Harvard Kennedy School of Government Professor of Public Policy, Leah Wright Rigueur, who was extensively quoted in the Washington Post this week on Ben Carson, has written the first in a series of posts she’ll be contributing to the PUP blog. Today she explains the surge in Carson’s popularity among Republican voters in a race that has, until recently, been dominated by Donald Trump. Leah’s recent book, The Loneliness of the Black Republican, offers further insight into the seemingly incongruous intersection of civil rights and American conservatism. We’re delighted to have her. –PUP Blog Editor
Making Sense of Ben Carson
A modified version of this post appears at The Monkey Cage blog of the Washington Post
According to recent polls, Ben Carson has surged in popularity among likely Republican voters and now finds himself at the top of the GOP presidential primary pack. A recent poll of Iowa Republicans, for example, found Carson tied with Donald Trump for first place, with each candidate garnering 23 percent support. That an African American with zero political experience is now a front-runner in the Republican primaries is shocking. A political campaign that many dubbed a joke now appears to have political legs, and the public and press are scrambling to make sense of it.
The idea of a black conservative and/or a black Republican often feels a little like an oxymoron. Black people are partisan voters, overwhelmingly affiliating with the Democratic Party since 1948. In 2012, more than 90 percent of black voters cast ballots for Barack Obama. Their partisanship was, and continues to be, strategic – after all, many of the post-World War II advances in racial and social justice have come by way of Democratic liberalism. Coupled this with the modern – as in, post 1960s – GOP’s move to the extreme right and hostility toward racial justice and race-conscious solutions, and it would appear that politically, black voters have nothing in common with the Republican Party or modern conservatism.
But clearly we know that there are exceptions to this rule. According to the Pew Research Center, between five and eleven percent of the black public either identify as Republican or Lean Republican. Carson is not the first black Republican to run for president, and he won’t be the last. He’s also not the first black Republican to be discussed as part of a potential Republican presidential ticket. Speculation has long surrounded moderate Republican Colin Powell, who has declined to run, time and time again. In 1968 Richard Nixon toyed with tapping liberal Republican Edward Brooke as his vice-presidential running mate, while Gerald Ford placed the black senator high on a private list of potential vice-presidential appointees, in 1974.
Carson, Powell and Brooke, of course, all exhibit different forms of black Republicanism, ranging from liberal to the extreme right. But to some degree, their belief in Republicanism is undergirded by a kind of general black conservatism. African Americans are no strangers to conservatism. We see strong strands of it crop up in nineteenth and early twentieth century religious thought, especially among black churches, despite their political radicalism. Despite their beliefs in racial equality and justice, we see conservative thought in the behaviors of even some of the most progressive of civil rights leaders of the 1960s and 1970s. Conservatism also underscores the respectability politics of the black middle and working class, historically and in the present-day. Even today, studies have shown that about a third of black people self identify as conservative, although their conservatism rarely translates into support for the Republican Party.
And this is how we make sense of Ben Carson. He comes from a long conservative tradition, one that is rooted in a belief in religious morality, personal responsibility, self-help, individualism and free-market enterprise, and one that sometimes exists outside the boundaries of partisanship. Some have attributed Carson’s switch from ardent Democrat to conservative Republican as a matter of opportunism. That may very well be true, but one read of Gifted Hands, indicates that Carson has long exhibited the kind of “everyday black conservatism” that defines a portion of black communities.
Carson also comes from a partisan tradition that has given us figures like Clarence Thomas, Mia Love, Tim Scott, and many others. Organizations like the Black Silent Majority Committee in the 1970s, and the Lincoln Institute for Research and Education in the 1980s and 1990s, built on the black conservatism of past, cultivating a harsher kind of partisan Republican activism and rhetoric that Ben Carson currently articulates.
It’s the kind of position that conservative audiences, almost exclusively white, embrace. Carson is unique no doubt in attracting so much popularity. Historically, black Republicans have been unsuccessful at commanding this kind of attention, at this level of politics. And there are many, many reasons why Carson is surging in the polls: his religious roots, his “niceness” especially when contrasted with Donald Trump, his image as a brilliant surgeon, his position as a political outsider at a moment when people universally distrust politicians, his plain-spoken ability to “tell it like it is,” and his willingness to criticize, unapologetically, Barack Obama, and more broadly, black social justice movements like Black Lives Matter (BLM).
For white conservative audiences, Carson is “safe.” His words on racism, for instance, while profoundly critical of racist acts, are striking when compared to criticisms employed by black liberals. For Carson, racism is something to be changed through individual acts rather than something to be eradicated through structural change. In an era when explicit acts of racism are taboo, Carson’s rhetoric is both palatable to white audiences and comforting. In fact, Carson’s race lends a certain level of legitimacy to his remarks. In other words, conservative voters can look at Carson and have their personal beliefs on race validated, because a black man is articulating their exact same ideas. Historically, we consistently see this, as the GOP moved further to the right. Republicans in 1975, for example, used the Black Silent Majority Committee’s various conservative platforms to validate their views on various racial issues – even as African American voters routinely rejected the organization’s positions. This fraught relationship even led Clarence Thomas to once quip that black converts to the GOP’s acceptance hinged on becoming – in Thomas’ own words – a “caricature of sorts, providing sideshows of anti-black quips and attacks.”
Given all of this, what are we to make of Ben Carson? Are we to take him seriously? Well, in short, yes – we absolutely should take his candidacy seriously. Regardless of whether or not his campaign fizzles or he ends up at the top of the Republican presidential ticket, the general public, scholars, and journalists need to grapple with what, exactly, Carson represents. At this point, the scenarios are nuanced – at the extreme end of the spectrum, Carson could end up as the Republican nominee. He could also end up as vice-presidential nominee, a future presidential cabinet member, a member of Congress, or as a consultant to various public and private Republican factions. There’s a very real chance that Carson may ultimately end up influencing public policies, either directly or indirectly. After all, over the course of the last 80 years, the GOP has implemented black Republicans policies and programs, often favoring those ideas that are firmly couched within right-wing thought. And as we have seen in the past, previous Republican contenders rarely fade from the limelight, choosing instead to use their popularity to influence popular opinion. Ultimately then, we must pay attention to how Carson uses this platform, no matter how precarious, to influence American politics and life.
Leah Wright Rigueur is an Assistant Professor of Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. She is the author of The Loneliness of the Black Republican: Pragmatic Politics and the Pursuit of Power (Princeton University Press, 2015).