The election of Barack Obama was widely thought to represent a dramatic advance for racial progress and reconciliation. Attitudes had clearly changed as the legal and institutional barriers to equality came down.
But less than two years after Obama left the presidency, many believe that race relations are worse than before he assumed it.
For liberals, the explanation for this depressing reversal absolves Obama and begins where it usually does, with an upsurge in white racism that culminated with the election of Donald Trump.
Implicit in such claims is the somewhat implausible proposition that lots of white voters who voted for Obama not just once but twice somehow suddenly experienced racist makeovers.
An alternative possibility, ignored in left-wing circles, perhaps because it's suggestive of certain culpability, is that it was the liberal response to criticisms of the Obama administration's policies that damaged race relations; that the liberal effort to delegitimize such criticism by attributing it to racism poisoned our political discourse by reducing healthy political disagreement to racial animus.
That there were undoubtedly Obama critics then and Trump supporters now motivated by racism made it too easy for liberals to assume the worst and attribute such motives to all Obama's critics and all Trump supporters, groups which also just happened to be overwhelmingly conservative.
The claim that opposition to Obama from conservatives and libertarians was due mostly to his left-wing policies--that is, to the ordinary vicissitudes of ideology--could thus be conveniently refuted by redefining the ideology of conservatism as a form of racism.
That liberals fiercely opposed the administration of Ronald Reagan out of ideological conviction in the 1980s and that of George W. Bush for the same reasons before Obama, and that conservatives resisted Bill Clinton in between all the way to the point of impeachment, was expediently forgotten, because it was in the liberal interest to attribute conservative opposition to a liberal black president to the black rather than the liberal part.
By smearing Obama's conservative critics as racists, liberals embraced a tactic that would lead them to eventually attribute racist motives to just about anyone who opposed the progressive agenda. The tendency in the liberal imagination to see racism in so many places merged with the simultaneous embrace of political correctness in an attempt to expel one of the two major American belief systems (conservatism, otherwise known as "classical liberalism") from public discourse.
Hence the pernicious expansion of the racism charge, all the way to the notion that conservatism as an ideology is but a deceptive façade with which to uphold "white privilege" and "supremacy" in an age of changing racial and ethnic demography; a backlash in response to the rise of the "coalition of the ascendant" that Obama was said to represent.
That more Americans continue to self-identify as "conservative" than "liberal," sometimes by margins of more than 2-1 in the annual Gallup survey, and that conservative principles such as individual liberty, limited government, and free enterprise have guided the American experience from the beginning, to the point of being encoded in our political cultural DNA, was even more useful because it provided a pretext to depict the entire American project (and white America) as hopelessly racist from the start.
Since Trump's surprising election (which even more than opposition to his predecessor could only be explained by racism), this logic that incubated during the Obama years has been taken even further, to its logical extrapolation--not only is conservatism a form of racism, but so too any dissent from leftism on racial and ethnic matters more generally.
To be "woke" is to now denounce, for instance, not just freedom of speech as an instrument of racist oppression, but also those who express support for it on the grounds that they encourage the granting of platforms to conservative views and speakers (i.e., racists). After all, there can be nothing immoral about shouting down speakers spewing racism.
For the left, particularly on our college campuses, but soon elsewhere, conservative speech has thereby become "hate speech" and mainstream conservatives and even center-right moderates are smeared as "white supremacists." Anyone who defends their right to speak and be heard can consequently be accused of complicity in such "hate."
Thus, what began as a misguided effort to defend the Obama presidency from criticism has now, in all too many instances, led to a rejection by liberals of many of the time-honored principles of liberalism itself, including the concept of the marketplace of ideas lest that marketplace contain ideas critical in any way of leftist orthodoxy.
We have arrived at a dangerous point in our national conversation on race because the left won't permit one. No dissent from the leftist narrative is allowed and safety is found only by appearing to enthusiastically conform.
When legitimate ideological differences are attributed to nefarious motives, there is no stopping point before all political disagreement (the usual consequence of ideological differences) is prohibited.
Those on the left who earnestly complain about the vitriol and rancor in our public discourse can therefore take an easy step to improve things--stop calling everyone who disagrees with you a racist.
Freelance columnist Bradley R. Gitz, who lives and teaches in Batesville, received his Ph.D. in political science from the University of Illinois.
Editorial on 06/18/2018
Print Headline: The conservative evolution