The Cult of Ronald Reagan and the Racist Origins of American Conservatism
I don't need no stinking badge towant to understand the cult of Ronald Reagan. On the Right he is elevated to the heights of a near deity by partisans that both simultaneously and eagerly overlook his violation of the U.S. Constitution and conciliatory gestures towards "The Evil Empire," the former Soviet Union. On the Left, he is quite correctly criticized for his vicious assaults on the working class and the poor. And moreover, look no farther than Ronald Reagan for the wrong-headed Laffer's Curve that has brought nothing but trouble since its inception, and is no small part responsible for the Great Recession and legitimizing the foot stomping foot obstructionism of the Tea Party GOP as it insists on renewing tax cuts for the very wealthiest Americans (even though this will not stimulate the economy, and only further encourage a problematic maldistribution of wealth and the growing kleptocracy) at the expense of all others. In total, Reagan's reach is indeed large (and disproportionate to the merits of his presidency) in the years following his tenure. The cult of Reagan has also fascinated me because of its resonance with black conservatives. Stating the obvious: Former President Ronald "Welfare Queen" Reagan was certainly no friend of people of color--choosing to begin his campaign by speaking at Philadelphia, Mississippi on state's rights and thus cementing his commitment to the Southern Strategy and "State's rights." This is the root of my snicker at White American conservatives who proclaim their colorblindness, and at Black conservatives in particular, who defend all things Reaganesque. Primarily, Reagan made it clear that Conservatism will use and abuse dog whistle politics and the accompanying succor of Lee Atwater's appeals to the worst of the White Soul in order to win electoral victories. So why support Reagan's political vision when you are decidedly outside of it? Second, the narrative of Black conservatives (and conservatives at large), is that black and brown folk are somehow confused, "on the Democratic plantation," and do not understand where their self-interest lies. Funny, White conservatives are somehow rational actors, but black and brown folk--and Liberals at large--are somehow not. Thus, my delight when I talk to Conservatives who honestly admit that they care not for the common good. Rather, their immediate concern is for their pocketbooks despite the cost to the body politic. In the era of Obama that level of candor is so rare in a moment when the Tea Party GOP largely travels with the false passports of speaking for "real Americans" and "fiscal responsibility." So special this honesty is, I always applaud it whenever such true admissions are encountered. Professor Robert C. Smith, a fellow searcher who kindly offered drinks and sage advice to me some years ago, has penned a great new book on this topic.Conservatism and Racism and Why in America They Are the Same works through the ambivalence of black folks towards Ronald Reagan, and the racist roots of American Conservatism far better than I ever could. Dr. Smith's argument is sharp, sweet, and to the point. In total, American Conservatism cannot help but animate the forces of White supremacy and racism because those are the first priors from which it is sprung. Courtesy of Robert Smith and ROROTOKO:
****In this book I systematically demonstrate the inescapable racism inherent in American conservatism. The argument unfolds in layers. First, I show that ideological conservatism is everywhere and always the conscious and reflective defense of established institutions and ways of life. In the United States this has meant a defense of racism and white supremacy. The first conscious conservative movement in America emerged in the South partly as a reaction to the movement to abolish slavery, and the modern conservative movement in America is rooted partly in opposition to the Civil Rights Movement. Second, the substantive ideals of American conservatism—limited government, states’ rights, individualism, property rights, and the prioritizing of liberty over equality—when applied consistently inevitably result in racism. Third, I show that the ascendancy of the conservative movement to national power with the election of Ronald Reagan was partly based on the Republican Party’s “Southern Strategy” of exploiting racist and white supremacist sentiments in the electorate beginning with the election of 1964. I am acutely aware that the argument will strike many Americans—and not just conservatives—as outrageous. Therefore, I approached the analysis and writing with unusual care. I spend the entire first chapter defining the terms of the discourse—conservatism, racism and white supremacy. The remaining chapters are thoroughly referenced and documented. By design, the book combines philosophy, history and political science. This is first a book about ideas and how they can have consequences in politics, if they are linked to powerful, well-financed movements. I excavate the ideas on race of the leading conservative and neoconservative intellectuals from the 1950s to the 1980s. The ideas examined, among others, are those of Russell Kirk, William F. Buckley, Jr., James J. Kilpatrick, Milton Friedman, Robert Bork, Irving Kristol, Edward Banfield, Nathan Glazer and Aaron Wildavsky. These ideas helped to shape the presidential campaigns of Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan, the two leading conservative statesmen of the modern era. For example, Bork, the conservative movement’s leading jurisprudential scholar, objected to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. He described the landmark legislation as “unsurpassed ugliness” because, Bork argued, the core principles at stake in any civil rights law are individual liberty and property rights; it was the freedom of individuals to do with their property as they wished, even if they wished to deny access to a BBQ joint or motel to other individuals because they were black. Similarly, Friedman, the movement’s apostle of unfettered, free market capitalism, compared the equal employment title of the 1964 Act to “Hitler Nuremburg laws” because “such legislation clearly involves interference with the freedom of individuals to enter into voluntary contracts with one another.” The book includes detailed study of the Reagan presidency and race related issues. Using archival material from the Reagan presidential library, I focus on affirmative action, the Voting Rights Act, the Grove City case, welfare reform, South Africa policy, and the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday. I conclude the book by showing how the conservative movement and the Reagan presidency have had an enduring impact on presidential elections, the presidency, the Democratic Party, racial liberalism and the continuing struggle for a more racially just society. A section of Chapter 8 on the ascendancy of Reagan to the presidency is titled “It’s the Ideology, Stupid.” President Reagan is a central character in the book, because he is undoubtedly the most significant conservative leader of the present era and one of the most significant in American history. Reagan was frequently accused of being a racist. Nothing angered him more. As he writes in his presidential memoir “the myth that has always bothered me the most is that I am a bigot who somehow surreptitiously condones racial prejudice… Whatever the reason for this myth that I am a racist, I blow up every time I hear it.” In close, careful study of the biographical and historical records, I found no evidence that Reagan was a racist or white supremacist. It was Reagan’s principled, ideological conservatism that led him to oppose every civil rights bill enacted in the 1960s. Reagan’s opposition to the Civil rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was based on the conservative principles of limited government and states’ rights. In California he opposed the state’s Fair Housing Act on the conservative principles of individualism and property rights, declaiming that the right of an individual to dispose of his property as he wished was “a basic human right.” Reagan prioritized these conservative ideological principles over the human rights of African Americans to be served at a Georgia BBQ joint, to vote for president in Alabama or to purchase a house in California. In doing so, he clearly made conservatism and racism the same. As if to symbolize this relationship, Reagan’s first campaign appearance after he received the Republican nomination in 1980 was in Philadelphia, Mississippi. Philadelphia was the site of the 1964 murder of three civil rights workers by the Ku Klux Klan. In his Philadelphia speech Reagan invoked states rights, code words in the South for the right of whites to oppress blacks. The public, politicians and the media are often puzzled by the consistent failure of conservatism to have much appeal to African Americans. This book provides the answer to those puzzles. I decided to write the book shortly after Ronald Reagan’s funeral. In the long lines of mourners that gathered to pay their respects to the President at the Capitol in Washington and the presidential library in Simi Valley, California there were very few African Americans. In the course of the nearly week long commemoration of Reagan’s life and legacy—where he was lauded as one of the nation’s greatest presidents—I was asked in the media to explain the absence of black mourners in Washington and Simi Valley. My explanations dealt less with Reagan as an individual or as president than with conservatism as a philosophy and ideology. Ronald Reagan was not mourned by many African Americans because he was a conservative; the most successful conservative president of the post civil rights era and one of the most successful conservative presidents in the 20th century. Conservatism as a philosophy and ideology, I explained, are and always have been hostile to the aspirations of Africans in America; incompatible with their struggle for freedom and equality. Thus, very few blacks could mourn the passing of a man who was an icon in the cause of 20th century American conservatism. In the nature of modern media it was difficult to convey this rather complex idea in a brief interview. I found that even in extended interviews it was difficult to fully explore this complex relationship between conservatism and black aspirations. Repeatedly, I was asked: Are you saying that conservatism is racism? That all conservatives are racist? Aren’t there black conservatives? Are they racist? Are the millions of Americans who supported President Reagan racist? Are President George W. Bush and the conservatives who control the Congress and the courts hostile to African American interests? My answer to most of these questions was a qualified yes. But the many qualifications and caveats left me, the interviewers, and the audience, without the kind of clarity one would hope for when professors are called upon to explain complex issues to the public. Thus, this book.