Op-Ed: Conservatism Does Not Equal Racism

Many conservatives say they are unfairly labeled racist or xenophobic for their political views. The American Enterprise Institute's Gerard Alexander argues that Democrats have been misconstruing, misinterpreting and mislabeling core conservative values for decades.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

As he signed the Civil Rights Act in 1964, President Lyndon Johnson famously remarked that he just delivered the South to the Republicans for a generation. But University of Virginia Professor Gerard Alexander argues that the Democrats had already lost the solid South and that is just one of a number of myths that he says liberals use to label conservatives as racist.

Alexander, also a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, recently wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post titled "Conservatism does not equal racism. So why do many liberals assume it does?" Well, does conservatism imply racism? If so, how? 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Political Junkie Ken Rudin, still with us. Gerard Alexander is also here in Studio 3A. Thanks very much for coming in today.

Professor GERARD ALEXANDER (University of Virginia): Thank you. And cheesy as this sounds, as a long-time NPR listener, I got to admit it's kind of cool actually to be sitting here in the studio talking.

CONAN: Well, thanks very much for being with us today. It's a very interesting piece. But among the myths, you say, is the idea that there was a decided Southern strategy by the Nixon campaign going back to, what, 1968, to pick up white racist votes in the South.

Prof. ALEXANDER: Oh, I don't dispute that Republicans have - just like Democrats, have sought Southern voters over the decades. In fact, Eisenhower had a Southern strategy of sorts, starting in the early 1950s, trying to realign that enormous region to make it more competitive for his party.

I only suggest that just because the Republicans sought Southern white votes, including no doubt from Strom Thurmond and others who were not exactly racially progressive at the time, does not mean that they actually gave them much in return for their votes. And the general notion is that in return for those votes, they had to give the Thurmonds of this world everything they wanted. And I don't think that's really accurately reflected in the Nixon campaign or its policy record afterward.

CONAN: The Nixon policy record, you say, on civil rights was fairly progressive.

Prof. ALEXANDER: Well, it's varied. I mean, it famously - Richard Nixon, for better or worse - any conservatives, of course, would disown him for this - but is considered the sort of the parent of modern affirmative action, of a lot of federal contracting set-asides for minority-owned business, for example.

But also if one looks carefully at his record of judicial nominations and even school desegregation in the South - the two most, if you will, notorious areas where he was understood to have retreated the most on civil rights - I think his record, if you look at it really closely and talk to a lot of the participants, is much more mixed than civil rights advocates had at the time, which is why Thurmond and other opponents were frequently as frustrated with Nixon as his critics to his left were.

CONAN: And you argue that, in fact, he got a lot of white votes in the South despite his policies, not because of them, largely because George Wallace was shot.

Prof. ALEXANDER: We know that - in 1968, obviously, George Wallace had enormous support in the Deep South that Richard Nixon didn't, and we know from polls that going into the 1972 election, had Wallace remained viable, those Southerners would clearly have preferred Wallace to him. And that's not because therefore they were - they did not perceive Nixon as one of them or as offering them what they really wanted, whereas Wallace might.

And it was only when Wallace was removed as an option that they really were left with little choice. And I suggest in a larger book project coming out of this, that that's really not a bad metaphor for us here. And that is that those Southerners ended up coming to the Republican Party because the party proved to be the mountain to which they had to go, not the other way around.

CONAN: And it can be argued that they were just as effectively being driven out of the Democratic Party rather than flocking to the Republican Party.

Prof. ALEXANDER: Partly because of civil rights, of course, but also partly because the Democratic Party was understandably undergoing -revolution maybe too strong a word - but they were undergoing an enormous transformation in their views about international affairs and the Vietnam War in particular, about changing cultural mores.

And some of the same progressive steps they were taking - very early steps on gay rights, obviously, some steps on feminism and women's roles in political life and even private life - those clashed at the time very severely with a lot of more traditional Southern social mores.

CONAN: And I should point out that in his article, Gerard Alexander does say that there are people - extremists in the Republican Party who can probably be safely categorized as bigots, just as he argues there are people in the Democratic Party who hate people on the basis of class. So that he's not saying this never comes up. But it's come up in some fairly ugly contexts in the most current campaign. Well, we're talking about the Arizona law that - on immigration that would require policemen, in the course of their duties, to demand papers - citizen papers of anybody they thought might be an illegal alien - an illegal immigrant, rather. There are - it's come up, also, in some other context, as well: the Tea Party posters of Obama.

Prof. ALEXANDER: I would be the first to say that there are clearly Southern bigots who ended up voting for Republican candidates like Richard Nixon and later Ronald Reagan, people who were former Wallace voters. I would be a lot more careful before stipulating or agreeing that, for example, the Arizona immigration law is manifestly bigoted.

I think what has happened in the last 20-plus years, maybe more -pollsters and others would know better than I - is that I think liberals and conservatives have evolved two different notions of what American national identity is. And I think that's part of what's gets wrapped up in disputes that each side talks about the other's patriotism, or questions that are - wonders whether people are really loyal to the republic, and that's partly because we've come to define that republic a little bit differently from each other.

This is something I worry about that - I worried that we're coming to see each other as an Other, in a capital O. And I think one of those distinctions is that conservatives believe in - that the Republican needs a core of common cultural values, which they perceived as threatened by very high levels of even legal immigration, by linguistic fracturing in the country, which is why, for example, conservatives long supported English-only laws.

But I'm very hesitant to say that those are ethnically bigoted. So, for example - as I mentioned in the op-ed piece in the Post, which I encourage people to read, of course - that...

CONAN: There's a link to it on our website.

Prof. ALEXANDER: Yeah. That Republican primary voters, this cycle, have seemed to be delighted to - they seemed to even bend over backwards to vote for African-American and Hispanic and women candidates of - across the country, who seemed to share their values. And in that sense, I think they - as I put it in the article, they are more interested in the software of people's values and ideas than the hardware of their DNA.

CONAN: Ken?

RUDIN: Two questions, one historic and one more recent. Historically, blacks have voted Republican, because they were the party of Lincoln, and we all know about that. Whereas all the Southern states, because the black vote was so negligible, Southern states voted for Democrats: Adlai Stevenson, John F. Kennedy. But it wasn't till Lyndon Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act, Barry Goldwater voted against it, 1964, all those states voted Republican. And had Wallace not ran in '68, we assume - or certainly in 1972, all those states, from then on, voted Republican. Are you saying that race - the Civil Rights Act was just a coincidence, that the solid Democratic South suddenly became the solid Republican South?

Prof. ALEXANDER: Well, only to an extent. I know academics are famous for saying yes and no, or on the one hand, on the other hand...

RUDIN: John Kerry does that, too.

Prof. ALEXANDER: But let me do it very briefly.

CONAN: Before and after.

Prof. ALEXANDER: It is true that, in one sense, the timing of the '64 Civil Rights Act is a coincidence in the sense that by then, the solid South wasn't the solid South. By that time, by the time Lyndon Johnson ran against Goldwater, states like Florida and Tennessee and Texas and Virginia had either voted Republican three times in a row for president or come very close to doing so - Texas, by, I think, 45,000 votes...

RUDIN: But the Deep South, the Alabamas and the...

Prof. ALEXANDER: And Alabama, of course, they never - absolutely. But notice, there's one important difference distinction to be made here. I don't doubt for a second - as I said, that bigots - a lot of white Southern bigots ended up voting for Republican presidential candidates. But that has been used as a basis for inferring that, therefore, those Republican candidates and national conservatism gave them whatever they wanted in return for their votes. And I think that's where the error happens. There's no doubt in my mind that Wallace voters ended up voting for Richard Nixon, for example, in 1972.

I just think when you look over Richard Nixon's record, he got them awfully cheap. He got them for awfully little. And, in fact, Kevin Phillips - at the time a Republican strategist - remarked in his famous, famous 1969 book, on "The Emerging Republican Majority", that you could get those Southern - those Deep South whites very cheaply, because no one was going to give them what they really wanted.

RUDIN: But also to make the point, when Ronald Reagan announced his candidacy for president in 1980, he did it in a Mississippi city that was, I think, the capital - what...

CONAN: Go ahead.

RUDIN: Yeah. The capital of the Confederacy. Now, a lot of people have said that is not the kind of signal the Republican Party should be giving. What do you make of that signal?

Prof. ALEXANDER: That one, I must admit, I find mystifying on both counts. I mean, Reagan had reason to want to win back the South from Jimmy Carter, his Southern opponent. On the other hand, there's something - and I don't doubt for a second that I would not have, in his shoes, gone into the Deep South and used phrase - state's rights in his speech. That said, he didn't kickoff his campaign there. It was his first appearance after the convention. He was already a national candidate by then.

Secondly, he famously - I'm sorry. He not very famously went from that famous appearance to a meeting of - I think it was the Urban League in New York City, a civil rights organization. So it's an incongruous signal, at that. And I've never really understood - the critics of that speech or that appearance of Reagan's. They always bring this up in terms of the three civil rights workers slain in the 1960s, not far from where he made his remarks. Is the suggestion really that Ronald Reagan wanted to appeal to people who favored the murder of civil rights workers? Because that's a remarkably inflammatory image.

CONAN: I've not heard that connection.

Prof. ALEXANDER: Well, then except what's the connection if not that?

CONAN: Because you're campaigning. Your first campaign stop after the convention is the capital of the Confederacy.

Prof. ALEXANDER: Well...

RUDIN: That stop was not the capital. That was Richmond. But it was where the civil rights workers...

CONAN: The last capital.

RUDIN: ...(unintelligible) Confederacy, but the civil rights workers were killed.

Prof. ALEXANDER: Right. And that's the connection I never really understood. I understand he made an appearance near where these civil rights workers were killed some years earlier - were murdered. But I can't believe anymore has suggested that he literally - what's not implicit is that...

CONAN: Is that he was in favor of that.

Prof. ALEXANDER: And that's just - or that he wanted to appeal directly to Southern white voters on the basis of support for those murders. And I think that's a little over the top.

RUDIN: It's a question of sensitivity, I think. Yeah.

CONAN: It was a coding. It's a coded (unintelligible).

Prof. ALEXANDER: No. Insensitivity is a river that runs through the modern conservative movement when it comes to minorities. No doubt about it. And I supposed it's mirrored - less controversially, obviously - by - what often, for instance, religious even evangelicals consider insensitivity on the part of Democrats to their speech and discourse in values. But that insensitivity doesn't carry the historical freight, I think, that racial insensitivity does. I certainly agree with that.

CONAN: We're talking with Gerard Alexander, the author of "Conservatism Does Not Equal Racism" in the Washington Post. There's a link to it on our website. You can go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Ken Rudin, our Political Junkie, also here with us.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, which is coming to you from NPR News.

And let's get some callers in. We've been hogging the air. Leon joins us from Athens in Ohio.

LEON (Caller): Hello, Neal. Thanks for taking my call. I think that there's a clear indication that there is an element of racism. As an African-American, I find some of the conservative stances - after you get past the moral issues of abortion as a homosexuality - to be very racially oriented. For instance, some of these cartoons that I can I can point to at least three of them - Obama and Mrs. Obama as a pimp and a prostitute, another one as Taliban members, suggesting things along that line.

When the monkey had attacked the lady and the was killed by the policeman, there was - in our newspaper in Ohio, there was a picture of the policemen shooting the monkey dead, and on the monkey's chest was Obama. And if you get past just the cartoon aspect, even the far right, we don't even discuss whether John McCain had a pastor or anything like that. But Obama's pastor, somehow or another, is there are these racial implications that somehow another liberation theology is bad, and the conservatives use that to hammer him. And it gives an impression that there is a racist overtone to this conservativism.

CONAN: Any response from Gerard Alexander?

Prof. ALEXANDER: Needless to say, I wouldn't defend depictions that portray things in sort of racially loaded terms, and there is unfortunately no shortage of those. Again, I would be a little careful. There are - I think one of the sources of friction now - not the only one, but one - is the extent to which different viewpoints have come to see some things as racists and others just don't see it the same way. It's going to sound like I'm changing the subject a little bit from your excellent question, but indulge me for a moment.

Some people have used the Tea Party language to accuse them of a kind of bigotry, that this language of taking our country back is understood to be indicative of a certain kind of Tea Party mentality that somehow aliens are in control of the country, that other-izing...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Prof. ALEXANDER: ...I mean, including an African-American president.

CONAN: And take it back to where?

Prof. ALEXANDER: Exactly. But it was a few conservative bloggers pointed out when that became a controversy, that after Howard Dean lost his presidential race in '04, he created an organization and held a few big meetings, organizational meetings here in Washington under the name, the organizational name Taking Back America. So the fact is, the same language can sometimes be used on both sides, but when one uses it, a great deal is read into it.

And I think some of the events that the caller is talking about are real and offensive and regrettable and not appropriate in our public square, in our public discourse. But others, I think, are really just a case of speaking past each other and one side having no idea that what it's saying steps on the sensitive toes of the other.

CONAN: Leon, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it. Let's go next to this is Mike, Mike with us from Lawrence, Kansas.

MIKE (Caller): Thank you for taking my call. You just reference Philadelphia, Mississippi. I'm Choctaw. But the point I'm wanting to bring up, my ex-grandfather was a Dixiecrat. He left the Democrats, went to the Republicans. And I have seen pretty much a lot of things in my lifetime that were refuting a lot of things that you're talking about. My dad was a minister in Louisiana, and I saw the rise of evangelicalism, tiding with racism, leading to what we have now. But I've basically seen things in my lifetime that, by my sight, recede(ph) the things that you're talking about in the book. That's my comment. Thank you.

CONAN: All right, Mike. Thanks very much for the phone call. I'm not sure that that's there wasn't a lot of specifics there, but he's certainly tied a lot of movements together. The Dixiecrat movement was explicitly racist, I think. I don't know if there's any other way to describe it. But - that went from one party, the Democratic Party, to the Republican Party, because, well, one point that is they supported an independent candidacy, but that didn't go anywhere. Third parties don't tend to prosper in this country.

Here's an email from Steven in Indiana. Conservatives are not always racists, but many conservatives appeal to racism. Here in the second district of Indiana, Republican candidate Jackie Walorski has an ad against Democrat Joe Donnelly, attacking him for spending and showing a picture of Donnelly next to the picture of a black family. In other words, Joe Donnelly gives money to black people. Walorski may not be a racist, but she certainly appeals to racists.

I have not seen that ad, and I'm not sure that Gerard Alexander, you have, either. But it's that implications sometimes that some people can be very sensitive to.

Prof. ALEXANDER: Absolutely. And they we are to be vigilant about these things. I do sometimes feel, though, that we are studying public discourse like, you know, sort of rabbinical exegesis. We're looking for tiny, tiny things. I remember after Hillary Clinton's 3:00 AM ad during the Democratic primary in '08...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Prof. ALEXANDER: ...it I remember someone, a colleague of mine at UVA, jokingly - it took a Harvard professor like Orlando Patterson to explain to us why it was racist. And he joked that if it took that level of scrutiny, it may be that we're reading an awful lot into things that they're more subtle than they should be.

I think the emailer there is onto something very important, which is that ever since the 1970s and '80s, a great deal of imputation of racism has not been about overt speech or overt acts of discrimination, but rather has been about the hidden purpose that's understood to exist behind tax cutting and welfare reform and crackdowns on crime and other policies. And it is a devilishly difficult thing to prove or disprove claims of hidden purpose. And I have yet to find the tools that satisfy me as how some of these things should be interpreted objectively.

CONAN: Gerard Alexander, thanks very much for your time today.

Gerard Alexander is the author of "Conservatism Does Not Equal Racism." Again, there's a link to it on our website. You can go to npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. He's an associate professor of politics at the University of Virginia.

We should also mention, on the subject of fact-checking campaign ads, NPR and politifact.com are working together this year on the Message Machine. We're truth-squadding what candidates and interest groups say in their ads. You can find more and see many of the ads at npr.org/themessagemachine, or you can just go to the Political Junkie and get Ken's take on the problem. Ken, thanks very much for your time.

RUDIN: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: NPR's Ken Rudin joins us every Wednesday.

This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

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