Ever since it came into being, the modern American conservative movement has been dogged by accusations of racism. While many conservatives like to trace their roots back to Lincoln, the conservative movement in its modern sense really began later, rising to prominence during the mid-20th century at roughly the same time as the civil rights movement. Of course, conservatives by and large opposed that movement. When Bill Buckley famously wrote in the mission statement for National Review, the conservative magazine, that a conservative “stands athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it,” what he was yelling “Stop” to was integration and voting rights for African Americans. Over the years, it has been mostly the same story for those on the right, eventually culminating in the nomination and subsequent election of Donald Trump.
Of course, conservatives have almost always had an excuse. Men like Robert Taft and Barry Goldwater, the leading Republican politicians during the civil rights movement, claimed to personally support civil rights, but were instead hamstrung by the Constitution. States’ rights, they said, was why they couldn’t support the Civil Rights Act. In more modern times, there was the birther movement, built around the idea that President Barack Obama was not born in America. Prominent conservatives dismissed this movement as fringe, only to see Donald Trump, the movement’s most prominent supporter, become the face of the party. With Trump, many conservatives professed their displeasure with his policies and his behavior, but in the end decided the Supreme Court was just too important. They say they held their noses and reluctantly cast their votes for him. Excuse after excuse. But at some point there are too many excuses, and the uncomfortable truth emerges: many self-identified conservative voters and politicians are, in fact, racist.
But at some point there are too many excuses, and the uncomfortable truth emerges: many self-identified conservative voters and politicians are, in fact, racist.
At this point many readers – particularly those on the left – may be experiencing some sort of “no shit” reaction. I confess that this realization came to me too late in my development, blinded by partisanship as I was. Those who identify as conservative may vehemently disagree with my characterization of conservatives today. Luckily for us all, we have a perfect case study to determine the exact racial attitudes of conservatives going on right now: The Alabama Senate special election.
The election pits the democratic nominee Doug Jones, a former U.S. attorney, against the Republican Roy Moore, a former state Supreme Court judge who was removed from office on not one but two occasions for violating the direct orders of a higher court. Before delving into the candidates more, it is worth noting that they are running to replace Jeff Sessions, who in the 1980s was denied a spot in the federal judiciary for being too racist.
I can already hear the cries from Moore supporters now. Jones, you see, is a Democrat, and a firm supporter of abortion. He must be stopped at all costs. This is, to put it lightly, dumb. There are no real costs to losing this election. It does not cost the Republicans a majority. Jones will be in no position to vote for pro-abortion legislation that could pass. Even with the numbers they already have, Republicans have been unable to pass any major legislation. Despite his supporters’ claims that he would be a valuable vote, Moore said that he wouldn’t have voted for the Graham-Cassidy healthcare bill. If Moore cannot be counted on to vote with his fellow Republicans, then supposedly reluctant Moore supporters have no reason to support him.
There are plenty of things that make Roy Moore odious: his open defiance for the rule of law and his opinions on LGBTQ people come to mind. But in keeping with the focus of this article, I will just discuss one of his many flaws. In 2006, Keith Ellison was elected to Congress from the state of Minnesota. In an editorial for World Net Daily (a conservative conspiracy theory outlet a step above InfoWars, for those unaware), Moore argued that because Ellison was Muslim, he was not qualified to sit in Congress. Moore compared Ellison’s decision to be sworn in using the Quran to allowing a Nazi in 1943 to take the oath on Mein Kampf.
This article and argument is mind-bogglingly racist, to say nothing of its direct contradiction of the Constitution, which explicitly prohibits religious tests for public office. Moore has never retracted it. Considering the low stakes of this election, there is no downside to repudiating Moore. It is easy to do; his bigotry is clear and indisputable. This is an incredibly easy opportunity for Republicans to counter the oft-repeated charges of racism that the left levies against them.
And yet. Mike Lee, Senator from Utah, a man who prides himself on being a “Constitutional Conservative,” offered his endorsement of Moore. Rand Paul of Kentucky, supposedly the most libertarian member of the Senate, endorsed Moore as well. What purpose their endorsements served in the election is unclear. One struggles to imagine what possible Alabama voter was torn on who to vote for until Lee and Paul decided to weigh in. No, the reason the Senators endorsed Moore was much simpler: they like him. They do not find issue with his advocating for a religious test. They do not find issue with his bigotry. And apparently, neither does any other prominent Republican, as even the most virulent of Trump critics like Ben Sasse have been silent on the matter.
But despite their silence, the message is loud and clear: Roy Moore has a place in the conservative movement. Roy Moore, who believes that Muslims are unqualified to sit in Congress, fits in just fine with the GOP. This is a damning indictment. A large wing of the party is furious at George Bush for giving a speech condemning white supremacy, but has no problem with Roy Moore’s open Islamophobia. The Trump and Tea Party wings of the party have long advocated for burning down the whole Party, and they are, in a way, correct. While they misidentify the exact problems of the modern GOP, they are correct in that it ought to be destroyed. The GOP provides a political home for those who believe in white supremacy. While of course every Republican is not racist, what is clear is that many of the party’s supporters and politicians are perfectly fine with bigotry, and in many cases actively support it.
Believe me when I tell you that I do not say this lightly. I have spent much of the (admittedly brief) time in which I have been politically conscious defending the GOP from accusations of racism. But no more. The Republican Party, and the conservative movement writ large, is fundamentally and irredeemably broken.
The Republican Party, and the conservative movement writ large, is fundamentally and irredeemably broken.
The question, then, is where this leaves me. I have always chosen to identify myself as a conservative. And when I look at what I consider to be conservative principles – limited government, self-reliance, free markets, natural rights – all still make sense to me. I certainly do not identify with left wing ideals. But the fact remains that I find many, if not most, of the people who identify in a manner politically similar to me to be deeply loathsome. The easy answer is to say that those people misunderstand conservatism and are not, in fact, conservative. But this is a cop out, and what’s more not a very good one. It is deeply unsettling, to say the least, that my preferred political ideology is the one that many bigots have chosen to mask their bigotry. As much as I would like to say that ideas and principles are what matters, at some point the people and the practical manifestation of those principles matter as well. I doubt that I will ever call myself a liberal, but I also am unsure that I can continue to call myself conservative. To do so would require associating myself with people whose beliefs are diametrically opposed to mine, and to be quite frank, evil. In an ideal world, I and like-minded people – and as pessimistic as I am, I do know that they exist – would reclaim the conservative movement. But I doubt we have the numbers or the strength.
It is deeply unsettling, to say the least, that my preferred political ideology is the one that many bigots have chosen to mask their bigotry.
The preceding paragraph is, I confess, something of a dodge. I have yet to answer the actual question I posed in its first sentence, namely, where all of this leaves me. The answer is, truly, I don’t know. I am politically homeless. Matt Shapiro wrote a piece last May called “The Homeless Conservative,” with which I strongly identified. Shapiro wrote of not feeling at home on the right anymore, and how the left’s hostility to conservatives meant he didn’t fit in there either. I’m not even sure that the left should accept someone like me. My beliefs and principles are fundamentally opposed to theirs. And like I said, I don’t think that I will ever be at home on the right again. That leaves me precisely nowhere.
Max Handler ‘18 studies in the College of Arts & Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.