Ten Miles Square


April 05, 2013 1:10 PM The Real Story About Black Conservatives

By Jonathan Bernstein

I hope everyone has read the latest Ta-Nehisi Coates NYT item, this one about Benjamin Carson and other Obama-era black conservatives. It’s as good as you would expect it to be.

It sparked a series of tweets from Jamelle Bouie about a distinction between the people Coates is talking about, “black conservatives,” and what Jamelle calls “conservative blacks.”

Conservative blacks are simply black people with conservative views. They’re folks like my parents: Church-going military veterans.

They care deeply about black people, and hold views that are recognizably conservative. In a less racist world, they’d be Republicans.

I disagree with this.

Basically, I think we should fight the assumption that there’s something more real or proper politically about ideology than about other forms of primary political identity, and that the correct way for people to sort themselves into parties is by ideology.

Oh, it happens, and can happen. But I don’t believe that it has to, and I definitely don’t see why it should.

There’s simply no reason that all people who have “recognizably conservative” views should sort to one party, with all the liberals going to the other one.

Nor is there any reason for us to believe that one’s primary political identity should be ideology. There’s nothing at all wrong with primary (and secondary, and etc.) political identity being oriented to ethnic group, profession/occupation, class, or anything else. My general feeling is that there’s no “should” here, and that there is reason to believe that a party system that delegitimizes political identity other than ideology is going to  work poorly and produce less democracy, for a variety of reasons.

That’s also going to be a large part, I think, of my reaction to Rick Hasen’s new and interesting paper on political dysfunction. But I’m still putting that together, so I won’t go into it now other than to tell you to read the paper).

At any rate…so I guess I’m saying in the first instance that there’s no reason to think that it’s more natural or proper for Jamelle’s parents to be Republicans because of ideology than it is to think that they “should” be Democrats because (most) African Americans (and presumably virtually all black people whose primary political identity is based on ethnicity) are Democrats.

Basically, I think that pushing people to be ideological and pushing the idea that politics should primarily be about ideology gets it completely and totally wrong. And I think that unfortunately the ideology people have won, and that’s one of the Big Things Wrong with US politics right now. Not the biggest thing (that’s the broken GOP, which is related but not really the same thing). But one of the big things.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

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Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.


  • MikeN on April 05, 2013 10:15 PM:

    I must say as a Canadian of British descent I find this to be very strange. What else is a party about? To me, joining a party due to ethnic/national/racial background is an example of a failure of democracy- the ability to agree we are all part of one polity; Scots Nationalists and the Bloc Quebecois being prime examples.

  • Crissa on April 06, 2013 1:41 AM:

    Uhh, isn't protection of civil rights part of ideology?

  • T2 on April 06, 2013 10:55 AM:

    I'm not sure why religion isn't part of the equation also. For example, most Hispanics are Catholic and therefore are part of a defined, and in many ways, conservative, culture. And many feel drawn to positions/ideology found in Republican circles. They can't, in large measure, get past the obvious racial resentment common to GOP policies.Thus they align with Dems.
    Blacks, especially southern blacks, are very religious/evangelical and the Church plays a major part in their lives. But what differentiates them from their white evangelical cohorts in the Republican Party is, again, obvious racial resentment common to GOP policies. Thus they align with a party that includes them equally. So the religious background of these groups are more closely aligned with the GOP/Conservative positions on many major areas, but their groups are actively scorned by the GOP. The result is they vote Dem. So their party choice is driven not by ideology as much as racial background. And that's a choice the GOP has presented to them.

  • HMDK on April 07, 2013 8:06 AM:

    "There’s simply no reason that all people who have “recognizably conservative” views should sort to one party, with all the liberals going to the other one."

    Except of course that political parties are about ideology and political views. That's their function. You may as well say that food shouldn't be about taste and/or nourishment. Liberal, conservative, facist or socialist, everyone reading this is not so much confused as we are astounded at the bad writing.

  • DavidT on April 07, 2013 9:24 PM:

    "Except of course that political parties are about ideology and political views. That's their function."

    That may be true today. It has only been true to a limited extent in earlier American history. As late as the 1970's the Senate contained some quite liberal Republicans--Javits, Case, Brooke, Mathias, Percy, Heinz, etc.--and some quite conservative Democrats--Stennis, Eastland, McClellan, Allen, etc. Each party had ideological *tendencies*, to be sure--Democrats in gneeral were to the left of Republicans--but there was plenty of ideological overlap. You may think it's a good thing that each party is more ideologicaly unified today, but it is not true that this is what parties have historically been all about in the US.

  • Matt on April 08, 2013 12:11 AM:

    "There’s nothing at all wrong with primary (and secondary, and etc.) political identity being oriented to ethnic group, profession/occupation, class, or anything else"

    Um....yes there is, in fact each of those can be tied to several major political issues from the past. Ethnic/racial group politics brought us Jim Crow and the mistreatment of Hispanics and Native Americans. Class/Occupational politics brought us the labor battles of the early-mid 20th century and continues to hurt us in current negotiations over the budget and taxes.

    Jim Crow only ended when whites were willing to look past their own racial group and sympathize with the plight of the blacks, which eventually overwhelmed those who wanted to keep the status quo in place. Organized labor needed the assistance of empathetic businessmen in positions of power. Our greatest achievements came when we threw away the bindings of culture, class, and race and finally decided to simply do what's right for everyone.

    But don't take this as support for purely ideological politics. That has its own problems, especially when the ideology itself becomes more important than the logic that's supposed to support that ideology, a common occurrence when ideology and culture are linked (which is usually the case, at least from my observations). In my opinion, the only thing that should really matter in politics is the cost/benefit ratio. Unfortunately, there's very few political thinkers willing to think in those terms.

  • beejeez on April 08, 2013 8:55 AM:

    I think your heart's in the right place, Mr. Bernstein. But are you casting some Slate-style counterintuitive-to-be-counterintuitive hit bait here? One's choice of political party is not and should not be primarily ideological? The parties are more ideological than ever, and their trolling for identity group support is a tactic in service only of achieving ideological goals. Voters who've ignored that have done themselves and the rest of us a massively destructive disservice.

    BTW, offering to tell us "The Real Story About Black Conservatives"? Now that takes -- what's the word I'm looking for? Oh, right: chutzpah!