An excerpt of this post first appeared in The Washington Post.
When Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy laments that today’s “Negro” has not learned to pick cotton, is he merely a racist crackpot or instead an avatar of modern conservatism? The answer is both, in ways that help us understand racism in contemporary politics.
Half a century ago, Republican leaders set us on our present course. In 1963, in the midst of rising anxiety sparked by the civil rights movement, GOP leaders fatefully decided to exploit racial appeals. As the conservative journalist Robert Novak reported, “A good many, perhaps a majority of the party’s leadership, envision substantial political gold to be mined in the racial crisis by becoming in fact, though not in name, the White Man’s Party.” The goal was two-fold: use race to win votes, and to convince voters to distrust liberal government.
Because evolving mores increasingly ruled out naked racial appeals, this new strategy would employ dog whistles — coded terms that were superficially silent about race but triggered strong racial reactions. Back then, seemingly race-neutral phrases like “states’ rights” communicated fierce resistance to the federal government’s push for school integration. Now, without directly mentioning race, “inner city culture” and “food stamp president” implicitly frame the government as wasting whites’ hard-earned tax dollars on welfare for freeloading minorities.
Listen again to Bundy, excoriating federal overreach while musing on whether slavery or government assistance was worse for blacks. Even out on his middle-of-nowhere ranch, with few people of color in sight, Bundy deeply internalized modern conservatism’s core message: liberal government takes from hardworking whites to coddle irresponsible minorities. Yet if he’s a conservative avatar, he’s also a cowboy crackpot, brashly riding past the stricture to always speak in code. Thus conservative leaders, who until his outburst hailed Bundy as a hero, now publicly flee him — but will they stop whistling the same shrill tunes?