supported deregulation, tax cuts, welfare reform, and toughness on crime for publicly interested reasons. It is astonishing and sobering to think that, after all these years, conservatives still need to make the case to people like Thomas Edsall that liberals do not have a monopoly on seeking the common good.

This makes it all the more striking that Edsall also explains conservative success in terms of Republicans' greater political ruthlessness. He describes Democrats as "less aggressive" and approvingly quotes a Democrat saying that "Liberals by their very nature don't get as angry as conservatives do." Apparently, Republicans were tougher than Democrats during the 2000 Florida recount, regularly "Swift boat" their opponents, and turn out their own base voters by carefully researching their "anger points" and then cynically polarizing national politics.

It takes a special kind of cocoon to believe that any party has a monopoly on power-seeking ends and shifty means. In this case, that cocoon involves not associating the Daily Kos's huge audience with pervasive anger on the left, never mentioning brutal Democratic electioneering tactics, and not recognizing that Demo crats routinely mobilize base voters with scare tactics such as Al Gore's election-eve charge in 2000 that George Bush might appoint Supreme Court justices who see African Americans as three-fifths of a human being.