Racial Politics, and Why Conservatives Always Lose

I have an op-ed in Newsweek about the racial politics of mass shootings. Writing this article reminded me of a book I read many years ago called Collision Course, and made me go back and find the passage about how OMB invented the concept of “Asian American Pacific Islander,” and set the limits of whiteness at the Afghan-Pakistan border.

I am also in The Hill on the latest attempt of the US to form an anti-China alliance, and why it will run into the same problems these efforts always face.

Finally, a journalist reached out to me and asked what I thought the prospects of a centrist presidential run are. He didn’t end up using any quotes from what I wrote back, but I think it was interesting enough that I’m just going to share here, with light edits:

Regarding a centrist run, we've already run that experiment! In 2016, there was a Republican candidate who said he was fine with affirmative action, never said anything about homosexuality or trans issues besides signaling vague support, said nice things about Planned Parenthood, wanted to raise taxes on the rich and opposed illegal immigration but talked positively about legal immigration. Of course, I'm talking about Trump himself, putting to the side how he actually governed.

That might lead one to think maybe a more civilized, less outrageous Trump could do even better electorally? I actually don't think so, at least not in the primaries. It was the fact that he “triggered the libs” through outrageous statements about Mexican rapists, etc., that I think gave Trump a pass on other things. So a "more sober, disciplined Trump," would basically be Trump without what gave him his appeal in the primaries. Therefore, I think it's possible on the right, at least, because we've already had a campaign close to that, and we may get it again in 2024, but the necessity of owning the libs will ensure that person can never be a unifying figure.

This raises the question of what about the other side? I don't think such a moderate would survive in a Democratic primary. The culture of "owning the libs" as being central to politics has no equivalent on the left (BTW, this made me search for "conservative tears" versus "liberal tears" coffee mugs on Amazon. A quick search shows the most popular "liberal tears" mug has 2,787 reviews, compared to 13 for the most popular "conservative tears" mug).* Note that in the 2020 Democratic primaries, there was a "moderate versus liberal" division on economic issues like universal healthcare, but not so much on trans issues, BLM, or race, where the whole party moves together.

Why is this the case? People haven't given the issue enough thought, but it is likely related to liberalism being the higher status ideology. In high school, the unpopular kids will often be obsessed with the cool kids, who are focused on other things. At the activist or media level, liberalism is an ideology, or maybe a coalition of ideologies, while conservatism leans more towards being a movement based on opposition to a dominant group. The movements are not symmetrical; in many ways the psychology of our politics is more analogous to the relationship between colonizer and colonized than the relationship between two ideologies competing on equal footing, as is more the case in other democracies.

The culturally dominant group, the colonizers, always has more influence on the colonized than vice versa. That's why colonized people often relied on ideologies created in the west, like Marxism and nationalism, to justify their political activity even when resisting the colonizers. Relatedly, conservatives use liberal arguments about women's rights to talk about trans in sports, or will argue for school choice, etc. on the grounds that Democratic policies are racist. In the long run, when we're living in the same country, the colonized end up being assimilated, though the colonizers can always go a step further with a new thing that people become required to believe and start the cycle over again.

Strategically, I think conservatives would be more interested in a grand bargain than liberals are, for the simple reason that liberals are the ones on offense. It's like an advancing army is just ravaging deep into enemy territory and it looks like they're going to win. The side that's falling back might have an interest in negotiating, while the attacking army still has hopes of complete victory. If you look at polling data of young people on issues of race and sexuality, they are far to the left, and when you combine that with the complete liberal capture of institutions, there is every reason to think liberals will keep advancing.

So on gay rights, in 2004 Bush and Rove could use gay marriage as a "wedge issue" liberals didn't want to talk about. Conservatives have retreated to trying to protect the right to privately discriminate, with mixed success in the courts. Right now, the main trans issue is about women's sports, but think about how much ground conservatives have already given for this to be even a debate. They've completely surrendered the idea that children can choose their gender (although recently there's been movement at the state level to prevent that). The trans bathroom issue roiled the country a few years ago, and it looks like conservatives have surrendered on that already. It is important to also note that just a decade or so ago, conservatives talked about Title IX as a piece of social engineering that destroyed men’s sports, and now the Republican governor of South Dakota has set up a website called DefendTitle9.com.

On racial issues, there's now widespread acceptance of theories like "systemic racism" that used to be confined to universities. Republicans in previous decades would challenge affirmative action, now they don't do so even rhetorically, and any attempt to get away from race consciousness in policy would be seen as extreme. I've been talking mostly about social issues, but the trend is similar on economic issues, just look at how little opposition there was to the recent stimulus, and how much larger it was compared to previous bills. Yet there is more division within the left on economics, so the progress hasn't been as rapid or even as on social issues.

So until conservatives find a way to mount some kind of actual resistance to the current trajectory we're on, liberals have no incentive to compromise on most of these things, even if there is short run damage to Democrats at the ballot box from taking far left positions (and that damage is real). In the long run, the left can rest assured that in 5 years or so Republicans will have come to live with whatever the liberal position currently is and we'll be on to the next battle.

*Note the “liberal tears” mug can be customized to have other messages, so it’s not a direct apples-to-apples comparison, but even the second, third, fourth, etc. place “liberal tears” mugs have more reviews than any “conservative tears” mugs.