THE BLOG

Conservatives, Race and Republicans: Does the Coalition Survive?

06/24/2015 08:21 am ET | Updated Jun 24, 2016
ERIK PEREL via Getty Images

Conservatives are not, by and large, racists. Racists, by and large, are conservative.

Significant elements of the conservative coalition, from the South and elsewhere, were outspokenly hostile to racial minorities. They worked to undercut the civil rights movement and the drive for legal and economic equality. It was described as ideology: Limited government, states rights, even as a matter of personal liberty. But underneath it were primal racial, ethnic and religious attitudes.

Again, not everyone, by and large, who spoke in favor of limited government, states rights and personal liberty are racists. But racists, by and large, held those views, since before the Civil War. Be it flying the Confederate flag, gutting the Voting Rights Act, attacking Obamacare or affirmative action the vigorous ideological debates covered up huge racial conflict.

Strangely, there was never a political price to pay. Some people, largely Southern Republicans, directly courted groups like the Council of Conservative Citizens. Others including presidential candidates didn't get close personally but accepted the vocabulary and the votes. Democrats never were able to de-legitimize that element of the Republican coalition. And Black and Latino voters were so reliably Democratic that it all just floated by.

Again, there's no immutable party responsibility. Democrats have their own history of welcoming racist fellow-travelers. That largely ended in the 1960s when Lyndon Johnson forever changed the political dynamic around race. And today the issue has landed squarely in the laps of Republicans.

In the aftermath of the Charleston massacre, there is, for the first time, scrutiny of the racial elements of the Republican coalition. It's beginning by a focus on relatively trivial matters. For example, it turns out that Earl Holt, the head of the Council of Conservative Citizens, was more than an avatar for Dylann Roof, he has contributed significantly to the likes of Ted Cruz, Rick Santorum, Scott Walker and Rand Paul. Again, not because they are racists. But because what they talk about appeals to racists. It will likely move to a deeper national discussion.

The defter Republicans are moving to separate from their troubling history. Nikki Haley, Governor of South Carolina, is now seeking the removal of the Confederate flag from the grounds of the State Capitol. This, by the way, is what passes for racial sensitivity in some states. But it's unlikely to stop at a few symbolic gestures.

The national interest in race as a political issue could be, as the Council of Conservative Citizens predicts, a flash in the pan: "It will result in brief, intense media scrutiny, the consequences of which will ultimately be minimal, aside from an increase in membership."

Or it could be an inflection point where conservatives not only examine the connection between racism and ideology, but where voters start putting two and two together.

Part of the reason to be hopeful is the extraordinary behavior of the Charleston Black community, whose spiritual generosity and steadfastness has moved a nation. The election of Obama, the genuine progress in improving the legal status of minorities since the Civil Rights movement began, and the generational change in racial attitudes masked the persistence of America's unresolved racial history. Dylann Roof tore that mask away.

If any good can emerge from this awful event, it will be because as Dr. King said,"The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice." This is an historic opportunity like the bombing of the church in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963. It is now in the hands of Republican and conservative leaders. But it should expand into an attempt to reconcile ideas, politics and racial injustice that touches everyone.