Amy Binder: Conservative organizations and the suspicion of higher education

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By Amy J. Binder

Perhaps no one in America better personifies the political attacks on higher education than the governor of Wisconsin and would-be Republican presidential candidate, Scott Walker. In the years since he took office, Walker has managed to slash hundreds of millions of dollars in spending from public universities in his state and diminished job protections for professors, among other actions.

Walker may have a personal ax to grind with higher education, but it would be a mistake to think that he — or other politicians who attack public higher education — simply harbors individual grudges. Rather, for many years now “dark money” has paved the way for politicians’ symbolic, political, and material attacks on higher education. There are many familiar individuals’ and organizational names funding these attacks — John Olin, David and Charles Koch, the Heritage Foundation — all of whom have had a hand in crafting the talking points that Republican governors and legislatures use in the battle plans they employ.

Now that “dark money” has become a better known story, it’s an opportune moment to think about the ways this agenda has potentially influenced the wider public’s regard for higher education. For decades, a handful of organizations has been working in the trenches with conservative college students. With their emphasis on liberal indoctrination and conservative victimhood on college campuses, these organizations have fostered student activism and suspicion about higher education, which have created fertile soil in which larger-scale political attacks on higher education can germinate and grow. I would venture that they have contributed to undermining confidence in the higher education enterprise, even among those who are reaping its benefits—college grads.

The Young America’s Foundation (YAF), a tax-exempt 501(c)3 organization founded in the late 1960s, now boasted more than $59 million in assets in 2014, and had expenditures of approximately $20 million that same year. Annual expenditures at YAF include organizing campus speaking tours for conservative luminaries such as Ann Coulter, Ted Nugent, Dinesh D’Souza, David Horowitz, and many, many others. When not sending speakers to the nation’s campuses, the YAF brings conservative students to it, at regional and national conferences every year. But whether speakers come to campus, or students go to conferences, the Foundation fuels a provocative style. Enticed with such slogans depicting faculty as tree-hugging, gun-taking, wealth-hating, and leftist-loving, students are taught in “boot camps” to fight “persecution” on campus with an “activist mentality confronting their liberal peers and professors head-to-head with “aggressive” tactics. Students take up the charge by staging showy events like “Affirmative Action Bake Sales” and “Catch an Illegal Alien Day.” This provocative style of right-wing activism is designed to poke fun at liberals, get them angry, and attract the media spotlight, and it is based on, and fosters, mistrust of faculty, classmates, and administrators. A staff member at Young America’s Foundation specifically said his organization went after Average Joe students — or, not the ones who attend Harvard, Princeton, and Yale.

Another organization, called the Leadership Institute, had $30 million in assets in 2015, and spent nearly $14 million last year supporting conservative students online, on campus, and in their training facilities in Arlington, Virginia. The organization claims to keep a database of “leftist faculty” and “biased textbooks” on some 2,000 campuses, and it has trained tens of thousands of college students over the past four decades to enter politics and use advanced technology to get the conservative message out. One former employee of the Leadership Institute is James O’Keefe, the videographer who produced heavily edited, undercover audio and video recordings with workers at ACORN, NPR, and Planned Parenthood, all of which went viral on the alt-right Breitbart.com. While at the Leadership Institute, and like the organization’s other field representatives, O’Keefe traveled to campuses across the nation consulting with students on starting clubs and conservative newspapers.

Like the Young America’s Foundation, the Leadership Institute also gets better traction at public universities, where it delivers a coordinated message to students: You are under siege on your liberal campus, you should not trust your professors, your educational institutions do not favor students like you, and you must use aggressive tactics to counteract the discrimination. They spread mistrust about higher education not only to the conservative activists with whom they work closely, but to other students on campus who may pick up the newspapers they sponsor or events they fund.

Right-leaning students who do not fit the “Joe Average” profile of these two organizations find support elsewhere. The best-known national organization nurturing this disposition is the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, or ISI, founded in the 1950s by William F. Buckley. ISI advertises itself as the premiere organization for the “best and the brightest” among conservative students. It offers seminars on moral and political philosophy (which ISI’s leaders say are lacking on campus), while also providing networking and internship opportunities at the National Review, the Weekly Standard, and other such media. Ross Douthat, the op-ed writer for the New York Times, was a member of the 2002 class at ISI while he attended Harvard, and is now a speaker for the organization. ISI’s 2015 assets totaled “only” $11 million, according to its website.

It’s important to think about how the conservative styles students are learning now on their campuses and national organizations may have an impact on their ideas about higher education and politics later. At YAF and the Leadership Institute, staff encourage students to turn against higher education: to regard college campuses with suspicion about political correctness, multiculturalism, wastefulness, and elitism. This may help explain why even college-educated conservatives can have such a dim view of higher education—alongside voters with lower education levels—and will support cutting funding to it.

What can be done about this situation—is it possible to minimize provocation and misgivings about higher education today to salvage politics about public higher education tomorrow? I think so, but short of a gigantic political watershed, it will be important for faculty and administrators on individual campuses to figure out what they can do to help.

I would not advise university leaders to bar outside speakers and organizations from campus. It’s unconstitutional and it backfires: One need only read about the martyred David Horowitz or Milo Yiannopoulos to see what happens when administrators try to keep incendiary provocateurs away from colleges and universities. Futhermore, there are some speakers associated with the Young America’s Foundation, and even more so in the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, who offer students greater diversity in discourse, which can deepen their connections to higher education.

Rather, university administrators and faculty — the most immediate targets of the conservative organizations’ attacks — need to be clear-eyed that higher education skepticism is being fomented on their campuses, and they must think about ways to create and strengthen organizational structures that can help all students, including those who identify as conservatives, feel connected to their university and part of a larger community. Helping students who now feel alienated from campus to feel more integrated helps give the lie to the discourse about “elitist, persecuting, alienating, wasteful” colleges.

I am not talking about university leaders creating cultures of “school spirit”—which can actually have negative effects and add to the sense of “fun” students being confrontational, often at black and Latino students’ expense. What I am talking about is bolstering mundane, but very important, organizational arrangements on university campuses, like a lower student-to-faculty ratio. And if this isn’t possible because of funding cuts, making sure that there are more staff on campus whether in residential life, admissions, or administration, who are responsible for getting to know students and who can serve as mentors and advisors to them. Such relationships bind students to campus and build rapport.

It also means challenging students to think of themselves more as members of an intellectual, or smart, community of peers, where they can try out and refine their political ideas with others. This means more emphasis on engaged teaching, more office hours, more faculty connection to students, more efforts at role modeling what it looks like to appreciate, but also constructively critique, one’s campus.

It means building more on-campus housing at public universities, which anchors students in more heterogeneous living situations than when they are allowed to pick their own housemates off-campus and live farther away in more atomized living arrangements.

It means that faculty and graduate student TAs should be highly circumspect about slipping into raw political partisanship in their classes, which alienates conservative and also moderate students.

If university faculty, administrators, and staff are intentional in using the funding they do have to strengthening a sense of community for undergraduates on their campuses, then this is one means for shaping experiences that run counter to public attacks on higher education. Universities play a large role in shaping student identities, and in this case, the types of organizational commitments I have mentioned can counteract the identities sponsored by conservative organizations. With some of these campus-level fixes, at the very least we would have a greater number of conservative alumni who cognitively cannot recognize the caricature of public higher education that conservative politicians and their allies make about their university.

BinderAmy J. Binder is professor of sociology at the University of California, San Diego. She is the author of Contentious Curricula: Afrocentrism and Creationism in American Public Schools (Princeton) and Becoming Right: How Campuses Shape Young Conservatives.

Leah Wright Rigueur: Black conservatives do not speak for the black majority

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By Leah Wright Rigueur

Published in association with Aeon Magazine, a Princeton University Press partner.

When black voices rally to validate and defend extremist ideas, political observers should watch with heavy skepticism. In April, the National Diversity Coalition for Donald Trump launched a campaign in support of the controversial presidential candidate. ‘This man is no more racist than Mickey Mouse is on the Moon!’ Bruce LeVell, the coalition’s co-founder and a businessman from Georgia, told The Washington Post. Better yet, what are we to make of the former Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson’s puzzling endorsement of Trump?

At a moment when black Americans, of all ideological persuasions, are deeply concerned with a status quo in the United States that allows racial inequality (and discrimination) to fester, black boosters for the party’s right wing have insisted that the ‘race issue’ is a distraction. Some even claim that black America will benefit from a Trump presidency. This kind of posturing might seem mystifying to some degree, but it is not new; there have always been black people willing to endorse the nation’s most extreme figures. The civil rights activist James Meredith worked for the Republican senator Jesse Helms in 1989, after all.

Employing black ‘surrogates’ or spokespeople for extremist candidates has become a way of validating non-traditional ideas as ‘authentic’, while at the same time invalidating accusations of racism. While the Democratic Party also has employed black voices in this manner (much to the distaste of its critics), the Republican Party’s use of conservative black voices is all the more fascinating because black conservatives’ beliefs are generally at odds with mainstream black opinion.

Egregious contemporary and historical examples abound. Consider the National Black Silent Majority Committee (BSMC), a black conservative organisation launched on 4 July 1970. Founded by Clay Claiborne (a former Republican National Committee staffer acquitted of defrauding black voters in the 1964 presidential election), the BSMC professed a faith in free-market enterprise and two-party competition, and adhered to a strict anti-communist, anti-welfare, anti-busing, pro-‘law and order’ agenda. Unlike other black Republican groups of the era, the BSMC articulated neither public nor private complaints about race and the Republican Party. Instead, the organisation exclusively blamed black people for the country’s problems with race. Upon the group’s founding, the civil rights activist Julian Bond called the BSMC a ‘trick’ to ‘subvert black political hopes on the altar of white supremacy and political expediency’.

The BMSC used Richard Nixon’s rhetoric of a forgotten class of Americans, claiming to speak for a majority of silent black Americans, ‘sick and tired of the agitation, shouting, burning and subversion carried out in their name by self-styled militant groups’. The organisation assembled a high-profile group of black men and women willing to endorse conservative values, including the national president of the Negro Elks fraternal order, the founders and publishers of the black newspapers the Atlanta Daily World and the Arizona Tribune (now The Informant), and dozens of black ministers from around the country. Black women also took on prominent roles as BSMC surrogates – an unusual occurrence, as black women were, and still are, the least likely of any demographic to support the Republican Party.

In 1972, for example, Mary Parrish was the star speaker of the BSMC’s 52-city ‘Black Youth Voter Crusade’. Parrish, a black Democrat-turned-Republican (who started her career campaigning for Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm) used her pulpit to claim that liberals had ‘politically enslaved’ black people, especially black women; the Republican Party, she insisted, without providing tangible examples, represented the best hope for the ‘continued advancement of black people’. Parrish’s unusual turn as the ‘face’ of the BSMC is not an isolated event. Today, black women are among the most high-profile of the Trump campaign’s spokespeople.

But such minority endorsements are sporadic, and rarely translate into partisan support. When the BSMC launched in 1970, more than 72 per cent of black Americans held unfavourable views of President Nixon. Currently, about 80 per cent of black people hold unfavourable views of Trump. For both the BSMC and Trump’s black surrogates, this disconnect is consistent with their resolute dismissal of issues related to racial and social inequality, and their harsh criticism of black people who reject the Republican nominee.

Back in the 1970s, the BSMC readily admitted that the vast majority of its supporters were white. As the historian Matt Lassiter has suggested, the Nixon White House ‘orchestrated’ the creation of the BSMC to provide a counter-narrative to black moderate, and militant, voices, which also appealed to ‘white voters who believed that the civil rights and antiwar movements had gone too far’.

My own research shows that the all-white National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) was also a heavy financial backer of the BSMC from the start, providing start-up funds, financing the group’s cross-country ‘Patriotism’ and ‘Anti-Busing’ crusades, regularly highlighting the BSMC’s adventures to the public, and arranging private meetings with influential white officials.

In an unintentionally ironic moment in 1970, the then South Carolina senator Strom Thurmond, a vocal cheerleader for the BSMC, declared that the organisation’s existence proved that plenty of black radicals were attempting to ‘speak for groups which they do not actually represent’. Indeed, by the mid-1970s, politicians actively used the BSMC to elicit broader political support for right-wing agendas largely rejected by black audiences, by suggesting that the group spoke for a black majority. The BSMC also provided a buffer against charges of racism, with white politicians arguing that their own policies couldn’t possibly be racist or discriminatory, since the BSMC endorsed them. In this way, the BSMC reassured white conservative voters uncomfortable with the social taboo of racism.

The BSMC is just one example of many organisations (and individuals) to emerge in the past few decades in support of ideas on the fringes of black political thought. As a result, black Republicans critical of their party’s position on race saw their influence within the party dwindle, as groups such as the BSMC saw their stock rise among the Republican Party’s right wing. New quantitative research suggests that little has changed; Republican politicians are more interested in championing right-wing black Republicans whose views on race fall outside mainstream black political thought than those whose race-conscious messages are more closely aligned with the attitudes of black people at large. For most black Republicans within the party, this sends a clear and troubling message – power for the party’s minorities often comes by way of endorsing right-wing extremism.

Thus Trump’s turn to minority (especially black) spokespeople should come as little surprise. But while race lends an air of legitimacy to extremist candidates, it rarely presents an accurate picture of black political opinion. If anything, when the extremists play the ‘race card’, genuine concern for racial issues are likely to be buried.

Leah Wright Rigueur The Loneliness of the Black Republicanis an assistant professor of public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. She is the author of The Loneliness of the Black Republican: Pragmatic Politics and the Pursuit of Power (2015).

Amy Binder: The Provocative Politics of the Republican Party

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by Amy Binder

Not so long ago, you might have been surprised to learn that conservative college students held events specifically designed to provoke, not illuminate, their liberal and moderate peers, faculty, and administrators. During Catch an Illegal Alien Day, students who pose as undocumented immigrants are imprisoned when caught by other students posing as border guards. At the Global Warming Beach Party, students mock the science of climate change with suntan oil and beer. At Affirmative Action Bake Sales, conservative student organizers charge white customers more for their cookies and cupcakes than they do black or Latino students—a fitting analogy, according to event organizers, of the harms visited upon white students by affirmative action policies.

But organize these events conservative students did, with the financial assistance and play-by-play handbooks produced by the Young America’s Foundation, a well-funded conservative organization that supports right-leaning students. The “provocative style” of these events that I and my co-author Kate Wood wrote about in our PUP book Becoming Right: How Campuses Shape Young Conservatives is not meant to reach out to liberals and moderates or to persuade them of conservative positions on immigration, environmental degradation, or race. Rather, the style is meant to enrage liberals on their campus, prod them into aggresively confronting event organizers, and then accuse the liberals who have been inflamed of being biased and intolerant toward them. We found that the provocative style is much less likely to take hold on campuses where there is a palpable sense of closeness and community (such as at a private elite university) and much more likely to be used at larger institutions where students are more anonymous to one another and their professors.

While you might have been surprised to learn about this campus style in years past, the only surprising thing about the provocative style today is that eight years ago it was students who were engaging in it, not the Republican party’s rank and file and torch bearers. In the time since we collected our data, this coarsening style has come to dominate the GOP. Shortly after the election of Barack Obama, members of the Tea Party ridiculed the president as a jungle bunny, witch doctor, and Muslim Marxist. In 2013, Congressional Republicans shut down the government trying to defund the president’s Affordable Care Act and, in 2016, most Senate Republicans refuse to even meet with Obama’s nominee for the Supreme Court.

This year’s election cycle is the apotheosis of provocation. Donald Trump calls Mexican immigrants “rapists,” Syrian refugees “terrorists,” and has successfully drawn his opponents into slugfests about everything from penis size to the attractiveness of their wives. Even while Mitt Romney, the Koch brothers, and other establishment leaders and funders bemoan the fallen state of their party, voters turn out in droves to hear Trump rail on his opponents and their “stupid,” “loser” policies. Today, we are witnessing the ability of the provocative style—sometimes merely obstructionist, sometimes purely aggressive—to drown out deliberative policy discourse. This has been happening for years—not just this election season, as the Romneys of the world would have us believe—and it begs us to see what lessons we can learn from college campuses.

First, we can see that style, not substance, is mainly what is at issue here. In this primary season, unprecedented provocation is driving huge numbers of die-hard Trump supporters to back him no matter what he says, substantively. They love how he says what he says, not what he says which, after all, can change from speech to speech. Many observers have also noted that when you strip away variances in style, the stated policy differences between Trump and his Republican detractors are not so vast—such as on abortion, climate change, and immigration. But Trump’s voters prefer Trump’s style over Cruz’s and the other competitors who have since left the race. All of this is to say that we have under-estimated the power of style vs. substance in politics for far too long. We saw this on college campuses 8 years ago.

Second, it’s important to think about the links between college-age politics and the way people will participate in electoral and institutional politics later in life. I don’t have the longitudinal data to make causal claims about the students we interviewed in our book, but if campuses are incubators for political action, as our study shows, university leaders would do well to minimize provocation today to save politics tomorrow. Creating organizational structures that help students feel connected to the campus, and part of a community, would be a smart move, no matter how large the institution. If colleges and universities can create campus cultures that attempt to strengthen a sense of civic community among students, faculty, and administrators; and which foster a tolerance for ideological pluralism, then perhaps we have at least one means for crafting a more respectful national political discourse in the future.

becoming right jacket binderAmy J. Binder is professor of sociology at the University of California, San Diego. She is the author of Contentious Curricula: Afrocentrism and Creationism in American Public Schools (Princeton). She is also the author of Becoming Right: How Campuses Shape Young Conservatives.

The Supreme Court and the battle for the U.S. Senate

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by Wendy Schiller       

“I hope they are fair.” (President Barack Obama March 16, 2016)

With the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, Election 2016 just got much more complicated. The GOP majority leadership in the Senate has threatened not to hold any hearings or votes on Merrick Garland, the Chief Judge of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, who was nominated to fill that vacancy by President Obama on March 16, 2016. They argue that it is too close to a presidential election, and a new president, to consider the nomination and that it should wait until after the new president is elected. Playing politics with Supreme Court nominees is not necessarily new for the U.S. Senate – Democrats and Republicans alike have done so in the past. However, it is nearly unprecedented to consider leaving a seat vacant on the Supreme Court for what will likely be more than a year. And the electoral landscape for the GOP in the U.S. Senate is extremely challenging because the GOP is defending 24 currently held Senate seats, while the Democrats are only defending 10 currently held Senate seats. That means many more Republican Senators will be forced to explain why they refuse to grant even a hearing to the President’s Supreme Court nominee in a year when voters already believe that the Congress – indeed the federal government more generally – is broken.

Amidst that electoral landscape, the chess match between Senate Republicans and the Democratic President gets more complicated because the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee is Charles Grassley, who is a Republican from Iowa up for reelection in 2016. Until recently it was unclear that a strong challenger would emerge to take on Grassley, who was first elected to the Senate in 1980. But just last week, Patty Judge, who has served as lieutenant governor of Iowa and its state agriculture secretary, announced that she will seek the Democratic nomination to run against Grassley. There are already three other candidates who have announced their intention to run against Grassley, but Patty Judge is widely thought to be the strongest candidate in terms of statewide appeal. Additionally, Hillary Clinton won the Iowa caucuses and is expected to be competitive in that state if she is the Democratic presidential nominee; it is possible that Grassley could face mobilized opposition from women in his home state on at least two fronts.

Merrick Garland served as a private practice attorney, a federal prosecutor who was part of the investigation into the Oklahoma City bombing, and was nominated by President Clinton to the D.C. Circuit of Appeals in 1997 and confirmed in a majority GOP controlled Senate. In fact, he was confirmed by a supermajority of Democratic and Republicans in the Senate, including seven Republicans who are still in the Senate today: Dan Coats (Ind.), Thad Cochran (Miss.), Susan Collins (Maine), Orrin Hatch (Utah), James M. Inhofe (Okla.), John McCain (Ariz.), and Pat Roberts (Kan.). However, Senator Grassley voted against him which means he is on record as opposing him well before this Supreme Court nomination emerged. Grassley maintains, along with the Republican leadership in the Senate, that their refusal to even consider Obama’s nominee has nothing to do with the person but rather the process.

Still, the ripple effect of the pressures on Charles Grassley to hold hearings on Merrick Garland is significant. For now, other GOP senators who are considered vulnerable in 2016, including Kelly Ayotte (NH), Ron Johnson (WI), Richard Burr (NC), Patrick Toomey (PA), and John McCain (AZ), are holding firm against considering any Obama Supreme Court nominee. But some of these senators are potentially facing very strong challengers: current Governor Maggie Hassan in NH, former U.S. Senator Russ Feingold in WI (whom Johnson defeated in 2010), former female State House Representative Deborah Ross in NC; former Congressman Joe Sestak in PA (whom Toomey defeated in 2010), and in Arizona, McCain is facing a potential challenge from Ann Kirkpatrick, a sitting Democratic Congresswoman. These challengers will make the Supreme Court nomination, and the process itself, a campaign issue against these incumbent Republican Senators. The more the landscape looks inviting to mount serious challenges to GOP senators, the greater the Democratic Party’s mobilization effort will be in terms of fundraising and campaign messaging. If Grassley is forced to consider holding hearings in the Senate Judiciary Committee to preserve or strengthen his own reelection chances, the other members of his party running for reelection in 2016 might begin to feel similar pressures. The takeaway for Election 2016 is that the Supreme Court nomination battle may not just be a fight about controlling the direction of the Court, but also about partisan control of the U.S. Senate itself.

electing the senate schiller jacketWendy J. Schiller is associate professor of political science and public policy at Brown University. Her most recent book is Electing the Senate: Indirect Democracy before the Seventeenth Amendment.

Leah Wright Rigueur on Making Sense of Ben Carson

Leah Wright Rigueur

Photo Credit: Chion Wolf WNPR

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).