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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  • Anonymous

    What an excellent, concise essay. Thanks for that.

  • destroyideas

    Conservative leaders are saying the freeloader Bundy is “repugnant” for the racist things he’s said, which is ironic because it’s the same crazy crap Michelle Bachman, Rand Paul, and lots of other “respectable” people say all the time. Hell, Paul Ryan basically said the same thing recently, and he was running for Vice President not too long ago.

    Is there any difference between this:

    “We have got this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work, and so there is a real culture problem here that has to be dealt with”

    and this

    “I’m wondering, are they happier now under this government subsidy system than they were when they were slaves and they was able to have a family structure together and chickens and garden and the people have something to do?”

    If you can find a difference, than you can be a political communications staffer.

    The message is the same, the words are different. One is from one of the GOP’s Presidential front runners for 2016 and the other is from a crazed lunatic scofflaw in the Nevada desert.

    Other examples:

    Herman Cain said abortion is “black genocide.”

    This past February, Breitbart posted an article titled: EUGENICISTS REJOICE: MORE BLACK BABIES ABORTED THAN BORN IN NYC

    Conservatives came to Phil Robertson of Duck Dynasty for saying essentially the same thing, “[blacks] weren’t singing the blues.”

  • Joan Harris

    “Wasting whites hard earned tax dollars on welfare for freeloading minorities”. What comes to mind as I read the words of Mr. Lôpez is Mitt Romney’s 47% speech. The conservative sentiment’s true meaning is coded as much to deceive the conservative’s prejudice as it is to influence people’s false sence of fairness. Excellent article.

  • Anonymous

    white welfare is double-than blacks but their welfare is divine and everyone else is theft

    89 cents out of every welfare dollar that is counted-is spent on the white middle-class

    its just like the whole gun thing and crime-

    a white person is more likely to shoot themselves in the face “Suicide” than ever being killed by a minority-

    truth is- white gun owners are more dangerous to themselves than anyone else

    white suicide by gun is double the homicide rate in america

  • John Angell

    Give me a break. A professor from UC Berkeley weighs in on conservatism, and – big surprise – he follows the narrative of racism. If anyone can appreciate cultural relativity it should be a left-wing college professor, and were Bundy anything besides a white Christian male he’d be bending over backwards to explain the context of his comments.

  • Bruce Gescheidle

    The KKK was abandoned, so the John Birch Society rose. When JBS dropped from favor, there was the Moral Majority, which morphed over a few years into The Tea Party. Maybe they aren’t as overtly racist as in past years, but they are certainly elitist, which could actually be more sinister.

  • destroyideas

    Since when is racism “cultural relativism?”

  • Anonymous

    Well, I doubt anything other than a white Christian would have made those comments. Be that as it may, though, Mr. Bundy is the face of “conservatism” in the early 21st century.

  • Pipercat

    Aunt Sally’s husband…

  • Anonymous

    Once upon a time racist views were expressed in terms of biology. Now they come cloaked in references to “culture” — a term that I see constantly cropping up in this context.

  • Anthony Endres

    Cliven Bundy’s gang are by all definition treasonous ultra rightwing white Supremacist terrorists.
    And President Obama, – if he then wasn’t considered “Black” by a deeply institutionally racist and absurdly high-horse white-wshing idiot US society – should actually equivalently have the legal authority to order to drone-bomb them into oblivion!

    Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and others getting daily bombed by religious-fanatic white supremacist racist US military should all jointly SUE for unequivocal actions against TERRORISTS, I’d say!

  • Anthony Endres

    When Paypal hideously collects secret million dollar donations for the legal “defense” of racist child-killers like Zimmerman, then that is RACISM of the highest conservative corporate order!
    And, such blatant US ultraconservative racism has to now be brought into the International courts, if you like it or not, what-ever-it-takes!

  • Steve

    Bundy and the right-wing militia’s believe in hiding behind their women and children because they are all cowards. Everyone knows how easily conservatives scare. That’s why they are so pro-gun. Because life frightens them so much. :)