Newt Gingrich supposedly engaged in race-baiting when he said:
“I believe every American of every background has been endowed by their Creator with the right to pursue happiness, and if that makes liberals unhappy, I’m going to continue to find ways to help poor people learn how to get a job, learn how to get a better job, and learn someday to own the job.”
To that, replies National Review’s Jonah Goldberg:
… I think people haven’t really figured out that one big reason people appreciate Gingrich’s talk about the importance of work is this: Conservatives really like work. Liberals really like “jobs.”
That’s a subtle distinction for some, but I think it’s a major cultural and sociological divide. Conservatives don’t see too much nobility in poverty (though they don’t necessarily see shame in it either). Liberals treat poverty like it is a sacrament of some kind. Conservatives emphasize habits of the heart. Liberals emphasize material conditions. Liberals exalt labor unions, whose purpose is to maximize the number of jobs offered but curtail as much as possible the amount of work required to get a paycheck. Conservatives think jobs should be allotted based entirely on merit. Liberals think jobs should be allotted based, at least in part, on considerations of need, race, and gender.
When Gingrich talks about the glories of work, it resonates with conservative audiences on a host of levels that have absolutely nothing to do with race. Indeed, for me and I think a lot of conservatives, the reason we find the racial aspects of the argument compelling is that we have a serious and humane concern for the plight of inner-city blacks. I don’t know many conservatives who don’t believe in their bones that if poor blacks from broken homes could just have the same work ethic and values as, say, immigrant Koreans, they would be significantly better off (and they feel the same way about poor whites from broken homes!). A liberal hears that and thinks it’s simply racist. But that’s not how it is intended. And this isn’t to say there aren’t other factors at play, but conservatives side with Booker T. Washington while liberals side with W.E.B. Du Bois. It breaks my heart that Republicans haven’t been better at embracing the Washingtonian tradition.
That’s not to say there hasn’t been progress. Herman Cain represents the Booker T. Washington tradition and that’s one reason why he’s such a natural fit in the Republican party.
And so does Clarence Thomas. There’s a wonderful scene in Thomas’s memoirs. When he was just a little kid growing up in abject poverty (his mother could barely put food on the table), he and his brother were left homeless by a fire. His grandfather agreed to take them in. He told Thomas, then seven years old and hardly living the good life, that his “damn vacation is over.” Thomas’s grandfather believed in backbreaking work. “Never let the sun catch you in bed.” I have never met a conservative who doesn’t eat that stuff up.
Yes, of course, there are plenty of hardworking liberals and slothful conservatives. My only point is that the rhetoric of conservatism has frequencies that liberals have a hard time hearing. What they think is a dog-whistle about race is in fact clarion call about the virtues of work, for blacks and whites alike.
We’ve seen a variation of this in Wisconsin during Recallarama. Democrats persist under the delusion that all jobs, private-sector or public-sector, are alike. They are not. The economic benefits of public-sector jobs are canceled by the tax costs of those jobs. At best, public-sector jobs are an economic wash. (And public-sector jobs are not “public service,” because “service” means doing something for no reward. Public employees are paid.)