U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Don’t Eat the Fruit!

Once upon a time, I was at a conference. Over beers with fellow attendees, the topic of conservatism came up.

“I just don’t get it,” said one of our company. I asked what they meant.

“I don’t get conservatism – I mean what is it about? What are they thinking?” I scrunched my eyebrows.

“Well on the most basic level it is about racism and sexism, right?”

“What?” came the slightly shocked reply. “That’s way too simplistic. You can’t just say it’s racism and sexism.” The others nodded in agreement.

Fast forward 45 minutes later and I had done my best to defend my position that while how they work is anything but simple or straightforward, it’s perfectly accurate to summarize the major causes of American conservatism as a commitment to and defense of white supremacy and patriarchy. (And, in retrospect, I would add imperialism.)

I recalled this conversation while reading both Rick Perlstein’s recent essay on how American historians “missed” the trends that made a Trump presidency possible, and the various responses to it both on social media and here on our own blog. At the risk of reproducing the tale told above, I’d like to offer what I think are a few mistakes many historians are making when we try to think about “mainstream” versus “fringe” conservatism.

My experience at the aforementioned conference is a good place to start because it is hardly exceptional. Historians – and let’s be real, it is usually radical historians who make this argument in such a blunt or “simplistic” fashion – are constantly told they are being too reductive, that the “real” situation is more complex, that identifying white supremacy and patriarchy as the main wellsprings of conservatism is to grasp at low-hanging fruit. I know this because I am one and I frequently talk to many, many others about their experiences. But this level of academic discourse, unlike published work, does not make it into the archives or even a conference transcript or video, usually. That does not, however, make it any less real or significant.

So while I agree with Andy when he corrects Perlstein’s broader narrative with a list of books that do look the ugly of American conservatism, so to speak, in the face (and I would also just note that Kevin Kruse’s White Flight should really be among those books), there is a broader problem that Perlstein is identifying. Of course, there are many exceptions, but just because the forest includes a variety of trees does not mean that the forest cannot, as a whole, be described in more general terms.

One of these broader characteristics is, as Andy suggested (see post below), the ghost of Hofstadter, who warns the scholars of today to make sure they “take conservatism seriously” and do not condescend to their subjects. But this concern misses the real moral of the story – for the problem with Hofstadter was not that he was condescending, the problem was that he was wrong. As a conceptual framework, status politics can be very useful, but Hofstadter and other liberal scholars of the period filled it up with the wrong thing, or, more accurately, almost nothing at all. What is the content of this “status” of which Hofstadter and so many others spoke? According to them, it is neither economic, nor racial, nor gendered, nor a combination of these things, but a general and diffuse anxiety about “modernity” and, perhaps, a splash of ethnic resentment here and there. Or, as Seymour Martin Lipset put it, “status insecurities and status aspirations are most likely to appear as sources of frustration, independent of economic problems, in periods of prolonged prosperity.”[1] As for race, it is difficult to find a quote indicating that Hofstadter or others rejected the idea that conservatives were trying to gain or preserve whiteness, because the idea seems to never even have crossed their minds.

Today, we know better – or we ought to. This is not to say that Hofstadter’s condescension was appropriate, or that condescension in general does not interfere with a scholar’s ability to understand their subjects clearly; for sure, it is never advisable. However, condescension was not Hofstadter’s cardinal sin, and if we allow our fear of being disrespectful to get in the way of recognizing what is really happening, we have privileged our self-image of being open minded over our historical understanding.

And facing – and naming – things squarely is central to that understanding. Here at the blog, Andrew Hartman has asked me, what is the point of calling people racist? I must admit I find this question a little baffling. What is the point of calling anyone anything, if the name fits? We have to – without doing so we will never fully install the relevance of that knowledge into our perspectives. Euphemisms – like calling conservatives “racial conservatives” rather than white supremacists – will not do. That’s precisely why (or one of the reasons why, so as to not be too reductive) that not merely scholars but pundits and politicians never saw Trump coming. How could they, when even respected historians referred to a “culture war” or “traditional Americans” rather than xenophobes and racists?

For sure, some conservatives have received this straightforward treatment; the wacky and outlandish ways and claims of the “fringe” right have not been so delicately handled. But the division between the “fringe” and the “mainstream” is the other misconception hobbling research on the right. Just as William F. Buckley hoped, the crew of the National Review and likeminded fellow travelers discarded the distractingly bizarre and packaged (and repackaged) conservative goals in more polite language. This is not to say that they merely constructed ideas as a smokescreen; I have no doubt of anyone’s ability to believe their own rationales when it serves their primary purposes. But what I cannot help but groan over is how generations of liberals have fallen for this ruse. We shouldn’t be talking about how it turns out Rush Limbaugh might be as relevant as Reagan; we should be talking about how Rush Limbaugh and Reagan are not nearly so far apart as many assumed.

Style and affect are important; they can never be totally separate from content. But they don’t entirely control it, either; and affect can be put to various uses rather deliberately, as Alex Jones’ recent claims about merely playing “a character” attest to. And if you are too distracted by the surface performance of affect – which does not even have to be consciously deliberate – you are going to miss a lot, and might not even notice the deep river of commonality that runs not only from Rush to Reagan, but through time, stretching back to at least the 1920s and, quite clearly, to the foundations of the country itself.

Scholars inclined to be splitters are going to split, and that has its value for certain purposes. But for myself, I want to understand why, in 2017, the United States has the largest incarcerated population of minorities in the world; why dozens and dozens of communities do not have drinkable water; and why the basic right of healthcare continues to be denied to millions. And we can’t answer those questions while trying to assure ourselves that the really ugly stuff is at the margins. As Ta-Nehisi Coates has written:

The truth is that the police reflect America in all of its will and fear, and whatever we might make of this country’s criminal justice policy, it cannot be said that it was imposed by a repressive minority. The abuses that have followed from these policies — the sprawling carceral state, the random detention of black people, the torture of suspects— are the product of democratic will … The problem with the police is not that they are fascist pigs but that our country is ruled by majoritarian pigs.

White supremacy, patriarchy, and imperialism are not simple things, and they do not always function in a straightforward way and must always adjust to the politics, prerogatives, and perspectives of the day. But to identify them as the primary reasons we have arrived here is not to grasp at low-hanging fruit; it is to see clearly that the majority of the fruit is poisonous.

[1] Lipset, “The Sources of the ‘Radical Right,’” in ed. Daniel Bell, The New American Right (New York: Criterion Books, 1955),194, emphasis mine.

18 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Robin Marie, can you point me in the direction of the thread where I asked what is the point of calling people racist? I’ve said a lot at this blog over the past decade–some of which I no doubt regret!

    Generally, though, here is what I think: some things are best explained by racism and should be described as such, but not everything, and I worry that too many historians, good social justice warriors that we are, use labels like racism as a badge of moral superiority.

    So a question for you: you think “culture wars” is always merely a euphemism?

    • Hi Andrew — sure!, here it is: http://s-usih.org/2016/01/how-does-race-fit-into-the-culture-wars.html. And to my memory we might have talked about it on a Facebook thread somewhere as well.

      My thinking on the over-labeling issue is that while this is a real concern — in that you know, yes, sometimes that happens — the amount of times where the dynamic you are describing is at play versus the label being accurate and necessary is very lopsided, to my judgment; i.e., it’s the latter at least 85 percent of the time. So the problem is so much bigger, and the consequences so much larger, that quite frankly worrying about the 10-15 percent of the time where labeling is happening inaccurately just isn’t a concern of mine. This is especially the case because unless I speak on a very personal, specific case I know a lot about; i.e., maybe between and among friends in conflict, for example; the benefits of backing away from labeling are out of my control and, in my estimation, mostly bad. I.e., there might be a genuine case of over-labeling, but if I bring my attention to that people who have the opposite of my goals with exploit that; “look, even the leftists thinks you’re being too sensitive!,” kind of thing, and that will help delegitimize the other 85 percent of the time where racism is in fact racism. So again, unless it’s a very small circle and I am confident I can control how it percolates, I don’t think it is worth it to intervene. Especially since unless it is personal, I might not know what I am talking about.

      Finally, is the culture wars always a euphemism? I have to admit in the past year I’ve come much closer to saying “yes.” I’m not entirely comfortable with that though, but, let’s just say when I think about the specific issues being contested and the context they developed in, I have a hard time separating things like “traditional culture” from patriarchy, etc. Which is not to say that’s the only thing going on there; but I don’t see why we’re just not talking about how patriarchy provides people with ideological and personal solutions as well as political ones, just like any other system of thought.

      • All labels are constructed. I don’t use the term “traditional family” as if it represents some timeless natural entity. Sometimes using the terms used by historical actors makes more sense to me as long as such use includes analysis about what that term does, i.e. it often, knowingly or not, serves as cover for a particular hierarchical relationship. Such a choice, I think, draws readers to my cause in a way that persistent use of some phrase like “The Patriarchy” does not. I think I’m trying to get readers to the same place as you, but without hitting them over the head with what to many–to me–seems like performative moral superiority.

      • But hasn’t “the Left” broadly construed being trying to do that for decades? Doesn’t seem to be going well, in my estimation. And when in history have social movements really won concessions because they “convinced” enough people, rather than inconvenienced them and threatened their power? I just do not think that we lose more than we gain by speaking clearly to the world and to each other where the battle lines are drawn and what they mean.

        And if something is true, why does it have to be “performative morals superiority,” especially when naming the thing as such serves a function? I mean at what points do you call fascists fascists? We all answer that differently, but I feel like we are way past that point in terms of calling racism racism and racists racists — or transphobics transphobic, or what have you — and have been for a long time. I don’t see how refraining from reality in our language advances the cause beyond a few personal anecdotes about Republican uncles who are willing to listen to you (but then half the time still go vote for Trump…)

  2. I think there’s quite a lot of validity in Corey Robin’s argument that the essence of conservatism, at least for much of its history, has been the belief that certain people “are fit, and thus ought, to rule others….” In the American context, white supremacy and patriarchy have been crucial elements — but not the only elements — of this more general commitment to hierarchy. In other contexts, that commitment has manifested itself somewhat differently (e.g., in Britain, the Tory idea of a “governing class,” i.e., a group ‘naturally’ fitted by wealth, social background, education, and training to be the country’s rulers).

    Racism, sexism, and imperialism very often line up with (or are in some way constitutive of) conservatism in the U.S., but not always. Things get messy when it comes, for instance, to the history of attitudes about foreign policy. Take the movement against U.S. entry into the First World War (I heard a recent talk by Michael Kazin about his book on this subject). That movement was a coalition composed of socialists, feminists, pacifists, some Progressives — and white supremacists (like Rep. Claude Kitchin of N. Carolina). Or the earlier debates over whether the U.S. should acquire colonies in the aftermath of the Spanish-American War. The ideological alignments there are tangled, not neat.

    • Totally agree. One does not have to be all three things at once, and also, it’s not only conservatives that partake in them.

      And yeah, I was trying to stick to the American context where race is particularly important, whereas in Britain class has played a much bigger role.

      I’m definitely on the same page as Corey Robin; a quest for some kind of hierarchy is the only consistent thread I see running through all the versions and contexts of conservatism.

      • “(e.g., in Britain, the Tory idea of a “governing class,” i.e., a group ‘naturally’ fitted by wealth, social background, education, and training to be the country’s rulers).”

        The governing class is also raced.

        I think it’s odd that one neatly untangles colonial and racial projects from Britain’s politics of conservatism. Although much of the self-described difference lies along nativity and class, that doesn’t necessarily mean it is so – we have to rely on the fact that it is bodies of color which are disproportionately scrutinized under these categorizations.

        Fanon might be helpful here – the relationship of colonialism to a raced body suggest depending on the categories used by the colonizer obfuscates the use of power and structure on bodies which are raced.

  3. One problem emerges when it needs to be clarified whether it’s an academic judgment or a political assertion that’s in play (a formal panel, or over drinks that evening, in other words). It’s one thing to conclude in a study that racism is a category defined by a set of identifiable characteristics, and to determine that that party or this philosophy or these individuals is/are racist; it’s somewhat of another thing to declare this or that individual to be a racist in a rhetorical and political context where racism is not a position like big vs. small government but rather a status predefined as unacceptable, even immoral or evil. As one cannot negotiate with those things, and as the qualifying data for inclusion under ‘racist’ is not scientific or even anecdotally consistent, the political consequence is to have declared a group of fellow citizens to be both outside the moral pale and unacceptable as potential negotiating partners. This would not matter if they were a minority, but it does matter if one lives in a large and diverse polity in which the people you’ve just labeled as off-limits continue to exercise some considerable voting power.

    In that eventuality, it might be useful to consider how politically valuable it is to be so convinced of one’s hold on the moral high ground that one can declare large sections of the population (sections with whom, in fact, one might share at least some perceptions and aims) to be off-limits. If permanent opposition status is the goal, then it’s fine of course, but for other political projects, it’s at least of questionable value.

    Finally, it’s also problematic for two other reasons: one is that labels like ‘white supremacist’ have a habit of becoming dangerously elastic. A person who did the accusing last year suddenly finds themselves the accused this year, or the thing that’s suddenly ‘white supremacy’ this year wasn’t it last year. The other is that it tends to reify contingent factors into ideological molds that are then deployed as if they were organically generated rather than just temporary usages. “Racist” may or may not be an appropriate descriptor for some one or some group; but, either way, essentially it’s a kind of ritualistic oath in which Virtue casts Sin out the door — the purpose is to create a binary that identifies ‘anti-racist’ (you, me, us, our friends) as the primal act.

    • “This would not matter if they were a minority, but it does matter if one lives in a large and diverse polity in which the people you’ve just labeled as off-limits continue to exercise some considerable voting power.”

      For certain limited, progressive projects that clearly have a shot in the electoral sphere this makes sense. But for the left — the left left, I mean — the whole idea is to think past and refuse to appeal to institutions which have found ways, again and again, to reproduce racist results no matter how inoffensive the language by their opponents is. And also, the responsibility of the left is to preserve a tradition, a consciousness of refusal to play by the hegemonic rules, in the event that in the future, it becomes more politically/strategically powerful to do so.

      I understand your other slippery slope arguments here but this is what it comes down to for me: the way liberals have been doing it for half a century has failed to halt the construction of Racism 2.0 and has failed to reduce inequality. Meanwhile; mass incarceration, high murder rates for trans people, growing devastation wrought by neoliberalism. I am not going to shy away from naming the enemy and mobilizing with the marginalized on that basis — who prefer to call a spade a spade since *they*, not white liberals, are the ones really threatened by this stuff — when people are dying. I mean, on the one hand, we have the possibility of alienating people through rhetoric or, a theoretical frenzy/paranoia of the revolutionary dynamic that is a real problem but really only once the Left gains real power — on the other we have the very real situation we have been witnessing for decades and really centuries hardly being halted by “appealing” to common goals that don’t exist. They might exist between liberals and conservatives — in fact of course they do, they’re not as different as everyone assumes — but they don’t exist between conservatives and the left, and often not between liberals and the left either. Massive wealth redistribution, the abolition of a prison system, racial egalitarianism in terms of opportunity AND results (which are really the same thing), and the end of all fossil fuel use — these are not the shared goals of any significant number of EITHER Republican or Democratic voters. So there is not even a pragmatic argument for it on that basis.

      (As for false accusations, see my reply to Andrew above; I just don’t at all see how one prioritizes that or worries about it more than racism being deliberately obscured and therefore even harder to defeat; the on-the-ground reality just does not justify it. However, I will say that I think any long-term social culture has to come up with a way to forgive and re-integrate people; but now we are talking again about a scenario so far away from where we are now that it seems almost silly getting hung up on it.)

    • Lord save me from academics who fear the word “racist.”

      Guess my hickish way of defining racists is by listening to the people affected by racism. The people who suffer at the hands of both “good whites” as well as “bad whites.” All white people are racist. The goal of anti-racist work is to undo the privileges of race, not to cast off some label of shame. To digress anti-racist action to shame is to misunderstand the structural work anti-racists are supposed to be doing. It’s not about becoming a “good white” but in seeking to abolish the advantages of whiteness.

      As a Black queer trans person, who does work intersectionally with white people who occupy various areas of disadvantage, when I say all white people are racist that doesn’t mean I don’t work with them. Maybe that’s what it means for white people, with their white guilt and shame, but that’s not on me. I work with many folks who admit they are racists who are working to undo their racism; the title is a call to action not some masturbatory guilt complex.

  4. I just want to say that this has been one of the more productive and interesting conversations I’ve read on the USIH blog. I don’t want to spoil it by interjecting, but you’ve given me a lot to chew on.

  5. I’m not convinced that in this left version of political correctness, we’d arrive at the transparent truth, much less a different world, by running the euphemism treadmill backwards, so that going to a “happier place” turns back into “passing away” and finally ends up … dead. Words matter, but since when aren’t we always in the position of “refraining from reality in our language.”

  6. This is my response to Robin Marie’s latest reply in our ongoing discussion upthread.

    I don’t want to be misunderstood so let me clarify: I am not arguing that we should deliberately write or speak in euphemisms. That would be patently ridiculous. I am for clarity and one of the reasons I think we as historians should be more careful about our use of the term “racism” is because I want more clarity in our analysis.

    1) Some things in US history are so blatantly racist (Indian removal, slavery, Jim Crow) that it’s often pointless to belabor that point. We should only kick a dead horse if it threatens to become a zombie. Sometimes this threat is real but mostly not.

    2) Some things in US history are not explicitly racist but are in fact grounded in racism and this should be explained. In my culture wars book, I do this with the rise of neoconservatism and so-called colorblind conservatism. Also, in my analysis of resistance to multiculturalism in the curriculum.

    3) Some things in US history are not so clearly explained by racism and thus we should be more careful in our analyses. Some historians are quick to explain the mobilization of the Christian Right in the 1970s as simply a manifestation of white backlash. Such an argument is a gross simplification, and thus speaks to my larger point. “Racism” for many historians has been the primary way in which we distinguish between “us” and “them,” us being good, them being bad. It has become shorthand to distance ourselves from people with whom we consider immoral. Our moral certainty on this comes to feel like moral righteousness.

    One more point: when I say that I seek to write even for people who disagree with me, I’m not making a larger point about what the left should do. On that I agree with you that winning arguments is definitively NOT the path to power. That’s the stupid logic of Aaron Sorkin’s idiotic show “West Wing” that has dominated the Democratic Party for too long and that drives me fucking crazy. Rather I am making a more humble point that I want to win over people reading my work.

    • Thanks Andrew this was clarifying. Yeah, I think of my audience for my writing as only the liberal-left and the left, so that’s a difference in that I’m not even trying to get anyway at least not, say, into Bernie Sanders to see my points :).

  7. Robin, I take your point (which I wanted to address in my first point but it was already too long) that you are essentially discussing the best approach for the Left, as opposed to liberal or centrist political constituencies. It is more difficult to make this clear in the US because the grossly misleading history of the word ‘liberal’ in this country that creates confusions that would not be so widespread if we had a term such as ‘social democrat’ available. The ludicrous descriptions of Bernie Sanders, for example, as the “very liberal” candidate or some such nonsense tend to baffle people from other countries who know exactly what the modern concept of liberalism is, and indeed confuse Americans too. In any case, let’s say that ‘left,’ ‘liberal,’ and ‘conservative’ make rough sense today, and leave the semantic reforms for another time.

    I also agree that the programmatic goals you set out are effectively not, at the moment, those of a majority of R or D voters, as you say. But what does that really signify? If your answer is that it means an almost mystical level of incommunicability, essentially uncrossable, one consequence is — of course — that you can cheerfully avoid the challenge of constructing a workable political majority that might actually address some of those key issues (redistribution; racial equality; energy), even if it can’t resolve them with one wave of the socialist wand. You can remain the unsullied outsider-critic which seems to be the favored role of today’s political Left in the US.

    Still — and I concede the last bit is a bit of hypbolic venting on my part — I remain unconvinced of the political value of negative labeling if it has slipped into being little more than an assignment of virtue and sin in an ideological morality play. And again, I’d want to distinguish here between academic rigor, personal conviction, and rhetorical tactics in the public square (real or virtual) — at least for pragmatic reasons.

    • My understanding on the left is that naming things clearly is essentially to building and maintaining an opposition that, one day hopefully, find a way or an opening to actually enact some of their goals.

      But of course, when someone says, ‘no, this is not just moral posturing that makes me feel good, this is strategic’ and someone is not inclined to believe them, there is little you can do other than point to the failed history of the “middle/coalition building” way. But if liberals don’t find that history of failure sufficiently compelling, they’re going to believe we do it to make ourselves feel good and well, I guess there’s not much more we can do about that.

      Except that I would like to say that you feel anything but unsullied on the left; the work of being here means you’re constantly aware of how you, too, of course, participate in all the structures of oppression and you, too, are racist and sexist, even if you hope those aren’t your defining characteristics. Yes, there are some the left that are unfortunately puritanical; I had one or two friends who made it their personal quest to piss on Bernie and I really, really didn’t get or appreciate that. But in my experience — which, admittedly, is all I can speak of when discussing a grass-roots experience — those are a minority.

  8. Just in case I’ve been misunderstood (by anyone), I want to underline that I’m also not in favor of euphemism in either academic work or in political discourse. It’s not about applying pastel-colored terminology to ugly/offensive realities.

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