What's Tony Thinking

The Race and Politics Connection May Be More Complex Than You Thought


I listened to Ezra Klein’s recent podcast with Lilliana Mason, a political scientist at the University of Maryland. I’ve appreciated Mason’s work in explaining how binding, or totalizing, political identities have become in the contemporary U.S.

Mason argues that today’s Republican Party agenda boils down to maintaining the privilege and status of white people, particularly white evangelical Christians.  Because of an electoral system that gives white, rural voters disproportionate influence, the GOP can, according to Mason, afford to pitch to this base and exclude people of other races and faiths.  In doing so, she argues, Republicans have become an “anti-democratic” (small “d”) party.

I found Mason’s argument persuasive until I read Katherine Stewart’s coverage of recent gatherings of the religious right. The religious right and Christian nationalists have been Stewart’s beat for two decades. Her reporting made me wonder if Mason’s characterization of today’s GOP as wholly explicable as a party of a racist reaction might be the conventional wisdom, but a little too simple (and comforting to liberals and Democrats).

Here’s Stewart reporting on the recent “Road to the Majority” event of the “Faith and Freedom Coalition” in Kissimmee, Florida.

“I came away from my listening experience in Kissimmee with a few surprises—or at least a few takeaways that may challenge some of the narratives that prevail in the center and on the Left about America’s Christian nationalist movement. The first is that any Democrats who take comfort from the thought that demography is destiny are probably deluding themselves. The received wisdom on the center-left is that America’s homegrown authoritarian faction is an affair largely concentrated on an older, whiter base that is just now exiting the stage of history with loud grievances in hand. But that’s not how the leaders of the movement see things—and the broader picture may indeed be a bit more complex.

“Of the many religious-right strategy gatherings I’ve attended over the years, this was among the most ethnically and racially diverse. ‘I am pleased to be able to report that we have 200 African American pastors and community organizers who are here this week and over 500 Hispanic pastors and community organizers, and we are going to keep going until this movement embraces the full diversity of our country,’ said event organizer Ralph Reed. By my (Stewart’s) count over 30 of the roughly 70 speakers were Black or Latino.”

This tracks with Trump’s gains among Blacks and Hispanics, particularly men, in the 2020 election. It suggests that the Republican base and those who identify with a Christian Nationalist movement on the right aren’t just old, white guys. It is more complex than that. I sometimes wonder if in the emphasis on race, liberals may have overlooked other potent factors: gender roles, sexuality and nationalism.

More from Stewart: “In Kissimmee, the speakers, and especially the speakers of color, had a unified message about race, and it was one that Democratic strategists might wish to note as they craft their own messaging and outreach in the run-up to the 2022 midterm elections. Speaker after speaker at the Road to Majority Conference asserted that they believe in an America where race doesn’t define you—where opportunity is there for all who strive for it.”

If a racial make-up and message of the “Road to Majority” conference was one surprise to Stewart — and a wake-up call for the Democratic Party and liberals confident that all people of color are in their tent — another surprise for Stewart was that rumors of the death of Religious Right may be pre-mature.

“Over the past two decades,” writes Stewart, “the imminent demise of the religious right has been predicted with casual confidence many times, and the often unspoken assumption is that the movement will turn watery as it fades away. But that isn’t what the people at the Road to Majority Conference or CPAC think at all. This movement is getting ideologically harder, hotter, and more extreme in every way as it moves forward into the future.

“Two decades ago, an ideology called ‘Seven Mountains Dominionism’ was considered so fringy that it was never allowed near the podium with Republican political leaders. Now, that very same ideology is a heartbeat away from everything that happens in the Republican Party. This year, in fact, the Road to Majority featured a breakout session titled ‘The Seven Mountains of Influence.'”

Moreover, the panelists at the “Seven Mountain” breakout were all people of color. You can read more about “Seven Mountain Dominionism” in Stewart’s article.

Lilliana Mason may be right to call this movement “anti-democratic.” But if Stewart is accurate Mason, and others, are wrong in concluding it’s the last gasp of older, white, evangelicals about to pass into dumpster of demographic destiny. It’s more complicated than that. Isn’t it always?

As noted above, there may be over-estimation of race as the motivational and explanatory factor. It allows liberals to characterize conservatives as racist and to explain contemporary America as “we the diverse and inclusive vs. them, the racists.” But is that accurate? Note Ralph Reed on “embracing the full diversity of America” above. I suspect the conventional wisdom seriously underestimates the potency of at least three other areas of concern: gender roles, sexuality and American nationalism.



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