And the racialized element in conservative politics has also ebbed and flowed depending on the political situation. When I came to political awareness in the early 1990s, American politics was dominated by racially polarizing controversies over crime, welfare and affirmative action. But by the time I graduated from college, a decade later, those issues had receded, the major cultural controversies had changed and conservatism’s agenda under the younger Bush was consciously designed to win over at least some minority voters and leave the Lee Atwater era behind.
That change didn’t happen because the Republican Party was destroyed and refounded in 1999. It happened because the racialized issues dividing the country circa 1992 were somewhat successfully addressed by politicians of both parties, or else partly resolved themselves. The Clinton-Gingrich years brought compromises on welfare reform and affirmative action, successful policing strategies that helped bring down the crime rate, and an economic boom that made every policy debate seem somewhat less zero-sum. The subsequent turn to “compassionate conservatism” happened because these shifts happened first; the Republican voter base didn’t suddenly become perfectly racially enlightened, but the salience of race changed dramatically as crime rates fell and welfare was reformed.
And this shift was not just a case of white America making deals at black America’s expense and congratulating itself. Blacks as well as whites had a relatively optimistic view of race relations around the turn of the millennium, and that sentiment persisted until Barack Obama’s second term.