Ethnic panic, prejudice and ideology: What separates the parties?

by John MacBeath Watkins

The unfortunately named Carl T. Bogus has written an article in interview form for the National Review titled, A Liberal Reads the Great Conservative Works. It's an interesting read, and not long, so I suggest that you, gentle reader, consume the whole thing here:

The most cogent observation he makes is that conservatives talk more about ideology than do liberals:

"One striking difference is that the iconic conservative works are about ideology. By contrast, the most influential liberal books of the era are about policy issues. Those works are Silent Spring by Rachel Carson (1962), The Other America by Michael Harrington (1962), The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan (1963), and Unsafe at Any Speed by Ralph Nader (1965), which helped launch the environmental, anti-poverty, feminist, and consumer movements, respectively."
And he's largely right about the different taxonomies of conservative ideology:
"Conservatives have big appetites for ideology; liberals don’t. There are, of course, taxonomies of conservative schools of thought. People on the right classify themselves as libertarians, neoconservatives, social conservatives, traditional conservatives, and the like, and spill oceans of ink defining, debating, and further subdividing these schools of thought. There is no parallel taxonomy on the left. Maybe, in part, it is because a central tenet of liberalism is that ideology should be eschewed in favor of the supposedly enlightened, pragmatic approach of making ad hoc judgments about issues."
 Certainly the pragmatism of liberals has been on display lately, as President Obama adopted the Republican plan, as developed by the Heritage Foundation and put into Massachusetts  law by Mitt Romney, for healthcare reform, only to have Republicans dub it "socialism."

But if Republicans are all about ideology, why do they object to their own ideas once they are adopted by Democrats? Surely, their ideology has policy consequences, and the policy still passes conservative muster even when the opposing party adopts it.

Ezra Klein offers two readings of this. One is that partisanship and motivated skepticism are the reasons, and I would agree that partisanship is the reason motivated skepticism (sometimes called blowback) comes into play.

He adds:

"But a more generous interpretation is that because conservatives are more concerned with philosophy, they see the motivations of the legislators as much more important than liberals do. 

"So when liberals celebrate a liberal policy proposal coming from a conservative president — note the Democrats who joined with President Bush on No Child Left Behind and, until the conference committee shenanigans, Medicare Part D — it’s because their analysis is focused on the proposal. If the proposal lines up with their ideas, they support it. When conservatives turn on a onetime conservative proposal that’s been embraced by a more liberal president, it’s because they’re looking behind the policy to the philosophies of whoever is championing it. For them to feel comfortable supporting it, the philosophy of whoever is proposing it has to line up with their philosophy, too."
Frankly, this makes no sense to me. An idea is an idea regardless of who espouses it.

But one of the seminal thinkers of conservatism is Edmund Burke, who provides a better explanation. From Reflections on the French Revolution

"You see, Sir, that in this enlightened age I am bold enough to confess, that we are generally men of untaught feelings; that instead of casting away all our old prejudices, we cherish them to a very considerable degree, and, to take more shame to ourselves, we cherish them because they are prejudices; and the longer they have lasted, and the more generally they have prevailed, the more we cherish them. We are afraid to put men to live and trade each on his own private stock of reason; because we suspect that this stock in each man is small, and that the individuals would do better to avail themselves of the general bank and capital of nations and of ages. Many of our men of speculation, instead of exploding general prejudices, employ their sagacity to discover the latent wisdom which prevails in them. If they find what they seek, and they seldom fail, they think it more wise to continue the prejudice, with the reason involved, than to cast away the coat of prejudice, and to leave nothing but the naked reason; because prejudice, with its reason, has a motive to give action to that reason, and an affection which will give it permanence. Prejudice is of ready application in the emergency; it previously engages the mind in a steady course of wisdom and virtue, and does not leave the man hesitating in the moment of decision, sceptical, puzzled, and unresolved. Prejudice renders a man’s virtue his habit; and not a series of unconnected acts. Through just prejudice, his duty becomes a part of his nature."
 One seldom sees such a defense of prejudice. And I must confess, the example of the utopian projects of the 20th century, such as the communist and fascist regimes that slaughtered millions, give some credence to the notion that we should not trust "naked reason." But Burke was pragmatic, and some would say a conservative liberal (which in our modern political world seems like an oxymoron, but remember that Frederich Hayek called himself a liberal as well.) He did not cast out reason, and I'm quite confident that he would not advise, for example, ignoring the conclusions of the scientific establishment on global warming.

The modern conservative movement can abandon its previously held policy positions because it has cast out reason, and indulged itself in prejudice. This is why the conservative movement has become, as I noted in this post, decadent.

A policy that was conservative when Republicans promoted it does not become "socialist" because of ideology, it becomes socialist because of what Burke would have termed prejudice.

The original sin here falls on President Nixon. In his 1968 election campaign, he set out deliberately to divide the country, based on the idea that such divisions would benefit Nixon. In a famous memo to Nixon, one of his aides, Pat Buchanan, wrote that the Republican tactics should include:
“Bumper stickers calling for black Presidential and especially Vice-Presidential candidates should be spread out in the ghettoes of the country,” Buchanan wrote. “We should do what is within our power to have a black nominated for Number Two, at least at the Democratic National Convention.” Such gambits, he added, could “cut the Democratic Party and country in half; my view is that we would have far the larger half.”

Nixon was not, by modern standards, a conservative. He used price controls, expanded the welfare state, and took the troops out of Viet Nam. He ran in 1968 as a peace candidate, but also, on a more subtle level, as someone who would stand up for the prejudices of the constituency he was pursuing.

Nixon's chance came because the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act offended the prejudices of Southern Democrats. Although both bills passed with bipartisan support, they did not pass with Dixiecrat support. And in 1964, the conservative flag-bearer, Barry Goldwater, opposed the Civil Rights Act on libertarian grounds. This paved the way for many former Dixiecrats to switch to the Republican Party, and bring their constituents with them.

In one way, rank racial prejudice was driving this, but on another level the sort of prejudice Burke was speaking of, the collective wisdom of the culture, as also operating. The anti-war protesters were responsible for ending Lyndon Johnson's hopes of re-election, and Nixon ran as a peace candidate, but he set himself rhetorically against the damned hippies of the peace movement and on the side of the military. One of the more deeply engrained "prejudices" (in Burke's sense) of the American people is an abiding respect for the military.

Nixon wasn't just appealing to blue-collar whites based on racial prejudice, and if he had been, he would not have won the election. He was also running on the more respectable "prejudices" of loyalty to country and respect for law and order, and applying his greatest skill, the ability to exploit hatred and fear. His message to whites was not merely that the racial order was being upset, but that their entire way of life was under threat. That message is now usually understood as the culture war.

Very few people regard themselves as racist, but Nixon could appeal to the buried attitudes and fears of the voters. Dog-whistles about race might not even be heard by the voters he appealed to, operating below the level of conscious self-image.

The Nixon model for winning elections has proven durable, and remains the default setting for Republican politics. This is why ideology does not lead to consistent policy positions. The great works of conservatism may be ideological, and on an intellectual level conservatives may indulge a rich taxonomy of ideologies, but when it comes to winning elections, all is subsumed by the culture war. That is why Nixon, known in political science circles as "the last liberal" president, is a conservative icon, regardless of his actual policies. He pushed the right culture war buttons, and that is what makes him, by the standards of conservatives, worthy of being called a conservative, despite the ideological gulf between him and modern conservatives. The intellectual underpinnings of modern conservatism may look ideological, but the success of modern conservatism is the result of the ethnic panic of certain whites.

There is a term of art in psychology, "homosexual panic," in which a person fears he may give in to homosexual urges and finds himself acting in an excessively macho manner, attempting to avoid a change to a homosexual identity. Ethnic panic, as I conceive it, works in a similar manner, with people panicking because their country is changing its ethnic identity.

As noted in this post, the Democratic coalition is composed of diverse America and those whites comfortable with diverse America. At some point in the not-too-distant future, whites will cease to be a majority in this country. At that point, for those whose conception of what it is to be an American is based on a sort of tribal and racial identity, what it means to be an American will change, as it has already begun to change. For those whose conception of what it is to be an American is not based on ethnic fault lines, what it means to be an American will not change. That is what separates the Republican and Democratic coalitions.


  1. The worst thing Nixon did was to begin the dismantling of the space program. He canceled the Apollo program as soon as he got into office, so the plans for Mars and beyond were abruptly cut off. NASA had Mars on the agenda for about, say, 1990. For every dollar America has spent on the space program, we got $5 dollars back.
    Just pull out your cell phone and look at it, if you have any doubt. Or turn of the news, and look at the use of satellites in predicting bad weather, saving thousands of lives every year.

  2. Nixon, in my humble opinion, did a great many things worse than dismantling the space program. His activities to ensure his continued power were criminal. The result of his political strategy was to divide the nation. The space program funding could be restored if the voters wanted it. How do we put our country back together.


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