An “Illiberal” Liberalism: Why Black Folk Can’t Get Ahead

Dr. Carl Ellis, Jr. analyzes how African Americans fit into the liberal/conservative debate.

While many people are loyal to a single news outlet in their homes, my wife and I take in a considerable amount of daily news from a variety of viewpoints – domestic and foreign, liberal and conservative, and much more. A few nights ago, Fox News featured an audience of African American citizens who identified themselves as “conservatives.”  What caught our ear was host Sean Hannity’s teaser for the show: he announced that African American conservatives “don’t enjoy freedom of speech” in their own country. With our curiosity piqued, we tuned in.

As we listened to the audience describe the disdain they experienced from fellow African Americans for their conservative affiliation, we realized that, experientially, we had much in common with them. We don’t personally subscribe to either the conservative or liberal ideology; we have as many agreements with both as we have disagreements.

Yet with few exceptions, one thing remains fairly consistent: when we express our disagreement with the prevailing “liberal” agenda, we’re often tagged with the same epithets that leftists use to besmirch these conservatives.

We seldom get this kind of reaction when we disagree with conservatives. We find this ironic, since by definition, to be “liberal” is literally to be “open to new ideas and willing to debate the issues.” However, our so-called “liberal” detractors have often proven themselves to be illiberal — that is, not open or willing to debate the issues.  Because they have a doctrinaire suspicion of differing ideas, they personally attack, insult, and marginalize those who disagree — especially conservatives.

It is clearer to me than ever, that we live in a climate dominated by political and social illiberalism. If I subscribe to the aforementioned definition of liberal, there is a question that must be asked before I can throw my hat into the conservative ring: “How ‘liberal’ will conservatives prove themselves to be?” While Mr. Hannity’s show covered much territory in its brief hour, this was the crucial question they failed to explore. I’m persuaded that without addressing the deeper dynamics, the current liberal/conservative debate will continue to be frustrated by the extremes on both sides.

A Tale of Three Cultures

In today’s America, there are at least three cultural distinctions; a dominant culture, a sub-dominant culture and a culture that’s mainstream. Before the late 1960’s, mainstream culture and White culture were virtually the same; Black culture was sub-dominant to the two. Today, mainstream culture is an amalgam of elements from both dominant and sub-dominant cultures.

As I see it, the greatest conflict lies in the differences between how the dominant and sub-dominant cultures operate.

The orientation of the dominant culture is toward preservation of things as they are; after all, our flawed human nature dictates a desire to cling to power. It’s not an American problem; the pattern can be seen globally as the dominant culture typically marginalizes many of the core concerns of the sub-dominant culture. Given our flawed human nature, this should come as no surprise.

The orientation of the sub-dominant culture is toward change; those without power want to gain it, and in order to do so, alteration of some sort must occur.

Historically, liberals have gravitated toward change while conservatives have gravitated toward preservation.

It’s Not What You Say, It’s How You Say It

It’s also significant to note the use of language in the discussion. While it is true that in general terms the values of African Americans are closer to conservatives, in terms of language and cultural orientation, Blacks respond more readily to liberals.

Today’s conservatives tend to use the language of the dominant culture, while today’s liberals tend to use the language of mainstream and/or sub-dominant culture.

Indeed, liberals have learned what conservatives have not: how to ‘speak’ to the African American diaspora, and by doing so appear to appeal to the community’s broad core concerns.

However, this appeal is often merely superficial, as it exists only on the level of language and visceral response. If we are to effect significant change, we as a community need to see beyond the language and deal with the substance.

If we dig more deeply beneath the surface of liberal rhetorical style, we would discover that not all public policies developed under the banner of “liberal” are helpful in addressing African American core concerns. In fact, some are destructive. Many who claim to be “liberal” push public policies that work against empowerment and encourage dependency, but the language they use makes it sound “right.” However, not everything that sounds right is right.

Similar things can be said of public policies that claim to be “conservative.” Yet conservatives still have many valuable contributions to make such as public policy proposals that take an empowerment approach.  Their message is muddied, however, by the dominant cultural language they employ. This makes their ideas sound mean-spirited and out-of-sync with African American concerns.

He who controls the language of the culture has the greatest power to shape the culture. As long as conservatives ignore this linguistic reality, attracting African Americans will prove to be a challenge; they will either continue with their current methods and insist that African Americans cross over to their ground (a difficult cultural leap for many), or write them off in favor of more easily persuaded minority communities.

I believe that if we are going to move forward as a community who has distinctive concerns in America, we need to evaluate political and social ideas as they stand on their own, without regard to their ideological association.

Principled Change

Like many liberals, sub-dominant independents like my wife and I have an interest in change. What we want to know is, according to what standard will change be effected? If change means bringing this society into greater fidelity with the transcendent core principles of true freedom, justice and equality – principles given by God in Scripture, then we have no problem standing with liberals in this cause.  This is principled change, and these principles have been the bedrock of our progress.  If, on the other hand, change necessitates discarding the core principles, then we oppose this ‘far-left’ brand of liberalism because this is change without principles, or unprincipled change.

Like many conservatives, sub-dominant independents like us have an interest in preserving our core principles. If this is the aim of conservatives, then we have no problem with standing with them in this cause. This is principled preservation.  If, on the other hand, “preservation” means propping up the existing unjust state of affairs, then we oppose this ‘far-right’ brand of conservatism because it is unprincipled preservation.

The true political and social distinction for African Americans should not be liberal verses conservative, but principled verses unprincipled.  The principled stance is the ideal position for positive change – the ‘sweet spot’ on which we can best operate.

The unprincipled are not committed to true freedom, justice or equality; they are after dominance and power.  If left unchecked, the unprincipled will be able to use the liberal or conservative cause as a Trojan horse for a corrupt and capricious agenda – people who will redefine and pervert the core principles accordingly.

Unprincipled (‘far-right’) conservatives seek power through preserving what’s left of the old unjust status quo.  This ultimately leads to entrenchment of oppression and permanent marginalization.

Unprincipled (‘far-left’) liberals on the other hand seek dominance and power through establishing a new unjust status quo. This ultimately leads to a government of men, not of laws.  We may be in the favor of the government today, but what recourse will we have if we fall out of favor tomorrow?

No matter which side we choose, if we don’t think critically, we will ultimately lose.

Conclusion

Any current discussion must take into account that today’s current liberal/conservative argument is geared to the dominant culture, not the sub-dominant. While I am encouraged to hear African Americans naming and discussing unfruitful public policy, African Americans should weigh out whether they want to be drawn into this conflict since the dominant culture currently makes it clear that our core concerns are not on their radar.

I, for one, am certainly eager for this discussion.

About the author, Carl Ellis Jr.

Dr. Carl Ellis Jr. is a theological anthropologist and Assistant Professor of Practical Theology at Redeemer Seminary in Dallas, Texas. Follow Dr. Ellis at his blog: drcarlellisjr.blogspot.com, and on Twitter: @CarlEllisJr.
  1. Insightful and helpful Dr. Ellis!