The very idea of political conflict with “the establishment” is central to progressive politics. By contrast, there seems to be a kind of tension at the heart of the conservative self-understanding. On the one hand, conservatives take themselves to be “quietist” guardians of tradition, where “tradition” is conceived as an accumulation of time-honored skills, habits, and hard-won wisdom of past generations. For the conservative, the progressive’s high-minded social theories and struggle against the status quo can never provide a worthy substitute to tradition, and so tradition must be preserved (or restored). On the other hand, this call for preservation is also the source of reactionary periods when the conservative must confront the progressive who seeks reform or revolution.
If, to the conservative’s ear, “tradition” signals a set of traditions that are to be defended against progressive reform, then those traditions are those that progressives find discriminatory against particular groups. Generally speaking, those traditions tend to fall under the descriptor “white patriarchy,” and seem to include implicit expectations for men of color and women. In other words, the conservative’s preservation of tradition entails the preservation of traditional power structures. These traditional power structures have the general effect of benefiting white men at the expense of (broadly) colonized populations and women, and the conclusion therefore seems inescapable that, among the political conservative’s interests, is the preservation of some historical forms of oppression.
But, to many conservatives, concepts like “white supremacy” and “patriarchy,” as names for pervasive social forces, are just inventions of progressives—these terms have application only to confused fringe groups that enjoy no significant social influence; we’re all equal now in the developed West, and any claim to the contrary represents a distortion of social reality. After all, many African-Americans and women, themselves, identify as conservatives. (A stronger version of this view is that terms like “patriarchy” and “racist” are used to oppress white men.) Such a view rejects the very idea of institutionalized racism and sexism, or, relatedly, that one’s political ideology could be the product of unconscious, automatic thought processes. Racism and sexism, according to this view, exist only in explicit form—in KKK rallies and on shadowy skin-head websites.
I am convinced that the progressive should reply that racist and sexist attitudes are largely implicit, and that self-report—while perfectly acceptable in some contexts—is simply not a reliable identifier of such attitudes. Of course, implicit biases are not confined to conservative ideology: given the overwhelming complexity of modern life, any individual’s ability to cope socially would be hopeless if she could not rely on some shortcuts in thinking, including stereotyping, and other automatic (emotional, moral, intuitive, etc.) reactions. It has been sufficiently demonstrated by psychologists that these shortcuts and automatic reactions are the implicit source of much of our explicit behavior. Nosek, et al. in a 2010 paper called “Implicit Political Cognition” note that political ideology in particular is best understood as a phenomenon of implicit cognition. That is, ideological commitments have been shown to swing free from explicitly stated political views and identity. The ability to articulate one’s ideological position in the space of political reasoning, “is not a necessary condition for one to have an ideology or ideological motivations.”
Insofar as there exists institutionalized racism and sexism, the source of its perpetuation is a set of practices that are discharged outside the conscious deliberation of society’s members.
The problem is that conservative ideology defends itself by rejecting the very possibility of implicit biases, and this paves the way for a bad faith insistence on the preservation of tradition. Insofar as there exists institutionalized racism and sexism, the source of its perpetuation is a set of practices that are discharged outside the conscious deliberation of society’s members. A common example is the practice of redlining—denying services to individuals and families (paradigmatically, bank loans and insurance policies) based on the racial or ethnic makeup of the community in which they reside.
The conservative might reply as follows: “I don’t believe in institutional racism. Society is composed of individuals. I participate in no organization that in any way practices racism of which I am aware. If redlining is practiced, as you say, then it is repugnant, period. But if it is based on economics, then it is an economic reality.” Redlining is indeed based on economics—pure and simple. Bankers do not tend to make decisions based on their personal attitudes toward people of color, wishing them ill, or desiring to make life economically harder for them. No, the extent to which the decision is economic is precisely the extent to which racism is institutionalized. If it is an economic fact that investment in, say, black neighborhoods is a risky affair, then this just is a demonstration of institutionalized racism. The unfortunate fact is that economic decisions are routinely based upon an economic reality that tends to disproportionately affect people of color.
If the conservative were to accept that these structural biases operate within social practices (and not just in the skulls of individual people), and further accept that an uncritical attitude toward such practices perpetuates racial and gender injustice, he or she is forced to take responsibility for having defended racial and gender biases in the name of tradition and either, (1) work with the progressive to eliminate such injustice, or (2) admit that such injustice does not bother him or her. But the conservative’s reaction to (1) and (2) all but guarantees a defensive reaction against the acceptance of the obvious reality of institutional racism and sexism.
Consider what Patricia Hill Collins calls the “matrix of domination.” Collins explicates this concept by reference to the felt experience of individuals living at the intersection of multiple oppressed identities. Her focus is black women in a white, patriarchal society, but, as she says, whatever the particular intersection, “structural, disciplinary, hegemonic, and interpersonal domains of power reappear across quite different forms of oppression.” These forms of oppression constitute the matrix of domination. Many conservatives will have a visceral reaction to the language, and general perspective, contained in this last sentence. No fancy social theory employing new terms and turns of phrase will convince them that the benefits of a critical look into the origins of current social practices and treatment of the areas in which misogynistic, white supremacist infections linger, outweigh the risks that lie in our becoming untethered to “our” common traditions, the latter being our best guide to a better future.
Donald Trump managed to win the presidency in part by tapping into this reactionary vein of conservative voters who have witnessed the burgeoning values and opinions of marginalized groups gain legitimacy, thus threatening “our” tradition, the traditional standpoint of white men. The “suppression of Black women’s intellectual traditions,” writes Hill Collins, has forced Black woman to “feel” their way to a “Black women’s standpoint.” That is, it is not clear what the Black women’s standpoint will look like until individual Black women “[use] their experiences as situated knowers.” The preference of the Trump conservative is that Black women, Black men, Muslims, Mexicans, and every other nonwhite instead embrace a universalizing of the white-male tradition—including the tradition of their own secondary status.
David Millar is a writer from the San Francisco Bay Area. His work focuses on the philosophy of language, politics, and the social sciences.