In comments in a previous thread, both Mark T and James H suggested I give my take on ‘the racism in politics’ debate on the supposition that a concise and fairly clear argument of how racism is a fundamental part of conservative politics would be beneficial. To be clear here, they weren’t advocating that racism actually is a constitutive part of GOP rhetoric and movement conservatism, nor that the view needed to be expressed. Instead, the idea was that a short and perhaps compelling argument from someone who does think that (ie., me) might lead to some good discussion. I politely declined the invitation on the following grounds: that anyone who disputes the overtly racist language of many (not all) GOP politicians and the political strategies employed by movement conservatives going back to Nixon wouldn’t be persuaded by my arguments in any event since – and this was my point – anyone who disputes those facts won’t believe that any fact-based argument could decide the issue. But even then, I thought the idea sounded like a good challenge, even if daunting. So here goes. (It’s a bit under-argued, which I’m sure will show up in comments.)
In trying to decide how to properly frame the issue, I thought I’d take the above claim seriously and use it as the point of entry into the debate. And if we do take it seriously – that is, if we assume that the debate is intractable due to a dispute over ‘facts’ – then something interesting might follow (tho maybe not, of course). For the record, I believe that movement conservatism is inextricably linked to racism – in particular racism against blacks and hispanics – and that political rhetoric and political campaign strategies employed by GOP politicians pander to the racism of conservative whites. Of course, the conservative rejects this claim and challenges me to provide evidence of a very specific type: non-question begging evidence of conservative intentions. And that’s very a very hard thing to do. (And even though others might also reject this claim, in what follows I’ll be discussing only what a (stereotypical?) liberal and a conservative appear to argue.)*
So on the face of it, then, we have what appears to be an intractable problem. And the dispute is over what constitutes un-biased evidence. On the one hand, my argument for the claim that racism is a central part of movement conservative rhetoric and policy prerogatives apparently can’t be demonstrated in any non-question-begging way, since all the evidence I would present in support of that claim – what I view as the historical and rhetorical facts in play – presupposes the very question at issue: the racism of movement conservatives.
On the other hand, the conservative will argue that what I think of as ‘facts’ are no such thing whatsoever. And the fundamental confusion I’m experiencing here results from my looking at conservative rhetoric through a racially-sensitive ideological filter which prevents me from seeing the world objectively, and of finding racist intentions and racially charged language where none exist. The conservative isn’t racist, he tells me. It’s liberals who are racist.
If this is right, then a definitive answer to the question of racist rhetoric appears to be impossible since both sides of the debate not only think they have facts to justify their arguments, but that the ‘facts’ each side accepts are contradictory. One thing that sort of trivially follows from this is that citing more facts to support my case is useless, so additional empirical evidence won’t resolve problem. So it would be question-begging at this point for me to point the causal roots of the Southern Strategy (Nixon) or the role forced busing played in creating conservative opposition to school funding (Reagan) and a host of other issues. It would also be useless to point out the ambiguity between the political and conventional meanings of lots of terms frequently used in politics: ‘states rights’, or ‘generational poverty’, or ‘limited government’ or ‘illegal immigrants’. And the same goes for even more topical instances of racism: newt calling Obama the ‘food stamp President’ or Santorum saying he wouldn’t give blacks other people’s money. Interestingly, though, if I were to do this, it would confirm the conservative’s argument that liberals view everything through an ideological filter. I mean, how could anyone other than an ideologue think the term ‘states rights’ might have racial connotations?
At this point, it might be easy to conclude that liberals and conservatives have wildly divergent but equally justified views about racism in politics and movement conservatism in particular. Personally, I don’t see any way around this as a political problem. It’s question begging for me to say that my conception of things is more accurate – more factual – than the conservative’s, and it’s logically impossible for me to provide non-question-begging evidence that movement conservatism actually is motivated by racism. All that suggestion would do is strengthen the conservative’s argument – and his resolve – against me.
But in those last two sentences may be the key to unlocking a solution. If there is in principle no evidence or argument inconsistent with the conservative’s view of racism in politics, then his theory isn’t just correct, it’s irrefutable. A conservative might think that’s a good thing, of course, and view it as the highest level of confirmation that his theory is right. But it also means it’s not an empirical theory. And hence, not a theory about the facts of the world as much as an interpretation of ‘facts’. And even worse, perhaps, is that it presupposes its own conclusion – that conservatives aren’t racists – and constructs a theory to justify that claim.
Of course, the liberal needs to sustain his view from the same challenges. Is it possible the liberal also merely ‘interprets the facts’ and constructs a theory to justify his presupposed conclusion? Surely it’s question begging to simply assert that the liberal doesn’t do this. But I think the difference between the two views is quite distinct. The liberal is making an empirical and contingent claim that is justified by relevant evidence: that movement conservatism is motivated by racial resentment. The conservative is making an a priori and necessary claim: that any and all evidence provided by the liberal only re-confirms that conservatives aren’t racists. And that fundamentally begs the question.
* Mark suggested that my argument would benefit from providing some empirical evidence justifying my beliefs about racial rhetoric in conservative politics. That’s probably true. And yet, I’ll refrain from providing more than already mentioned since the topic I’m addressing here is what constitutes evidence that the accusation of conservative racism isn’t true. There’s another reason as well: if you aren’t inclined to believe that race is central driving force in conservative politics in American post-CRA then you won’t be inclined to believe that any particular rhetorical tool (even those that are prima facie racist!) is an appeal to racism, and demonstrating that race continues to be a central feature of US politics since 1964 is impossible to do within the limits of a single blog post.