The GOP Struggles, Conservatism May Not.

By Seth Freed Wessler Jun 02, 2008

The pages of liberal and progressive magazines have been brimming these past few months with articles and book reviews about conservatism and the Republican Party. As the Bush Administration finds itself a failure in the eyes of many and the US stands ready for some sort of change, writers on the left side of the political mountain are scrambling to make sense of what has happened; to inscribe history as it is happening. The New Yorker and The Nation declared the fall of conservatism, the end of the GOP’s “permanent majority”. Book Forum and the New York Times Book Review have entered the discussion, reviewing the stack of new volumes about Nixon, Reagan, Goldwater and the white Southern roots of the party . Most of the writings on conservatism note that the movement’s ascendancy was hedged on a kind of race baiting. Citing Johnson’s declaration that the signing of the Civil Rights Act would mean the loss of the South for a generation, the articles and reviews correctly explain that Republicans would not have been so successful had it not been for the explicit and implicit “use” of race to instill fear and anxiety among whites. But in addition to the role that racism has played in allowing Republicans to hold onto power and move the country to the right, conservative policies have been and continue to be brutally detrimental to people of color. Yes, racism in the explicit and even coded sense that Johnson referred to is important, but thinking that the end of Republican control will mean an end to racism is a mistake. This is especially dangerous when racism continues to be understood to be about intent (as in the case of the ‘use’ of race to win elections) rather than outcome. The end of bellicose Republican dominance does not mean that racism is on the wane nor an end to conservatism. The conservative shift has been a widespread success and Democrats have moved away from race-conscious, social policies as a result. That Bush has put the GOP in a bind is undeniable, but it will be necessary to keep in mind that policies matter because of what they do to people not what the people who make them say they do to people or the rhetoric they couch these policies in. The decline of the GOP, if indeed that is what we are seeing, is significant only to the degree that we shed the layers of conservative, neoliberal, race-blind policies that both parties have promulgated.