Day By Day

Monday, March 16, 2009

Shelby Steele On the Future of Conservatism

There is an interesting article by Shelby Steele in the Wall Street Journal on why Conservatives can never succeed with minority voters.

He argues that conservatives, when challenged to respond to the nation's racial past and current inequalities, offer only personal responsibility and discipline as solutions, trusting to the invisible hand to eventually right all wrongs. In doing so they are certainly right both morally and substantially, but such an approach can never succeed politically.

Liberals, by contrast, accept the concept of collective guilt and offer collective redemption through activism. The fact that remedial programs almost always fail to deliver promised gains and are often counter-productive is beside the point. What matters is that Liberals are seen to be taking action and that, to most Americans, is the only possible path to redemption for past wrongs.

But even that path will not lead to redemption. American minorities, especially Blacks, are so strongly wedded to grievance narratives that is will never be possible for them collectively to forgive White Americans for past sins. So ultimately the racial divide will never be healed and Republicans will never be able to make significant inroads into Black minority voting blocs.

In conclusion he writes:

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 hand.

Read the whole thing here.

Steele is certainly insightful, but I hope he is wrong in his conclusions. He seems to be saying that moderate conservatism, such as that pursued by President Bush, will always fail, but the alternative, principled conservatism, offers nothing other than a personal sense of righteousness. Either way the Republicans will be consigned to the margins of America's political culture.

But history suggests otherwise. Republicans have been electorally successful for most of the past quarter century and Dubya's compassionate conservatism did make significant, if temporary, inroads into minority voting blocs. Obama's election certainly did, as Steele asserts, depend to a great extent on the promise of redemption for white guilt, but when that redemption fails to materialize, the cheap moralism on which that guilt is premised will be significantly diminished, and with it the popular appeal of liberal group-think. Perhaps in the future Republicans will never be able to successfully appeal to a significant number of Black voters, but that does not mean that Republicans will not be electorally successful otherwise.

At least I hope that's the case. We need a strong two party system.