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  • The Fog of Political War:Predicting the Future Course of Conservatism
  • Gerard Alexander (bio)

The strength of conservative politics since the 1960s has profoundly influenced American public policy. Many scholars argue that conservatives have had significant impact on issue areas ranging from affirmative action and antitrust to telecommunications and trade. 1 To the degree that conservatism remains a powerful force in U.S. politics, we might expect this influence on policy to continue. But in recent years, a growing array of scholars and commentators has argued that American conservatism is in crisis and has a bleak future. Given the impact this would logically have on diverse policies, this claim of crisis deserves close consideration. This article examines three prominent lines of argument about the future of conservatism.

First, numerous scholars argue that conservatism ascended starting in the mid-1960s on a tide of white animosity toward African Americans and later other minorities. Republicans courted white support by resisting school desegregation and busing, and then crafting an agenda of ostensibly race-neutral but in fact substantially racialized issues such as law and order, welfare reform, tax limitation, and, more recently, opposition to immigration. This posture, it is argued, pits conservatives against the growing racial and ethnic diversity of America's electorate. Second, some claim that the conservative electoral coalition crucially relies on support from religiously conservative voters, attracted by its positions on abortion, gay rights, and other issues. But religiosity is declining, and the secular voting bloc is expanding. Third, some scholars say that politics in advanced industrial countries, including the United States, is being transformed by the growing ranks of educated, affluent citizens with progressive or "postmaterial" values. These lines of argument are not mutually [End Page 121] exclusive. John Judis and Ruy Teixeira, for example, drew simultaneously on suppositions about ethnicity, secularization, and postmaterialism to forecast an "emerging Democratic majority." Jonathan Chait recently updated Judis and Teixeira's argument, and used the same three suppositions to conclude that the "modern GOP . . . is staring down its own demographic extinction." 2 The three lines of argument converge in strongly suggesting that modern conservatism has been constructed on political and demographic ground that is now eroding, with the result that it has mediocre if not downright poor prospects.

These predictions became routine features of political conversations after Barack Obama's election victories. The prominence of these claims justifies close consideration of both them and the assumptions on which they are based. The next three sections discuss them in turn. I conclude that the three share important flaws. First, all three rely on relatively straight-line projections of past demographic trends. Second, all three assume that political identities are more or less fixed. Both these analytic choices are questionable. Third, as a result, all three lines of argument treat as inevitable and natural—as largely exogenous to politics—factors that appear upon closer inspection to be politically constructed and therefore contingent.

The "Simple Demography" of Race and Ethnicity

It is a long-standing convention in comparative politics that parties and coalitions of the Right are at root a project of economic and social elites. Being statistically minoritarian, they compete effectively in democratic politics only by organizing cross-class alliances, often by deploying noneconomic appeals.3 This may be an unspoken basis of the interpretation that conservatism decisively expanded its electorate in and after the 1960s only by taking advantage of an opportunity to help reorganize American politics away from the class cleavage characteristic of the New Deal era and toward a racial cleavage.4 When national Democrats realigned their party with civil rights in the early 1960s, they alienated many white Southerners. National conservatives associated with Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon developed a "Southern strategy" to attract these votes with proposals to resist school desegregation and busing. When it became clear that this strategy could attract whites in all regions of the country, Nixon and later Republicans like Ronald Reagan eventually crafted a core conservative agenda that incorporated items with explicit racial connotations (such as opposition to busing and affirmative action) but was otherwise ostensibly race-neutral, focusing on law and order, smaller [End Page 122] government, tax relief, and welfare reform. These...


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