I am very confused about what we can do as conservatives to broaden our appeal into the minority communities, and especially into those family-centric, independent, liberty-loving groups who poll as overwhelming supporters of the things that conservatives believe. Why do such large portions of the Hispanic community, and essentially all of the black community, reject the Republican party and conservatism in general? Why do such large numbers of our fellow citizens continue to believe that our country is racist, elitist, etc etc, contrary to all the evidence to the contrary, despite all the advances minorities have made in the last 50 years?
What is the path forward to prevent our great country from being destroyed?
Today conservatism is stigmatized in our culture as an antiminority political
philosophy. In certain quarters, conservatism is simply racism by
another name. And minorities who openly identify themselves as
conservatives are still novelties, fish out of water.
Yet there is now the feeling that without an appeal to minorities,
conservatism is at risk of marginalization. The recent election
revealed a Republican Party -- largely white, male and Southern --
seemingly on its way to becoming a "regional" party. Still, an appeal
targeted just at minorities -- reeking as it surely would of identity
politics -- is anathema to most conservatives. Can't it be assumed,
they would argue, that support of classic principles -- individual
freedom and equality under the law -- constitutes support of
minorities? And, given the fact that blacks and Hispanics often poll
more conservatively than whites on most social issues, shouldn't there
be an easy simpatico between these minorities and political
But of course the reverse is true. There is an abiding alienation between
the two -- an alienation that I believe is the great new challenge for
both modern conservatism and formerly oppressed minorities. Oddly, each
now needs the other to evolve.
Yet why this alienation to begin with? Can it be overcome?
I think it began in a very specific cultural circumstance: the
dramatic loss of moral authority that America suffered in the 1960s
after openly acknowledging its long mistreatment of blacks and other
minorities. Societies have moral accountability, and they cannot admit
to persecuting a race of people for four centuries without losing
considerable moral legitimacy. Such a confession -- honorable as it may
be -- virtually calls out challenges to authority. And in the 1960s
challenges emerged from everywhere -- middle-class white kids rioted
for "Free Speech" at Berkeley, black riots decimated inner cities
across the country, and violent antiwar protests were ubiquitous.
America suddenly needed a conspicuous display of moral authority in
order to defend the legitimacy of its institutions against relentless
This was the circumstance that opened a new formula for power in
American politics: redemption. If you could at least seem to redeem
America of its past sins, you could win enough moral authority to claim
real political power. Lyndon Johnson devastated Barry Goldwater because
-- among other reasons -- he seemed bent on redeeming America of its
shameful racist past, while Goldwater's puritanical libertarianism
precluded his even supporting the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Johnson's
Great Society grandly advertised a new American racial innocence. If it
utterly failed to "end poverty in our time," it succeeded -- through a
great display of generosity toward minorities and the poor -- in
recovering enough moral authority to see the government through the
inexorable challenges of the '60s.
When redemption became a term of power, "redemptive liberalism" was
born -- a new activist liberalism that gave itself a "redemptive"
profile by focusing on social engineering rather than liberalism's
classic focus on individual freedom. In the '60s there was no time to
allow individual freedom to render up the social good. Redemptive
liberalism would proactively engineer the good. Name a good like
"integration," and then engineer it into being through a draconian
regimen of school busing. If the busing did profound damage to public
education in America, it gave liberals the right to say, "At least we did something!" In other words, we are activists against America's old sin of segregation. Activism is moral authority in redemptive liberalism.
But conservatism sees moral authority more in a discipline of
principles than in activism. It sees ideas of the good like "diversity"
as mere pretext for the social engineering that always leads to
unintended and oppressive consequences. Conservatism would enforce the
principles that ensure individual freedom, and then allow "the good" to
happen by "invisible hand."
And here is conservatism's great problem with minorities. In an era
when even failed moral activism is redemptive -- and thus a source of
moral authority and power -- conservatism stands flat-footed with only
discipline to offer. It has only an invisible hand to compete with the
activism of the left. So conservatism has no way to show itself
redeemed of America's bigoted past, no way like the Great Society to
engineer a grand display of its innocence, and no way to show deference
to minorities for the oppression they endured. Thus it seems to be in league with that oppression.
Added to this, American minorities of color -- especially blacks --
are often born into grievance-focused identities. The idea of grievance
will seem to define them in some eternal way, and it will link them
atavistically to a community of loved ones. To separate from grievance
-- to say simply that one is no longer racially aggrieved -- will
surely feel like an act of betrayal that threatens to cut one off from
community, family and history. So, paradoxically, a certain chauvinism
develops around one's sense of grievance. Today the feeling of being
aggrieved by American bigotry is far more a matter of identity than of
And this identity calls minorities to an anticonservative
orientation to American politics. It makes for an almost ancestral
resistance to conservatism. One's identity of grievance is flattered by
the moral activism of the left and offended by the invisible hand of
the right. Minorities feel they were saved from oppression by the
left's activism, not by the right's discipline. The truth doesn't
matter much here (in fact it took both activism and principle, civil
war and social movement, to end this oppression). But activism
indicates moral anguish in whites, and so it constitutes the witness
minorities crave. They feel seen, understood. With the invisible hand
the special case of their suffering doesn't count for much, and they go
So here stands contemporary American conservatism amidst its
cultural liabilities and, now, its electoral failures -- with no
mechanism to redeem America of its shames, atavistically resisted by
minorities, and vulnerable to stigmatization as a bigoted and
imperialistic political orientation. Today's liberalism may stand on
decades of failed ideas, but it is failure in the name of American
redemption. It remains competitive with -- even ascendant over --
conservatism because it addresses America's moral accountability to its
past with moral activism. This is the left's great power, and a good
part of the reason Barack Obama is now the president of the United
States. No matter his failures -- or the fruitlessness of his
extravagant and scatter-gun governmental activism -- he redeems America
of an ugly past. How does conservatism compete with this?
The first impulse is to moderate. With "compassionate conservatism"
and "affirmative access" and "faith-based initiatives," President
George W. Bush tried to show a redemptive conservatism that could be
activist against the legacy of America's disgraceful past. And it
worked electorally by moderating the image of conservatives as uncaring
disciplinarians. But in the end it was only a marketer's ploy -- a
shrewd advertisement with no actual product to sell.
What drew me to conservatism years ago was the fact that it gave
discipline a slightly higher status than virtue. This meant it could
not be subverted by passing notions of the good. It could be above
moral vanity. And so it made no special promises to me as a minority.
It neglected me in every way except as a human being who wanted
freedom. Until my encounter with conservatism I had only known the
racial determinism of segregation on the one hand and of white
liberalism on the other -- two varieties of white supremacy in which I
could only be dependent and inferior.
The appeal of conservatism is the mutuality it asserts between
individual and political freedom, its beautiful idea of a free man in a
free society. And it offers minorities the one thing they can never get
from liberalism: human rather than racial dignity. I always secretly
loved Malcolm X more than Martin Luther King Jr. because Malcolm wanted
a fuller human dignity for blacks -- one independent of white moral
wrestling. In a liberalism that wants to redeem the nation of its past,
minorities can only be ciphers in white struggles of conscience.
Liberalism's glamour follows from its promise of a new American
innocence. But the appeal of conservatism is relief from this
supercilious idea. Innocence is not possible for America. This nation
did what it did. And conservatism's appeal is that it does not bank on
the recovery of lost innocence. It seeks the discipline of ordinary
people rather than the virtuousness of extraordinary people. The
challenge for conservatives today is simply self-acceptance, and even a
little pride in the way we flail away at problems with an invisible
Mr. Steele is a research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution.