Cliven Bundy and the Soul of Modern Conservatism

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An excerpt of this post first appeared in The Washington Post.

Rancher Cliven Bundy, middle, addresses his supporters along side Clark County Sheriff Doug Gillespie, right, on April 12, 2014. (AP Photo/Las Vegas Review-Journal, Jason Bean)

Rancher Cliven Bundy, middle, addresses his supporters along side Clark County Sheriff Doug Gillespie, right, on April 12, 2014. (AP Photo/Las Vegas Review-Journal, Jason Bean)

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.

Let’s be clear: modern conservatism is not fueled by rampant hate-every-black-person racism.
Let’s be clear: modern conservatism is not fueled by rampant hate-every-black-person racism. Almost every American — Republican leaders and supporters included — genuinely condemns Bundy’s bilious statements. Yet rejecting any account that paints conservatives as secret Klan members is where we should start, not end, the conversation.

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.

Ian Haney López on the Dog Whistle Politics of Race
Testifying to the success of dog whistle politics, after 1964, Republican candidates have won the white vote in every single presidential election. The vision Novak reported of a “White Man’s Party” now looms: whites make up almost nine out of 10 Republican voters, as well as 98 percent of its elected state officials. Meanwhile, a recent study found that roughly four out of five Republicans express resentment against African-Americans, a staggering 79 percent (this contrasts with a still discouragingly high 30 percent among Democrats).

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?

Ian Haney López is a law professor at UC Berkeley, a senior fellow at Demos and the author of three books. His writings have appeared across a range of sources, from the Yale Law Journal to The New York Times. Follow Ian Haney López on Twitter: @dogwhistlerace
Ian Haney López, a UC Berkeley law professor and senior fellow at Demos, is the author of Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class (2014). His writings have appeared across a range of sources, from the Yale Law Journal to The New York Times. Follow Ian Haney López on Facebook and Twitter: @IanHaneyLopez
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