Michael Tesler and David Sears pull together a lot of research about race and politics in their book Obama’s Race: The 2008 Election and the Dream of a Post-Racial America. The authors look at the role that race has played in elections in the history of the United States and compare historical racial attitudes to contemporary politics and observations. When reading the book I came across a short line that stood out to me because it directly voiced concerns and thoughts that I had not fully articulated. “Others, however, viewed racial conservatism as a continuing source of partisan cleavage in the United States, not just between blacks and whites but among whites as well. Mayer (2002) finds a consistent partisan division about race in presidential campaign appeals from 1964 to 2000 (also see Gerstle 2002; O’Reilly 1995; and Schaller 2006) and the Edsalls (1992) articulated the common view among liberals that conservatism of all kinds had become little more than a mask for protecting racial inequality.”
The common view is that modern conservatives are not truly conservative in the sense that they prefer limited government as much as they are conservative in the identity politics that motivate them. This is a broad generalization of about half our country, but it is a view that is very common among Democrats. On the Republican side of the isle in the United States, the key foundations of most ideology hinges on personal responsibility, which creates a lot of gray space in which identity politics can operate. Through a personal responsibility framework, ideas of limited government can exist out of the idea that government should be limited to aid only those who are self reliant and can take personal responsibility for their given situation, be it economic, political (read as power position), familial, or social. These views of the Republican party are not really about a fear of the power of government or philosophical questions of the proper scope of government, but about whether we help those who are deserving and personally responsible. Who we determine is acting personally responsible and how we define who is truly deserving of government aid, however, is unclear in such a system, and identity politics is the simplest way to cut through the unending questions, hypothetical considerations, and nuanced details of life that make it impossible for us to decide who should receive what, when they should receive it, and why they should receive it.
This operation of identity politics in the name of personal responsibility is what those on the Democrat side of the isle have recognized, and this is where the common view of conservatism acting as a stand in for racism originates for many Democrats. Tesler’s book does not simply make observations regarding racial splits and racial attitudes on both sides of the isle, but instead incorporates research and data to support the ideas presented. I chose to include in the quote above the original citations from Tesler, to show that the common view of conservatism acting as little more than racial apologetics is backed by research and that the view is supported by academic studies evaluating people’s identities and general thought patterns.
I do not know how we cut through the apologetic euphemisms with which we communicate our political preferences, but I think it is crucial that we be able to dissect political arguments to see what is operating in the background. Developing the ability to understand what we are arguing about and debating is crucial if we want to develop good policy and push back against identity politics. We must at the same time recognize that because so much of politics is about identity and race, significant policies aimed at more universal and egalitarian sharing of resources among races will face significant backlash without any backing that can be supported by empirical evidence. Because this backlash is motivated almost purely by obscured racial preference, tensions will be heightened and greater political division can ensue when lines are drawn in the sand.