I’m sure you’ve heard that Cliven Bundy spouted some racist thoughts to Adam Nagourney at The New York Times, A Defiant Rancher Savors the Audience That Rallied to His Side. Ed Kilgore summed it up well, stating that he has “views about black folks that might embarrass your local Grand Dragon.” In case you haven’t heard, Bundy said that blacks were actually more free under slavery. There is actually a lot more but I’m sure you get the idea.
This whole things brings my mind to the argument that Jonathan Chait has been making that even though we all know that modern American conservatism is all about racism, we liberals shouldn’t assume that any given conservative is racist. That’s true as far as it goes. But there is a larger issue here.
As Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote this morning, “Prick a movement built on white supremacy and it bleeds… white supremacy.” The fact of the matter is that regardless of what any particular conservative thinks, as a culture, we only take these radical definitions of freedom seriously because there are a lot of people who hold them, and most do so because of their racist underpinnings. As an example, most people are not against welfare programs because they are concerned about the budget or dozens of other seemingly innocuous reasons. Most are against them because they don’t like one or more minority groups who they think benefit from them.
To some extent, I’m sympathetic to Chait on this. It doesn’t do us much good to constantly focus on the racism that provides the popular support for conservatism. Just the same, not doing so turns politics into a frustrating game of whack-a-mole. We beat done the notion that food stamps are a budgetary problem and up pops the concern for fraud. Beat down the fraud claim and up pops Paul Ryan’s hammock “that lulls able-bodied people to lives of dependency and complacency.” As long as we don’t beat down what is behind the latest argument, there will always be another argument.
Note that what Cliven Bundy said is part of this whack-a-mole game. Take away the racism and the idea that slavery was just great and you are left with Paul Ryan’s hammock argument. In Bundy’s mind, I’m sure he thinks that he is the hero of the black man. He’s the one who is trying to break the bonds of dependence that the modern welfare state has enslaved African Americans in. In this mind, he’s a modern day Frederick Douglass! In reality, he’s just the conservative base.
But he’s not the one we are arguing with. We are arguing with politicians and pundits. And here is where I think we make a mistake on the issue of racism. I don’t think that Rand Paul has any racial resentment or animus. But he is more than willing to use racism for his political gain. And I think that makes him far worse. Most racism is due to ignorance—just not knowing who other groups are and basing opinions on stereotypes. But people like Paul are using racism (that they mostly don’t share) in a calculated way to get what they want.
In this way, they are like the slave owners of old. When I think of the Antebellum era, I think of three classes of people. There were the slave owners who were mostly interested in profit. There were the poor whites who had been trained to be racists by the elites. In the early days this was an explicit policy of rich land owners to keep the poor—white and black alike—from organizing themselves and fighting for their collective rights. And then there were the enslaved blacks. Now Bundy is basically a political figure in the same way that the Koch brothers are. But the basic dynamic here is the same as it was 150 years ago: political elites use racism to set poor whites against poor blacks.
What I wonder is if anyone would say that a slave owner wasn’t racist just because he didn’t hate blacks or think they were inferior. If he would be just as happy enslaving whites as blacks, would that mean he wasn’t racist? Maybe so. But if that same slave owner did everything he could to make poor whites hate blacks, then he would be a racist. And I think that makes Rand Paul, Paul Ryan, and really most other elite Republicans racists.