Can the new conservatives shed their racist legacy? Neocons: Their challenge to bury George Wallace


In 1965, Lyndon Johnson's Great Society was alive and well, and politicians and intellectuals were united in the belief that the problems of racism and poverty could be solved by the creative spending of sufficient amounts of money. Thirty years later, a new generation of politicians and intellectuals is carting away the rubble of the Great Society, and the public's faith in the power of government to solve any problem whatsoever is at an all-time low.

How did America get from there to here? In "Neoconservatism: The Autobiography of an Idea" (The Free Press. 486 pages. $25), Irving Kristol, godfather of the band of disillusioned liberal thinkers who turned rightward at the end of the '60s, more or less declares himself the Wizard of Oz of the new American politics: "In the course of the 1970s and 1980s ... the Republican party gradually 'modernized' itself to some degree, in part because of the writings of neoconservatives. This was most

clearly seen in the case of Ronald Reagan, the first Republican president to pay tribute to Franklin D. Roosevelt, and the first Republican president since Theodore Roosevelt whose politics were optimistically future-oriented rather than bitterly nostalgic or passively adaptive. The congressional elections of 1994 ratified this change, just as the person of Newt Gingrich exemplified it."

But in "The Politics of Rage: George Wallace, the Origins of the New Conservatism and the Transformation of American Politics" (Simon & Schuster. 544 pages. $30), Dan T. Carter, a professor of history at Atlanta's Emory University, pins the tail on George Wallace: "The Alabama governor - more than any other political leader of his generation - was the alchemist of the new social conservatism as he compounded racial fear, anticommunism, cultural nostalgia, and traditional right-wing economics into a movement that laid the foundation for the conservative counterrevolution that reshaped American politics in the 1970s and 1980s."

Revealingly, Mr. Kristol mentions Wallace nowhere in his book, while Mr. Carter mentions Mr. Kristol nowhere in his book.

Which man is right? Neither - and both.

Mr. Kristol is right to give neoconservatives plenty of credit (or blame, depending on your point of view) for providing the conceptual framework for the new politics. Unlike their conservative predecessors of the '50s and '60s, the neocons turned right not out of principle but pragmatism.

They abandoned liberalism when they concluded that it didn't work - that liberal welfare-state legislation was producing not a Great Society but an underclass. Instead, they sought new answers to old problems. And those answers, as Mr. Kristol correctly points out in "Neoconservatism: The Autobiography of an Idea," ended up making sense to millions of middle-class Americans. That's what last November's election was all about.

But the gradual creation of a Republican majority was not just a process of intellectual conversion. For many blue-collar whites, the first emotional step away from the liberal Democratic electoral coalition forged by Franklin Roosevelt in the '30s was a vote in 1968 for George Wallace's third-party ticket. And while Wallace's populist appeal was not solely a function of his race-baiting, racism was a critical part of the package - one blacks will never forget.

Majority party

Thanks to George Wallace, blacks vote Democratic. They are, in fact, the Democratic Party's last reliable voting bloc, so much so that the GOP no longer courts their votes. And thanks to the racial gerrymandering mandated by the Voting Rights Act, the GOP no longer needs their votes. Now that black voters have been siphoned by court order into minority-majority districts across the country, Republicans are well on the way to becoming a majority party largely without black participation.

The political marginalization of blacks in America is in part the long-delayed fruit of George Wallace's racist rhetoric. But it is also an unintended and unwanted consequence of the neoconservative analysis of the weaknesses of the welfare state. Neoconservative intellectuals have long opposed affirmative action and the existing welfare system, and have led the way in supplying the GOP with pragmatic reasons why both should be dismantled.

There is nothing racist about this reasoning. But because black political leaders are irreversibly committed to the status quo in both areas, the black middle class, following their lead, has remained a Democratic monolith. This is why blacks have no effective voice in the Republican-controlled Congress. Party politics is not about idealism: It is about debts. As long as the GOP owes nothing to blacks, it will not take them seriously.

Ironically, the GOP is in certain ways a natural home for many blacks. Polls consistently show that blacks as a group are more socially conservative than whites. Now that today's Republican politicians are proving more sensitive to the "social issues," and more open to the role of religion in regenerating American society, it makes sense that at least some blacks should be more open to the possibility of voting Republican.

One thing is certain: Unless a substantial number of blacks give up on old-fashioned liberalism, join the GOP and seek to influence it from within, the black community will soon cease to play a meaningful role in American politics. There simply are not enough blacks to throw many national or statewide races to the Democrats.

Just as important, white attitudes have changed since the days of the civil-rights movement. Time was when blacks were widely viewed as an oppressed minority deserving of preferential treatment. Those days are over. Younger white baby-boomers and members of Generation X, whether liberal or conservative, do not share the "liberal guilt" that drove Americans now in their 50s and 60s to support government programs like affirmative action. Guilt is a rope that wears thin. For those too young to remember Selma and Montgomery, it has - rightly or wrongly - worn out. And Tuesday's acquittal of O. J. Simpson by a predominantly black jury will undoubtedly play a major role in the hardening of white middle-class racial views.

The emergence of Colin Powell as a possible Republican presidential candidate - or, more likely, as vice president on a ticket headed by Bob Dole, which would make him a prime contender for the top slot no later than 2004 - is thus a development of enormous significance for American politics. A Powell candidacy could narrow the dangerous gap between blacks and Republicans that opened up in the early '70s as a result of the simultaneous (but unrelated) influences of neoconservatism and Wallace-style populism. It could put the GOP in touch with middle-class blacks for the first time since 1968; it could steer the black community away from the political marginalization that will otherwise be its inevitable fate.

Dispose of the legacy

"If the Republican Party today," Irving Kristol writes, "is less interested in the business community than in the pursuit of the happiness of ordinary folk, and if - as I think is the case - this has made the party more acceptable and appealing to the average (( American, then I believe the work of neoconservative intellectuals has contributed much to this change." Indeed it has. But the average black American has remained indifferent to that appeal. Whether or not the next generation of conservative and

neoconservative intellectuals can change this situation - and thereby dispose at last of the unwanted legacy of George Wallace - will be a matter of the highest importance to America in the 21st century.

Terry Teachout is music critic of Commentary. He was a member of the editorial board of the New York Daily News from 1987 to 1993. His books include "Beyond the Boom: New Voices on American Life, Culture and Politics" (1990) and "A Second Mencken Chrestomathy."

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