Conservatives, Reactionaries, and Backlash

Is the left unwittingly fueling a reactionary moment?

Andrew Sullivan’s essay “The Limits of My Conservatism” is simultaneously thought-provoking and frustrating. It articulates eloquently some issues I’ve struggled with in recent years but goes in directions I find decidedly unhelpful.

His theme:

why I’m a conservative, why the distinction between a reactionary and a conservative is an important one in this particular moment, and how the left unwittingly is becoming reactionism’s most potent enabler.

I’m not sure that either Sullivan or I qualify as “conservative” anymore but we both share a conservative disposition—a subject to which we’ll return. I’m also sympathetic to his argument that the left’s illiberalism is unwittingly enabling reactionaries—an argument that liberals like author and regular OTB commenter Michael Reynolds has made from a different angle—but think Sullivan takes it much too far.

A conservative who becomes fixated on the contemporary left’s attempt to transform traditional society, and who views its zeal in remaking America as an existential crisis, can decide that in this war, there can be no neutrality or passivity or compromise. It is not enough to resist, slow, query, or even mock the nostrums of the left; it is essential that they be attacked — and forcefully. If the left is engaged in a project of social engineering, the right should do the same: abandon liberal democratic moderation and join the fray.

Neither Sullivan nor I fit into that camp, although maybe for different reasons. Neither of us see an existential crisis coming from the left; indeed, we see it coming from the reactionary right. But, unlike Sullivan, I also think “the left” is too small a force in American politics to do more than marginal harm.

Sullivan is articulating the view of his recent dinner partner, Michael Anton, as seen in his September 2016 column, “The Flight 93 Election.” I’m less hostile to that viewpoint than Dan Drezner but less admiring of it than Sullivan. But I’m more interested in Sullivan’s thinking than Anton’s.

I confess I’m tempted by this, especially since the left seems to have decided that the forces behind Trump’s election represented not an aberration, but the essence of America, unchanged since slavery. To watch this version of the left capture all of higher education and the mainstream media, to see the increasing fury and ambition of its proponents, could make a reactionary of nearly anyone who’s not onboard with this radical project.

I’m much less tempted since, again, I think the left far less powerful than Sullivan suggests. It’s true that the academy has long been dominated by the left than any other institution in our society; but it hasn’t come close to “captur[ing” all of higher education.” And, while the elite media is certainly more liberal than the society as a whole, it’s hardly of the left. Indeed, even mainstream liberals are frustrated by the culture of High Broderism and bothsidesism that predominates in the American press.

Here, though, Sullivan and I essentially agree:

That’s why Anton backed Trump. Trump was a crude weapon at hand to defend the values of the West — even though, to my mind, he was inimical to those values. Those of us on the center right who refused to back him, who saw Trump as an equivalent but even more deranged enemy of liberal democracy, were forced to back Clinton, however deep our reservations. She was easily the lesser of two evils, because although she would be dragged by the far left, and would, in my view, have been a terrible president, she was still a defender of liberal democratic norms and couldn’t be worse than Trump. But we also gritted our teeth and backed her because we didn’t believe the current left’s assault on American liberalism was such an existential threat it merited backing a bullying bigot.

Now, I didn’t see Clinton as “deranged,” much less an “enemy of liberal democracy”—or even of the far left—just unsavory and corrupt. But, like Sullivan, I thought the choice obvious given Trump’s character and erratic policy preferences.

This, it strikes me, is one core divide on the right: between those who see the social, cultural, and demographic changes of the last few decades as requiring an assault and reversal, and those who seek to reform its excesses, manage its unintended consequences, but otherwise live with it. Anton is a reactionary; I’m a conservative. I’m older than Anton but am obviously far more comfortable in a multicultural world, and see many of the changes of the last few decades as welcome and overdue: the triumph of women in education and the workplace; the integration of gays and lesbians; the emergence of a thriving black middle class; the relaxation of sexual repression; the growing interdependence of Western democracies; the pushback against male sexual harassment and assault.

Conservatives have, of course, opposed all of the changes Sullivan describes as “welcome and overdue.” Given the degree to which most strains of conservative thought have been intertwined with religiosity, it’s fair to wonder whether support for gays and lesbians and whatever the opposite of sexual repression is can be described as “conservative.” It’s partly why I’ve long since abandoned that self-identification and instead opted for Classical Liberal.

Still, Sullivan and I share the small-c conservatism that he gets at here:

Yes, a conservative is worried about the scale and pace of change, its unintended consequences, and its excesses, but he’s still comfortable with change. Nothing is ever fixed. No nation stays the same. Culture mutates and mashes things up. And in America, change has always been a motor engine in a restless continent.

One question conservatives are always asking themselves is whether these changes can be integrated successfully into a new social fabric, so we do not lose cohesion as a nation; another is whether this change is largely being imposed from above by ideological fiat, or whether it’s emerging from below as part of an emerging spontaneous order. That’s why conservatives support marriage equality and reactionaries oppose it; why conservatives support equal opportunity for women and reactionaries fret about it; why conservatives think twice before leaving the E.U., which has been integrated into the British way of life for several decades, and reactionaries want to wrench Britain out of it; or why a conservative might hesitate before junking the entire apparatus of international alliances that the U.S. has built and supported since the 1940s, while a reactionary will just rip it up. All these broader social changes are emergent ones that seem well within our capacities as a society to digest.

Now, again, it’s self-serving for Sullivan, a gay man, to claim that heteronormativity is “reactionary” when it was the predominant view in Western society well into our adult lifetimes. But perhaps that’s his point: something stops being “conservative” and becomes “reactionary” precisely when the culture has evolved to the point where the once-conservative view seems backward. If that’s the case, he’s describing an attitude, not an ideology.

But there is a place where conservatives and reactionaries find common cause — and that is when the change occurring is drastic, ideological, imposed by an elite, and without any limiting principle. This is not always easy to distinguish from more organic change — but there is a distinction. On immigration, for example, has the demographic transformation of the U.S. been too swift, too revolutionary, and too indifferent to human nature and history? Or is it simply a new, if challenging, turn in a long, American story of waves of immigrants creating a country that’s an ever-changing kaleidoscope? If you answer “yes” to the first, you’re a reactionary. If “yes” to the second, you’re a liberal. If you say yes to both, you’re a conservative. If you say it’s outrageous and racist even to consider these questions, you’re a card-carrying member of the left.

There’s a bit of poisoning the well in that labeling but we fundamentally agree. We especially agree that on the last part: we simply have to be able to have good faith debates about these issues and there’s a strain on the left that makes that impossible.

And we both instinctively prefer that cultural change come organically, through debate and expanding of human understanding, rather than being imposed by fiat, whether judicial or bureaucratic. But some of the biggest changes that we both applaud, notably racial desegregation and equal rights for gays, came the other way. And, in both cases, the changed legal environment helped accelerate cultural acceptance.

In a new essay, Anton explains his view of the world: “What happens when transformative efforts bump up against permanent and natural limits? Nature tends to bump back. The Leftist response is always to blame nature; or, to be more specific, to blame men; or to be even more specific, to blame certain men.” To be even more specific, cis white straight men.

But what are “permanent and natural limits” to transformation? Here are a couple: humanity’s deep-seated tribalism and the natural differences between men and women. It seems to me that you can push against these basic features of human nature, you can do all you can to counter the human preference for an in-group over an out-group, you can create a structure where women can have fully equal opportunities — but you will never eradicate these deeper realities.

The left is correct that Americans are racist and sexist; but so are all humans. The question is whether, at this point in time, America has adequately managed to contain, ameliorate, and discourage these deeply human traits. I’d say that by any reasonable standards in history or the contemporary world, America is a miracle of multiracial and multicultural harmony. There’s more to do and accomplish, but the standard should be what’s doable within the framework of human nature, not perfection.

More to the point, the attempt to eradicate rather than ameliorate these things requires extraordinary intervention in people’s lives, empowers government way beyond its optimal boundaries, and generates intense backlash. What Anton is saying is that if you decide to change the ethnic composition of an entire country in just a few decades, you will get a backlash from the previous majority ethnicity; and if you insist that there are no differences between men and women, you are going to generate male and female resistance. That kind of left-radicalism will generate an equal and opposite kind of right-reactionism. And that’s especially true if you define the resisters as bigots and deplorables, and refuse to ever see that they might have a smidgen of a point.

There’s too much in there to unpack in one blog post but, again, we’re in broad agreement. Tribalism is a natural part of the human condition and the very nature of the nation-state is the separation of peoples with lines on a map, usually based on language, culture, and other things that separate Us from Them.

The United States is different from most other countries in that we’ve been built, in relatively short order, through mass immigration. But we’ve only gradually expanded our self-image as something other than white and Christian. We had African slaves here since before the Pilgrims came but didn’t fully integrate them into “Us” until roughly half a century ago. And even many of what we now lump in as “white people,” including the Irish, Jews, and those of Eastern European ancestry were the Other long after they came. They became Us by assimilation and melting into the culture.

It’s hardly surprising that large numbers of white Americans, particularly those at the margins of society, are having trouble seeing waves of Spanish-speaking immigrants as Us. Ditto hijab-wearing Muslims, even when they’re elected to Congress.

Is their reaction bigotry? Almost by definition. But it’s also part and parcel of nationalism.

Still, while I agree with Sullivan that dismissing normal human reactions as “hate” is unhelpful, his essay seems to place all of the blame on the radical left while ignoring the much larger and more powerful reactionary right. Indeed, he seems to blame the very existence of the reactionary right on the left.

This is not to say that some of the resisters are not bigots, just that no human society has been without bigotry, and that many others who are resistant to drastic change are just uncomfortable, or nostalgic, or afraid, or lost. The left responds by reifying all resistance to radical top-down change as “hate,” and takes it as evidence that even more social engineering is needed. The right, in turn, radicalizes, and starts to justify or excuse that kind of hate. That doesn’t explain all of our current political predicament, but it captures some of it. I feel it in myself. I’m a multicultural conservative. But when assaulted by the slur of “white supremacist” because I don’t buy Marcuse, my reactionism perks up. The smugness, self-righteousness, and dogmatism of the current left is a Miracle-Gro of reactionism.

The “because I don’t buy Marcuse” bit is odd since most readers will have no idea what he’s talking about. Presumably, it’s a reference to the philosopher’s essay “Repressive Tolerance” and the notion that a liberal society mustn’t tolerate illiberal ideas and that, indeed, it’s perfectly legitimate for a democratic state to actively work against them. Like Sullivan, I think that’s a dangerous precept.

Still, it’s more than a stretch to attribute the nationalist wave that’s spreading throughout to West to leftist intolerance of intolerance. Indeed, Sullivan’s earlier explanations—natural human affinities for in-groups, the perception that change is too fast and imposed by an unaccountable elite—are far better.

After a weird discursion into dissecting a random Twitter thread, he returns to a familiar set of hobby horses:

Many leftists somehow believe that sustained indoctrination will work in abolishing human nature, and when it doesn’t, because it can’t, they demonize those who have failed the various tests of PC purity as inherently wicked. In the end, the alienated and despised see no reason not to gravitate to ever-more extreme positions. They support people and ideas simply because they piss off their indoctrinators. And, in the end, they reelect Trump. None of this is necessary. You can be in favor of women’s equality without buying into the toxicity of men; you can support legal immigration if the government gets serious about stopping illegal immigration; you can be inclusive of trans people without abolishing the bimodality of human sex and gender; you can support criminal-justice reform without believing — as the New York Times now apparently does — that America is an inherently racist invention, founded in 1619 and not 1775.

While Sullivan and I share many of the same attitudes about these things, I’m skeptical of the degree which radicalization is a reaction to leftist indoctrination.

I can understand why a conservative who deplores Trump’s moral transgressions would nonetheless support him when the alternative is a candidate who sees them as a deplorable bigot. Or why they’d overlook Brett Kavanaugh’s obvious flaws because they see him as an ally in a fight for their culture. And I think that, to the degree Bernie Sanders and AOC’s Squad are the face of the Democratic Party, the harder it is for Republicans disgusted by Trump to switch sides.

The Us versus Them mentality doesn’t, however, reasonably explain full-throated support of the alt-right.

Nor should we pretend that rhetorical excess and casting of those who disagree as the Other is somehow exclusively a phenomenon of the left. The right has made an art form of divisive language going back at least as far back as Richard Nixon’s 1968 campaign and, especially, since Newt Gingrich’s 1994 strategy.

Still, I agree with Sullivan’s close:

Moderate change within existing structures wins converts and creates conservatives, willing to defend incremental liberal advances. Radical change bent on transforming human nature generates resistance and creates reactionaries. Leftists have to decide at some point: Do they want to push more conservatives into Michael Anton’s reactionary camp or more reactionaries into the conservative one? And begin to ponder their own role in bringing this extreme reactionism into the mainstream.

But I suspect this is a function not only of our mutual conservatism but because we’re intellectuals more than activists. We fundamentally believe in the power of ideas and open dialog to change minds. And that that process, not coercion or fiat, is the ideal way to change society.

And, it must be acknowledged, we’re both relatively affluent white males. We can afford to be patient for the arc of the moral universe to bend toward justice.

Regardless, our politics are in an unsustainable state. We have two camps, each comprising roughly a third of the country, who see the other as not simply wrong-headed but evil and dangerous. We increasingly see winning and losing elections as existential. That’s not only a justification for doing anything it takes to win but, ultimately, for civil war.

FILED UNDER: *FEATURED, Society, US Politics,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Moosebreath says:

    While I am not sure the proper way to respond to Sullivan is by finger pointing, I think Sullivan’s argument falls down on this line “Moderate change within existing structures wins converts and creates conservatives, willing to defend incremental liberal advances.”

    To the contrary, the moderate changes of the Clinton and Obama Administrations (and even the mere election of those Presidents) created radicals, bent on resisting them tooth and nail from the moment they stepped into office. Neither Clinton nor Obama found anyone the other side of the aisle willing to work with them for moderate change, nor to defend any of the changes which were enacted by them.

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  2. gVOR08 says:

    Corey Robin’s The Reactionary Mind is a well researched, well argued study of the history of conservatism finding that conservatism is always and everywhere a reaction to liberalism. It basically comes down to saying that after deep study, conservatism really is opposition to whatever liberals are for, updated weekly. So for Sullivan to say liberalism is responsible for conservatism is true, but tautologically true, therefore trivial.

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  3. michael reynolds says:

    I feel for Sullivan. I’ve been on the wrong end of Twitter-based lefty extremists. But the piece overall is the kind of nonsense produced when a writer stays in the vapor and avoids engagement with reality, and is motivated more by personal pique than a search for truth.

    ‘Conservatives’ as represented by Trump and Moscow Mitch refuse to acknowledge scientific reality on climate change. Did the left force them to that absurd position?

    Those same conservatives are deeply corrupt – the entire Trump administration (as well as McConnell) is openly taking bribes and payola, generally from sleazy, disreputable and basically anti-American nations. Did the left force Trump to sell himself to Putin? Did the left bully McConnell into selling himself to Oleg Deripaska?

    Was it the left that could not locate the moral gap between demonstrators like Heather Heyer, and the Nazi POS who murdered her?

    Was it the left that pushed Trump and the entire GOP to engage in obstruction of justice? Voter suppression? Did the left make Steve King?

    You know, it’s funny. Three years ago I got into a raging online fight with the far left types who dominate a lot of kidlit. It was bad enough that in the end I just decided fck it, I’ll write something else. (Turned out to be great for me, BTW) . And yet, despite being attacked, lied about, called all the usual names, I did not become a reactionary. Huh. I wonder why? Maybe because I have actual beliefs and ideas and standards and don’t decide, “Well, if they don’t like me I guess I’ll have to become a racist or misogynist.”

    See, that’s the lie at the heart of Sullivan’s piece. Lefty extremism cannot force a good person to become a bad person. Lefty extremism does not offer a morally acceptable excuse for turning against democracy, denying reality, choosing to try and hurt other people. It does not justify cruelty. You can say they are political idiots – and they are – but their idiocy in no way justifies yours or mine or Sully’s. And when we decide that the actions or beliefs of the other is so upsetting that it forces us to spout hateful lies, guess whose fault that really is.

    There’s nothing in Sully’s political positions that marks him as outside the pale of the Park Slope-Ann Arbor-Berkeley Hills set. Sullivan’s underlying gripe isn’t about lefty political or even cultural extremism, it’s about lefty atheism and agnosticism. Sullivan likes to call himself a conservative, but that’s just silly posturing. What he is, is a Catholic, a believer, in a world where the left (and educated people more generally) have largely rejected Sullivan’s core religious faith. He was intellectually traumatized by Christopher Hitchens and he’s never gotten over it. He’s spent decades now trying to rationalize his continued membership in an openly anti-gay organization that is also the world’s largest child rape gang, but he can’t square that circle.

    He can’t find a way to re-take the position he once held in the intelligentsia. So now he’s angry that society has moved on past him. He got gay marriage right, which is great, but you know what? I supported gay marriage as early as Sully did, and I’m not gay myself and have no personal dog in that fight, no advantage to be gained. The thing that made Sully interesting was just self-interest dressed up in ideology, and with that issue settled, he’s had little to contribute.

    TL;DR: Anyone claiming that the actions of others forced them to become a POS was already a POS.

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  4. Argon says:

    I’m not so sure that the left makes discussion on immigration impossible. Recall that there was bipartisan work and negotiation on immigration in Congress until Mitch and others in the GOP realized they could turn opposition into a campaign issues. Poor Marco Rubio was left poleaxed by the swift reversal. I’d suggest it’s not the left that makes current discussion difficult but the GOP, having nurtured and propagated the Immigrant Boogeyman being unable to contain control

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  5. Stormy Dragon says:
  6. Slugger says:

    I became a liberal in my youth because the conservatives of that era were clearly, proudly, and totally in the wrong on racial segregation and the war in Vietnam. I guess one could argue that I was reacting, that I was being reactionary. I don’t recall people cautioning that their attitudes would win converts for the other side when clubs, dogs, and hoses were used on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. However, I am glad it did because it made it easier for me to see that the Second Amendment should not be a suicide pact and that foreign born people have generally been a positive for this country. Beyond these glib labels, I see a huge deficit being somehow o.k. now, and a man who paid a pornstar being hailed by tele-evangelists. How are these things due to liberals? Are coal miners and soybean farmers being fed patent lies by liberals? What liberal ideas have made brinksmanship with Iran necessary?
    The idea that conservatism is an expression of human nature is false, false, false! The idea that the bitter language in Trump’s tweets are due to liberals is risible.

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  7. I don’t read Sullivan like I used to. I consider him smart but I am to the point where I find him hard to decipher. His writing feels cumbersome and dense, and not in a good way, these days.

    I also find it hard to take an immigrant gay male seriously when he preaches the need for moderation and slow change now that he has what he wants.

    (And while I have real sympathy for his argument that gay marriage is conservative by one definition, he is fooling himself if pretending like the present reactionary politics in the country aren’t, in part, a reaction to the rapid expansion of gay rights. I guarantee that in the Red State in which I sit, the local conservatives do not see gay marriage as a conservative policy move).

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  8. michael reynolds says:

    I’ve used this analogy before. But there are two kinds of people. There are people who find themselves in a freezing sod hut in Nebraska with their crops failing, their kids dying of typhus and the locals shooting arrows at them, who then shake their fists at heaven and cry, “I’ll never give up!”

    Those are conservatives.

    Then there are people who find themselves in a freezing sod hut in Nebraska who say, “Fck this, I’m going to California.”

    Those are liberals.

    We need both. Somebody’s gotta grow corn. And some other people have to go and build cities and universities, Silicon Valley and Hollywood.

    But the essential fact about conservatives is that they are always wrong. Wrong about: rock and roll, long hair, short skirts, prayer in school, evolution, social security and medicare, Vietnam, civil rights, gay rights, trans rights, women in the ‘male’ occupations, Iraq, climate change, guns, hip hop, marijuana, treatment over punishment for drug abuse and on and on and on. The best you get from conservatives is that ten years later they get it. Not that they ever admit they were just flat wrong, but the better class of conservative eventually, after much painful dragging, gets to. . . Well, I guess it’s OK if guys have long hair.

    Some of us – the ones who don’t choose sod hut life – become impatient when we have to go through the thousandth iteration of conservatives freaking out over nonsense and using their own fear and weakness to harm other people. But not nearly as impatient as we should be, as we have a right to be. Because the reality is that we are almost always right, and conservatives are almost always wrong.

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  9. SenyorDave says:

    Whenever I read something like the Sullivan piece, I think of Barack Obama. A smart man who was hardly a firebrand. He ran and governed as left of center moderate. And he was loathed by the conservative movement. I believe a large part of the self-identified Republicans simply didn’t see him as a legitimate president, and were only to happy to embrace McConnells’ “we will never work with him on anything” attitude. He pushed some people into becoming reactionaries because of his PWB (presidenting while black).
    The attitudes of the white males in this country may actually be as a result of policies and beliefs on the left, but I don’t think it has much to do with radical policies. Many of them simply can’t accept that they have to compete with POC and women on an equal basis. The idea that white males face more discrimination that blacks is ludicrous. I’m a white male and if I get stopped by a cop it is an inconvenience. I don’t have to wonder whether I will be alive after the interaction. I walk into a nice store and I don’t have anybody following me around.
    The far right is far more influential on the Republican party than the far left is on the Democratic party. The Republicans as a group are now pro-Putin, don’t believe in climate change, have no problem passing obvious unconstitutional policies regarding abortion on the state level, and have lined up almost 100% behind a racist, corrupt president who is a sexual predator based on HIS OWN WORDS (and more than a dozen credible accusers). There has never been even close to such a parallel on the left.

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  10. I started a comment, and it became a post: This Reactionary Moment.

  11. wr says:

    @michael reynolds: “He got gay marriage right, which is great”

    But of course that was easy for Sullivan, who would benefit from that societal change. And that’s really the key to all his “politics.” Societal change that benefits Sullivan is considered welcome and overdue; societal change that does not directly benefit Sullivan is radical leftism and the real reason why we have Donald Trump.

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  12. @wr:

    Societal change that benefits Sullivan is considered welcome and overdue; societal change that does not directly benefit Sullivan is radical leftism and the real reason why we have Donald Trump.

    I must confess, while this is probably too simplistic, it is kind of how I feel about his writings of late.

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  13. Barry says:

    “ich we’ll return. I’m also sympathetic to his argument that the left’s illiberalism is unwittingly enabling reactionaries—an argument that liberals like author and regular OTB commenter Michael Reynolds has made from a different angle—but think Sullivan takes it much too far.”

    Frankly, Sullivan is overrated. He’s that Brit with an accent, witticisms and little substance.

    Anton’s Flight 93 essay was a mess of lies, pure and simple. It was obvious at the time, and looks more ridiculous after years of Trump.

    Anton’s argument about hard natural limits treats extremely deliberate political decisions like they were the laws of nature.

    And as has been pointed out above, the right’s reaction to moderation and compromise has been frothing rage for quite some time.

  14. One other thing I meant to mention, and would take a whole post itself: I think that Sullivan makes “human nature” do too much work in his arguments (but that does comport with his intellectual Catholic conservatism).

  15. charon says:

    I just came from LGM where there is a big discussion mostly mocking Sullivan and other likeminded shmucks of this stuff.

    http://www.lawyersgunsmoneyblog.com/2019/08/obama-said-stuff-that-made-people-uncomfortable-so-they-voted-for-trump

  16. charon says:

    @gVOR08:

    It basically comes down to saying that after deep study, conservatism really is opposition to whatever liberals are for, updated weekly

    Change the word “weekly” to “daily” and you get the notorious Cleek’s Law.

    I don’t buy it, I say it is more accurate to say Conservatism is whatever forms of bigotry are currently most salient, updated continuously.

  17. charon says:

    Let me expound:

    Conservatism, since its inception, has claimed to be about preserving traditions, being prudent about change, blah blah blah. This just obfuscates the reality that rich and/or privileged people stay privileged while the less fortunate continue at hind tit. So, who are the less fortunate? Pretty much always, the minorities targeted for discrimination by bigots.

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  18. Andy says:

    I read Sullivan’s piece yesterday and think you have a fair take on it.

    I think the biggest flaw in his argument is his implication that reactionary tendencies only go one way, as if there is no reactionary (or counter-reactionary) moves on the left that are a response to what the right is doing. Human nature is enduring, and our tribal instincts tend to manifest regardless of what group we choose to associate with.

    Secondly, this isn’t a simple left vs right divide (or liberal vs conservative). Mixed in – and perhaps even more salient – is the elite – non-elite divide. The reactionary right reacting against both the left and elites, which is exactly why Trump rolled over the entire GoP elite establishment. The elites, or establishment, or #nevertrumpers (or whatever you want to label them) on the right, Sullivan among them, have yet to do much soul-searching on their own role in enabling the current conditions that brought right populism out of nowhere to take over the party. The “blame” here cannot entirely be laid at the feet of a reaction aimed at countering what the left has done.

    What concerns me is that reactionary movements generate counter-reactionary or revolutionary movements. This often results in a feedback loop where every move is met with a counter-move – an escalation train that is difficult to get off of. It has destroyed nations in the past and we should not be foolish to think we are immune.

    Finally, I think language is important here. It’s hard, but I try not to use “conservative” and “liberal” anymore because they don’t really have a definition that everyone can agree on. There aren’t readily-available terms to use instead, unfortunately, so discussions have to have a lot of supplementary info about what someone precisely means when using those terms. I think I get the gist of how Sullivan was using them, but I think he should have been more clear.

  19. gVOR08 says:

    @charon: Actually, I misquoted Cleek, I thought the Law said weekly.

    Corey Robin also says the consistent position for liberals is to extend full rights to those who don’t currently have them. This is what conservatives oppose, so you’re pretty much in agreement.

  20. Kit says:

    Sullivan is bright, and can certainly provoke thought, but he really is a third-rate intellectual. Michael had it just right: he “stays in the vapor and avoids engagement with reality.” History and politics, for him, is a big fight that can be explained with whatever big ideas he’s preoccupied with, compete with footnotes from whomever he’s currently reading.

    “The left unwittingly is becoming reactionism’s most potent enabler…” What BS! Does Sullivan truly believe that the viewers of Fox have a reasonable idea of what the Left really does and thinks? He’s naive the way only a certain type of intellectual can be.

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  21. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    “We had African slaves here since before the Pilgrims came but didn’t fully integrate them into “Us” until roughly half a century ago.”

    And, truthfully, still haven’t. Not saying the progress hasn’t been made, and we did declare that as the goal to strive for, but “fully integrated?” Meh, not so much.

  22. charon says:

    Given the degree to which most strains of conservative thought have been intertwined with religiosity, it’s fair to wonder whether support for gays and lesbians and whatever the opposite of sexual repression is can be described as “conservative.”

    In an American context, “religiosity” means “Christian,” a religion many of whom think of themselves as special people, as per interpreting “John” to mean only Christians are acceptable for entrance to Heaven.

    That’s why conservatives support marriage equality and reactionaries oppose it; why conservatives support equal opportunity for women and reactionaries fret about it; why conservatives think twice before leaving the E.U., which has been integrated into the British way of life for several decades, and reactionaries want to wrench Britain out of it;

    So here he styles people who describe themselves as conservative as no, they are reactionaries, which I take it would be news to them.

    I can understand why a conservative who deplores Trump’s moral transgressions would nonetheless support him when the alternative is a candidate who sees them as a deplorable bigot.

    Here in reality, Trump’s base applauds his behavior as willingness to fight for them – unlike say Mike Pence who is seen as “too soft.”

    social engineering

    sustained indoctrination

    Words like this are alarmist spin, very compatible with the Fox News Channel business model of using fear to drive ratings. Here in reality, kids who watch today’s TV or go to today’s movies see a much different normal than back when white married couples in the movies slept in twin beds. Change can frighten people.

  23. Gustopher says:

    There’s a bit of poisoning the well in that labeling but we fundamentally agree. We especially agree that on the last part: we simply have to be able to have good faith debates about these issues and there’s a strain on the left that makes that impossible.

    I would say there’s less of that on the left than the right. The left generally is about nuance, while the right is about “baby killers”, “UnAmerican”, and fake arguments about a mental health problem they will never address instead of actually discussing whether citizens should be able to kill a dozen others in thirty seconds*. Also, global warming is a hoax.

    When was the last time Paul L or his ilk actually discussed anything?

    *: there is at least agreement that people should not kill a dozen other people in thirty seconds…

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  24. Guarneri says:

    Delusional, or, at best, intellectually light:

    “But the essential fact about conservatives is that they are always wrong. Wrong about: rock and roll, long hair, short skirts, prayer in school, evolution, social security and medicare, Vietnam, civil rights, gay rights, trans rights, women in the ‘male’ occupations, Iraq, climate change, guns, hip hop, marijuana, treatment over punishment for drug abuse and on and on and on. The best you get from conservatives is that ten years later they get it. Not that they ever admit they were just flat wrong, but the better class of conservative eventually, after much painful dragging, gets to. . . Well, I guess it’s OK if guys have long hair.”

    Now I gotta go crank some Zeppelin.

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  25. An Interested Party says:

    Now, again, it’s self-serving for Sullivan, a gay man, to claim that heteronormativity is “reactionary” when it was the predominant view in Western society well into our adult lifetimes.

    Sullivan is often self-serving in many of the arguments he makes, along with that…

    I also find it hard to take an immigrant gay male seriously when he preaches the need for moderation and slow change now that he has what he wants.

    …this is another core component of Sullivan’s thinking, “I got mine, so now the rest of you are on your own”…combined together, they make many of his arguments faulty and unpersuasive…

    And as has been pointed out above, the right’s reaction to moderation and compromise has been frothing rage for quite some time.

    The right wouldn’t know what to do if real leftists ever actually got power…but of course this is goal moving at its finest…as if the Clintons or Obama are radical leftists…

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  26. DrDaveT says:

    Sullivan:

    One question conservatives are always asking themselves is whether these changes can be integrated successfully into a new social fabric, so we do not lose cohesion as a nation

    Earth to Sully: we never HAD cohesion as a nation. We had cohesion among the affluent white anglo-saxon male Christians who ran things. It is precisely the beginnings of a national cohesion, one that includes everyone, that terrifies some people into voting for Trump.

    As for the whole “you are causing a backlash” thing… I learned by the time I was 9 that “look what you made me do” was never a valid argument.

    In the end, Michael is right — every single bit of social progress we’ve made since the Dark Ages was made in spite of conservatives. If conservatives always got their way, we would still have feudalism, slavery, theocracy, and women as chattel everywhere. Forever.

  27. grumpy realist says:

    Speaking as a white woman, I have absolutely no sympathy for self-professed conservatives who want to keep “everything the way it is” mainly because they want to keep their position at the top of the heap. I imagine people with dark skin have even less sympathy (is there such a thing as negative sympathy?) According to conservatives, we’re supposed to continue to wait patiently at the back of the line, putting up with getting abused by people like Donald Trump and any other rich white male because their fee-fees would be hurt if they had to share more. And when it comes to reactionaries, they’re pissed off at what we females and dark-skinned people have managed to accomplish and want to rip it all away.

    Bah.

  28. de stijl says:

    I have to really focus to take Sullivan’s arguments at face value after his first reaction to 9/11 which was to brand the left as a 5th column.

    Screw that guy.

    Besides, I was for equal civil and political rights for gays and lesbians a decade earlier than him and I’m straight.

    Seriously. Screw him.

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  29. de stijl says:

    I’ve said here before that I am a little c conservative. I like plans and back-up plans and back-out plans. Those make me feel better, safer.

    Professionally, I lived in a world where if you did not have a back-up and a back-out, you were grossly negligent and subject to immediate career ruin.

    But I’ve also always been left of the American political center and advocated and worked for an equal extension of rights and privileges for all Americans.

    These are not exclusionary.

  30. michael reynolds says:

    @Guarneri:
    It’s Saturday, no new bad economic news, so you you scuttle out from under your rock. And even then: vapor.

    Hey, Drew. I’m gonna ask the question again! Time to go hide under your bed!

  31. Kari Q says:

    @grumpy realist:

    According to conservatives, we’re supposed to continue to wait patiently at the back of the line, putting up with getting abused by people like Donald Trump and any other rich white male because their fee-fees would be hurt if they had to share more.

    In one of the many “Trump whisperer” columns about the 2016 election, Trump supporters literally agree with this. The writer (sorry, I cannot seem to find the article) said that an analogy kept coming up among Trump supporters they interviewed: Everyone was in a line, trudging up a hill, staying in their place and moving forward at the same rate, without passing anyone along the way. Suddenly, people from the back of the line started cutting in front of them, and that was making them furious. Black people, women, Hispanics, were no longer accepting their place in the line. Trump supporters were angry about that and wanted someone to police the line. They apparently thought it was just the way God wanted the universe to be that the white men were closer to the front of the line than blacks and women, and that those white men born into rich families were supposed to leade the line.

    It’s not just race and gender, of course. I’ve seen a great deal of anger from white working class people aimed at college educated and the white middle class – lumping them in with “the elite” who they disparage. The problem seems to be that those who got their degree or are getting ahead are not supposed to be in front of them, either. They are supposed to stay in step with the white working class, those with only high school degrees. Those who ‘move up the line’ by improving their economic situation have somehow also broken the rules.

  32. James Joyner says:

    @Kari Q:

    I’ve seen a great deal of anger from white working class people aimed at college educated and the white middle class – lumping them in with “the elite” who they disparage. The problem seems to be that those who got their degree or are getting ahead are not supposed to be in front of them, either. They are supposed to stay in step with the white working class, those with only high school degrees. Those who ‘move up the line’ by improving their economic situation have somehow also broken the rules.

    There’s a deep sentiment in Deep South culture summarized as “Don’t get above your raisin’.” There’s a great Blackberry Smoke song from a few years back that encapsulates it:

    “One Horse Town”

    In the tiny town where I come from
    You grew up doing what your daddy done
    And you don’t ask questions you do it just because
    You don’t climb too high or dream too much
    With a whole lot of work and a little bit of luck
    You can wind up right back where your daddy was

    This little bitty town it ain’t nothing new
    We all stick around ’cause they all tell us to
    Swallow your pride just to make your family proud
    If I didn’t think that it would shut the whole place down
    I’d ride my pony right out of this one horse town

    Yeah this one horse town
    I’m an old married man at the age of 23
    Got 2 little boys on the baseball team
    And that might be their only ticket out
    All they got is a worn out name
    And a Daddy that could’ve gone all the way
    But I hang my saddle up and I settled down

    This little bitty town it ain’t nothing new
    We all stick around ’cause they all tell us to
    Swallow your pride just to make your family proud
    If I didn’t think that it would shut the whole place down
    I’d ride my pony right out of this one horse town
    Yeah this one horse town
    Oh yeah

    This little bitty town oh yeah it ain’t nothing new
    We all stick around ’cause they all tell us too
    Swallow your pride just to keep your family proud
    If I didn’t think that it would shut the whole thing down
    I’d saddle that one horse and ride it right out of this town

  33. de stijl says:

    @James Joyner:

    This is why I like this joint.

    A guy who I disagree with on policy, but who is a whiz bang analyst, uses a piece of art that affected him and moved him and used it bring home a point.

    Revealing himself.

  34. MarkedMan says:

    Sullivan without the constant check from his blog audience is becoming more insular and less self aware. And nothing reflects this lack of self awareness more than the fact that Andrew Sullivan writing this very article is the very best possible refutation of everything he says in it. It boils down to “if only Liberals* weren’t so pushy the Conservatives would make peace and engage in reasoned debate.” This, from a gay Britain who, Had he openly declared himself, would have been barred from these shores because of his “morals”. Liberals fought Conservatives on this, and won. Sure, gay Conservatives muttered in the dark about how you could be Conservative and gay, but no nationally recognized Conservative joined Sullivan when he (bravely) made that argument publicly and fiercely. In fact, most gay conservatives remain closeted to this day. Instead, it was the Liberals, gay and straight, who championed his cause.

    This repeated again when Sullivan got AIDS. It was Republican Conservatives who fought spending money on treatments and Liberals who fought for it. He is literally alive today because Liberals, gay and straight, fought for him. It was Republican Conservatives who passed a law barring AIDS victims from immigrating and attempted to expel green card holders with AIDS from the country. It was Democratic Liberals who successfully fought to overturn that law. Sullivan is now a US citizen because of their efforts.

    As pointed out above, his beloved Conservatives made “Defense of Marriage” against gays a national campaign, and made a hugely successful political movement out of denying homosexual couples even such basic rights as visiting each other in the hospital. Even gay Conservatives sat it out while Liberals, gay and straight, invested real political capital in advancing the cause.

    Many above have pointed out Sullivan’s stereotypically Conservative reaction of hastily pulling up the ladder once he is on the boat but the reality is that he’s not even on the boat. My god, he recently wrote a column about his illegal drug and gay sex fueled weekend of debauchery at frickin’ Burning Man. Just how small are the circles that he runs in that he honestly seems to believe that Conservatives as a whole now accept him and his kind?

    And there’s the nub of the argument. Despite the fact that for his whole life every political change that affected his life in a meaningful way was fought for by Liberals and fought against by Conservatives, Sullivan is reflexively anti-Liberal. The idea that if only Liberals didn’t push so hard for icky things Conservatives would work with them is belied by Sullivan being alive today. And the fact that he could write such a blind and befuddled article demonstrates the futility of changing tactics in the hope of appeasing Conservatives.

    *During this post I use “Liberal” and “Conservative” only to indicate how people self identify. Of course Liberals often hold tremendously illiberal values and Conservatives unconservative ones.

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  35. de stijl says:

    @MarkedMan:

    This needs more upvotes.

  36. michael reynolds says:

    @MarkedMan: @de stijl:
    I’m with @de stijl: Well-written, MM.

  37. @MarkedMan: Yes, great comment.

    Also, it reminds me: Sullivan is a big weed guy. Which is, of course, yet another hugely conservative position…

  38. de stijl says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    Pot makes me stupid and paranoid. Doesn’t work for me.

    I’m glad it works for Sullivan. If it helps either physically or mentally, I’m truly glad it makes his life better.

    But to play some semantic Burkean game that marijuana legalization is actually a conservative cause is frankly ludicrous. And Sullivan at some level knows it. And if he doesn’t than he’s a bigger fool than I think of him now.

    He is self-serving first and foremost. And I cannot and will not forget and forgive his initial reaction to 9/11. He revealed himself, and it was not as a decent person.

  39. michael reynolds says:

    @de stijl:
    Pot and alcohol both have the same effect on me: I’m nicer. Kind, tolerant and horny. Cocaine has almost no effect, ditto speed – I’m ADD and stimulants don’t work the same for me as they do for most people, they just make me want to work. LSD is an hour of interesting effects followed by 23 hours of Jesus, I get it already, can this stop now? Downers generally bore me. I mean, what’s the point? Never had the opportunity to try molly, and I doubt I’d bother. At this point my brain holds few surprises for me and I can work out the quickly-discarded epiphanies myself.

  40. Andy says:

    @Kari Q:

    It’s not just race and gender, of course. I’ve seen a great deal of anger from white working class people aimed at college educated and the white middle class – lumping them in with “the elite” who they disparage. The problem seems to be that those who got their degree or are getting ahead are not supposed to be in front of them, either. They are supposed to stay in step with the white working class, those with only high school degrees. Those who ‘move up the line’ by improving their economic situation have somehow also broken the rules.

    I don’t think it’s as much about believing that others – especially the middle class – are breaking the rules (although there is that), but resentment about how they’ve been screwed and the promises that turned into lies.

    In our trade and immigration policies over the last 1/4 century, we have privileged some fields, jobs, business and careers over others. Those were choices, not an iron law. And we certainly have not done much to help those who were negatively impacted except to encourage them to take on mountains of debt to get an “education.”

    The thing that burns the affected members of my extended family who I’ve talked to about this is the condescension from people who’ve benefitted from these choices targeted at those who got screwed. People (like me, incidentally), who’ve been fortunate enough to work in a field that is protected from globalism and the downward wage pressures of immigration shouldn’t feel any sense of superiority, and yet that is exactly what I too frequently see.

    Sometimes I frankly surprised the pitchforks haven’t come out yet.

  41. de stijl says:

    @Andy:

    In America today, the only economic anxiety that is reported is that of rural whites.

    Everyone else’s is just assumed, and background noise.

    But rural, white economic anxiety is an issue and a problem and we must listen to them.

  42. de stijl says:

    @michael reynolds:

    My brain likes cocaine a lot. And wants more. Much, much more. And more often. Much, much more often.

    Thankfully, I realized that early on and told my brain to shut up and deal.

    Total b.s. theory. If you’re socially anxious, cocaine is awesome because it makes you feel normal. Of course, you’re a sweaty, yammering moron to everyone else, but it *feels* normal. And when you don’t feel normal often that feeling is pretty great.

    Had I not been paying attention and shut that crap down, I could so easily have become an addict.

    I like shrooms, but not LSD. But once, twice, three times a year. No more than that. In some big space with a great sky.

  43. michael reynolds says:

    @Andy:
    Do these resentful white people have no agency? Did they do nothing to contribute to their current condition? I have compassion for people who make mistakes like, for example, staying in a dying WV town to mine coal. But compassion doesn’t obviate their own responsibility for their own choices. I feel compassion for people who get trapped hiking the Mojave and have to cut their own hands off too, but that doesn’t shift the responsibility.

    Democrats are the party that has tried to help ‘those people.’ Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, unemployment insurance, all Democratic programs aimed at helping the non-rich, regardless of race. So of course those people hate Democrats and support the party of their exploiters. We try, and in return we’re called names. And let’s not beat about the bush: they hate us precisely because the programs we created helped all people of all races. It is more important to these people to have someone to look down on than it is to feed their children.

    So cry me a river. It’s 2019 and if you’re still sending your limited funds to evangelical hucksters, buying guns for the coming race war and denouncing liberals even while you survive on liberal programs, how is anyone supposed to help you? You know what they want? A government hand-out that goes solely to white people who have their specific beliefs. It’s no surprise that this white self-pity is dominant in the south, they’re as dumb as their ancestors who fought to defend a system of slavery that kept white working people in poverty, too.

    There’s no helping people who refuse to try.

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  44. Andy says:

    @michael reynolds:

    Your entire response is premised on this all being about “white” people. The asymmetry in policy affects all Americans in the situation described, including African Americans in urban cores and the rural south as well as Native Americans, who mostly live on reservations.

    And the fact is that you and I are in privileged positions and we should recognize that.

    Off-shoring and high levels of immigration, supported by Democrats and Republicans, have driven the cost of labor down while government workers (me) and intellectual property/copyright holders (you) have been explicitly protected. Would you be so casual in your derisive attitude if the government stopped enforcing copyrights, resulting in plummeting incomes in the publishing business?

    My point is that cozy people whose incomes are protected by government policy choices should probably be circumspect about self-righteously lecturing those don’t enjoy that protection.

  45. Barry says:

    @Andy: “Your entire response is premised on this all being about “white” people. The asymmetry in policy affects all Americans in the situation described, including African Americans in urban cores and the rural south as well as Native Americans, who mostly live on reservations.”

    Yet oddly, those groups don’t vote Republican. They don’t seek cruel policies so that they can glory in the pain and degradation of the victims of those policies.

  46. Kari Q says:

    @Andy:

    The thing that burns the affected members of my extended family who I’ve talked to about this is the condescension from people who’ve benefitted from these choices targeted at those who got screwed. People (like me, incidentally), who’ve been fortunate enough to work in a field that is protected from globalism and the downward wage pressures of immigration shouldn’t feel any sense of superiority, and yet that is exactly what I too frequently see.

    But that’s not what I’m hearing. Or rather, I’m hearing that also, but that’s not what I’m talking about now. What I’m referring to is closer to the feelings expressed in the song James quoted. People are supposed to stay where they were born and live the same life their parents did. Anyone who breaks that is a target of anger.

    A few years ago, in one of the last things he wrote that I felt was worth reading, Rod Dreher wrote about his feelings of surprise when he found out that his sister resented him for leaving their home town and succeeding. Her resentment was aimed at him and his success, not at immigrants driving down wages, not at the protection for the class of work he chose, it was at him for making the choice to leave and succeeding once he had.

    That’s the anger I’m referring to. I can understand that people are angry about the changes that are happening in the economy, and naturally everyone resents being condescended to, but those are separate from the anger at anyone who moves to better themselves.

  47. Kari Q says:

    @Andy:

    In our trade and immigration policies over the last 1/4 century, we have privileged some fields, jobs, business and careers over others. Those were choices, not an iron law. And we certainly have not done much to help those who were negatively impacted except to encourage them to take on mountains of debt to get an “education.”

    I would ask why the white working class is voting for the party that has done the most to drive down the wages and lower the economic outlook of those most impacted by those choices. Working class whites consistently vote for Republicans, the party that has ruined their unions, refused to increase minimum wage, fights against any effort to improve their outlook.

    Chris Ladd has an answer to this question, and I have yet to see any other explanation. If it was just resentment of policies that make them less economically secure, wouldn’t they start voting for the party that is helping them instead of the one that is hurting them?

  48. An Interested Party says:

    There’s a deep sentiment in Deep South culture summarized as “Don’t get above your raisin’.”

    Certainly that line of thinking made it easier for the Southern elite to keep poor whites down as well as keeping blacks even further down…

    The thing that burns the affected members of my extended family who I’ve talked to about this is the condescension from people who’ve benefitted from these choices targeted at those who got screwed. People (like me, incidentally), who’ve been fortunate enough to work in a field that is protected from globalism and the downward wage pressures of immigration shouldn’t feel any sense of superiority, and yet that is exactly what I too frequently see.

    That is fair enough, I suppose, but it doesn’t take race into account, which was mentioned by many in response to what you wrote…it is the same kind of thinking I mentioned above…there are a certain group of elites who condescend to people like those in your extended family…but that comes with a kind of bait and switch in that these people are told they would be just fine if ethnic minorities weren’t given so much and that those are the real people holding them down…racism is one of the best gifts given to elites to use…

  49. Andy says:

    @Kari Q:

    I would ask why the white working class is voting for the party that has done the most to drive down the wages and lower the economic outlook of those most impacted by those choices. Working class whites consistently vote for Republicans, the party that has ruined their unions, refused to increase minimum wage, fights against any effort to improve their outlook.

    Yes, that is an interesting question, one that seems strangely unexamined. But it should not come as a surprise when people don’t vote for a party that is actively condescending them. As a practical matter, whatever the truth of how well Democratic governance has actually helped this demographic, one shouldn’t expect their political support if Democrats essentially tell them they are lazy racists.

    IMO the “bitter clingers,” “deplorables” rhetoric along with the shift from class to identity in Democratic politics has had the effect of excluding white working-class voters, whatever the intent was.

  50. @Andy:

    one that seems strangely unexamined.

    I don’t think this is true.

    Also: the entire thesis that Trump did especially well with white working class voters is based more on marginal wins in three key states than it is on some massive movement of white working class voters to Trump, IIRC.

  51. For example, see (from Brookings): A reality check on 2016’s economically marginalized

    From the Monkey Cage: It’s time to bust the myth: Most Trump voters were not working class.

    And from PRRI (which really show how much cultural/racial issues were at play in motivating some voters): Beyond Economics: Fears of Cultural Displacement Pushed the White Working Class to Trump | PRRI/The Atlantic Report

  52. Andy says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    Also: the entire thesis that Trump did especially well with white working class voters is based more on marginal wins in three key states than it is on some massive movement of white working class voters to Trump, IIRC.

    I agree with that and would go further and say it’s a mistake to lump this large demographic into a single pool.

    Depending on what study you cite, somewhere between 9 and 14% of Trump voters voted for Obama in 2012. So there is a lot more going on than racial resentment.

  53. @Andy:

    So there is a lot more going on than racial resentment.

    On the one hand, one would expect there to be multiple explanations (as is the normal case when determining why people vote as they do.

    On the other, the magnitude itself tells us nothing (i.e., you can neither accept nor reject the racial resentment hypothesis based on the size of the Obama/Trump group).

  54. Kari Q says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    My question isn’t built on the premise that Trump did significantly better with the white working class than Romney did. Quite the opposite. I assume that the white working class has become Republican leaning and that trend predates Trump.

  55. DrDaveT says:

    @Andy:

    Off-shoring and high levels of immigration, supported by Democrats and Republicans, have driven the cost of labor down

    You keep saying this, but in fact it’s (1) automation and (2) off-shoring that have kept blue collar jobs scarce and wages stagnant in the US. Immigrants are a scapegoat; if you can name a blue collar industry that non-immigrants are willing to work in where an influx of immigrants has depressed wages, I’d like to hear about it.