Chain Reaction: The Impact of Race, Rights, and Taxes on American Politics, by Thomas Byrne Edsall and Mary D. Edsall, New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 288 pages, $22.95
The confirmation hearings for Clarence Thomas's nomination to the United States Supreme Court could have been a defining moment in American political history. Hearing the stirring tale of Judge Thomas's rise from poverty and his principled defense of equality of opportunity under the rule of law could have placed proponents of redistributive justice on the defensive for years. Unfortunately, Bush administration handlers and Anita Faye Hill stifled the opportunity for such a fundamental debate.
Even so, the nomination opened new discussions on the state of race relations in America. And though Chain Reaction: The Impact of Race, Rights, and Taxes on American Politics was published before the Thomas nomination, several reviews of the book appeared as the hearings took place. The Atlantic also published an excerpt as a cover story.
Chain Reaction reviews the past quarter-century of American political history, concentrating on what co-author Thomas Byrne Edsall, a political reporter for The Washington Post, calls the "disintegration of the liberal coalition." He and his wife, Mary, believe they have found the issue that continues to keep Democrats out of the White House.
"Over the past generation," they write, "race has fueled the ascendancy of the presidential wing of the Republican party and has blunted Democratic efforts to revive a majority coalition." Strong words. But the authors combine personal reporting, especially interviews with political analysts, national party operatives, local officials, and average voters, to make their case.
As the Edsalls see it, conservatives used opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the election campaign of Barry Goldwater to build an electoral coalition that would discredit, if not demolish, modern liberalism. Meanwhile, Democrats expanded the welfare state, and liberals in the legal system adjudicated an expansive definition of rights (for women, gays, criminal defendants, the disadvantaged, and so on) to redistribute benefits from wealthier Americans to specific "historically oppressed" groups.
Like many political reporters, the Edsalls frame their analysis with the illusion of objectivity. So instead of calling anyone a racist, they differentiate between what they call racial conservatism (the opposition to preferential treatment based on race) and racial liberalism (results-oriented policies such as goals, quotas, and timetables to achieve racial equality). Then they let you know which model they prefer.
The Edsalls accurately portray modern liberalism as a philosophy of redistribution—from "have" to "have not," from advantaged to disadvantaged. "In the modern liberal view," they write, "government intervention in behalf of less well-positioned classes and groups such as the poor, workers, blacks, and women can help to mitigate some of the more glaring inequities which [arise from] unrestrained market competition." Early on, they call this ideology "morally coherent" and "morally justifiable."
They view "conservatism," or, more explicitly, the "free-market doctrine promoted by the business-financed conservative movement," as redistributive—i.e., distributing benefits from the lower and middle classes to the rich.
But the way the authors present their argument makes it nearly impossible to disagree with them on a fundamental level. First, they define "conservatism" much too broadly. As the Edsalls see it, George Bush's country-club Republicanism is the same as laissez-faire. They assume the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies all believe in unfettered free markets. (Lee Iacocca appears nowhere in these pages. Michael Milken shows up long enough for the Edsalls to cite his salary; then he disappears.) We never hear that the entrepreneurial vision of the supply-siders differs from the protectionist interests of U.S. Steel. We only get a cartoonish "business bad, government good" analysis from the authors.
The Edsalls then refuse to grant any moral legitimacy to the "conservative" vision as they define it, viewing it instead as a crass way to get support from working-class voters who ought to know who really cares about them. The liberal-vs.-conservative struggle then becomes a battle of competing interests, one with good intentions (helping those on the bottom of the economic ladder), the other bankrolled by the exploiters in corporate America.
This unsophisticated and incomplete analysis extends to the way the Edsalls cover divisive social issues. For example, they appropriately give thorough coverage to the white opposition to school busing. But they never acknowledge that most black support for busing came from the middle-class parents whose kids weren't being shipped across town. During a September appearance on C-SPAN, Robert Woodson of the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise recalled his days on the staff of the National Urban League, visiting the poor black neighborhoods in Boston that would be affected by busing. Woodson said the parents there adamantly opposed busing because they would have no say in how teachers and administrators in faraway school districts treated their children. And Boston's black schools graduated a higher percentage of kids than the white schools poor black children would be forced to attend.
The Edsalls describe how, in 1972, Richard Nixon "set out to establish positive grounds for the rejections of the kinds of social responsibilities that were raised by the civil rights movement." In a pre-election radio address, Nixon said: "There is no reason to feel guilty about wanting to enjoy what you get and what you earn, about wanting your children in good schools close to home, or about wanting to be judged fairly on your ability. Those are not values to be ashamed of; those are values to be proud of."
Those are also values that roughly coincide with the classical-liberal vision of individual rights and the rule of law. (Too bad Nixon didn't really believe in them himself.) But the Edsalls view such statements through their own filter. To them, the tax revolt becomes a calculated scheme by whites to deny underprivileged blacks and Hispanics what the market can't provide. In 1983, when Ronald Reagan said he wanted to see "that this remains a country where someone can always get rich," the Edsalls call Reagan "uncritical in his endorsement of wealth and of material acquisition." In discussing Reagan's speeches against crime and big government, they say, "explicitly accessing or tapping voter convictions and anxieties about values and economic status allowed implicit access to anxieties and resentments about race." (Emphasis in the original.)
Because racial minorities receive a disproportionate share of welfare benefits, the Edsalls conclude that "the largest percentage cuts [in federal social spending] during the Reagan years were made in means-tested programs serving heavily black populations, programs staffed, in many cases, by black personnel." The Edsalls see racism behind every move to limit government, cut taxes, or unleash competitive markets.
You don't have to be a libertarian purist to develop a nonracial model that explains the renewed demands for limited government. In 1960, government spending at all levels as a percentage of national income was 33 percent; at the time, most people felt their tax dollars were well spent—they got roads and bridges that worked, schools that educated, police that protected their neighborhoods. Now, with government spending approaching 50 percent of GNP, we have, as political analyst Michael Barone has said, a government that does much more than it used to, much of it badly.
In his 1987 book A Conflict of Visions, Thomas Sowell made a distinction between what he calls constrained and unconstrained social visions—the gut feelings or basic instincts with which people view the world. It is useful to frame the Edsalls' arguments within Sowell's dichotomy.
To a great extent, the Edsalls' views are consistent with the unconstrained vision, which includes, Sowell writes, "the conviction that foolish or immoral choices explain the evils of the world—and that wiser or more moral and humane social policies are the solution." The unconstrained vision focuses on improving the human condition with policies that lead to definable outcomes. An unconstrained approach to poverty might feature progressive taxes that take money from the wealthy and give it to the poor. The unconstrained vision of the Edsalls calls for governmental institutions to give preferential treatment to minority groups, because until the races achieve economic equality, the government will have to forcibly redistribute jobs and incomes.
The constrained vision, on the other hand, focuses more on the limits of human nature, such as self-interest, and how best to construct social policies within those limits. Those who argue for equal protection assert that sweeping group-based policies that redress centuries of past discrimination unjustly punish individuals who may not have discriminated themselves. In the constrained vision, a person should be judged not by the color of his skin but by the content of his character.
Indeed, it was this constrained view of equality that gave the early civil-rights movement its moral legitimacy. But when the Edsalls discuss racial conservatism, they lump together the constrained view of equality with actual racism, never distinguishing between the two. They also note that, in the mid-'60s, civil-rights leaders changed their focus from equal opportunity to equal results; they see this not as a fundamental shift but instead a logical extension of the drive for equality. They don't recognize that when the goals of civil-rights leaders became redistributive, the movement lost much of its clout.
Bigotry, loutishness, and even violence constitute much of the history of race relations in America. The Edsalls correctly report that black migration to Northern cities—and increasing competition for jobs and government benefits during the '60s and '70s—unleashed ugly and vicious responses in ethnic neighborhoods.
They recognize that crime is a serious problem, that the working and middle classes have fled the inner cities, leaving them as combat zones inhabited only by the underclass, and that the refusal of liberal Democrats to take crime seriously "has signaled a failure to live up to one of the chief obligations of a political party: to secure the safety and well-being of its own constituents, black and white." They're also uncomfortable with the "zero-sum" nature of aggressive affirmative action programs, and they understand that many Americans oppose such redistributive policies.
But the Edsalls don't offer any other ways to address the problems of race, poverty, and safety except to ask, Wouldn't it be great if we were all liberals? By portraying limited government and laissez-faire capitalism as a means for the wealthy (who are predominantly white) to crush the disadvantaged (who aren't), they comfort other liberals who wish to argue that people whose vision is consistent with that of the Founders are either uncaring social Darwinists or outright racists.
Sadly, the Edsalls say what's wrong with liberalism without having a clue about how to make it right. They understand that aggressively redistributive policies are unpopular, but they don't know why. As long as the Edsalls, and other such liberals, refuse to take other political visions seriously, average Americans will continue to reject liberal presidential candidates on election day. Discussions about the serious problems of race, crime, and poverty need to reach beyond the superficial punditry on the weekend talk shows.
Rick Henderson is Washington editor of REASON.