Tuesday, January 14, 2003

Quoth Mark Kleiman:

Glenn Loury makes an observation on the Trent Lott affair I haven't heard anyone
else make. While Lott was thrashing about madly in an attempt to keep his head
above water, he more or less offered to make concessions on various race-related
policy issues in return for support from African-Americans and those who identify
with their aspirations. That offer was not merely rejected, it was mocked. That seems
to Glenn to have been an unwise move, in purely interest-group terms.

That conservatives should have opposed any such deal is obvious. Lott's stepping
down was no great loss to them, and they certainly wouldn't have wanted to see
those concessions made. But why should Lott's overtures have been rejected with
such contempt by most of the black political leadership and its white allies? Was
it really so much more important to punish Lott than to secure practical advantage
from his misstep?

Even if his proclaimed rebirth as an anti-racist was insincere, he might still have
kept whatever deal he made. Now the Republicans have cast all their racist sins
onto this scapegoat, and neither he nor his party is left owing African-Americans

I haven't seen or heard the relevant Loury argument, so I can only comment on Mark's synopsis of it. The Bennie Thompson route would have been smart interest-group politics only in the shortest of short terms. To be seen to be cutting a deal of this sort with Lott would have left "the [left-progressive] black political leadership and its white allies" with their moral capital terribly diminished. This would amount to a public reconfiguring of race politics from a moral and a moralized issue into publiclu-acknowledged spolis system of interest-group politics. It would have made, for example, affirmative action come across as no different from the Robert Byrd National Gallery in West Virginia or Lott Air Force Base in Mississippi, or ADM's subsidies. The public knows and cares so little about those kinds of pork that they get through. There's a well-established base of opposition to affirmative action, and a largish group of people who are sympathetic to affirmative action despite finding it distasteful because they think it's the right thing to do. The latter would have been disspirited and alienated, and the former greatly energized, by this reconfiguring of the politics around affirmative action. For affirmative action to be publicly reunderstood as pure pork isn't in the medium- or long-term interest of affirmative action advocates; for civil rights groups to take on the public image of extortionists such as Sharpton isn't in their interest. The moral high ground is strategically useful.

I would add: this is as it should be. 'Tis better to at least try to make principled arguments in politics than to abandon the attempt...

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