Tim Scott: Not a Ben Carson

One of the more interesting reads of the young week is Jamelle Bouie’s essay at Slate about U.S. Senator Tim Scott, who without a whole lot of national attention became the first African-American senator elected in a former state of the Confederacy (indeed, the first state of the Confederacy) since Reconstruction.

Bouie makes it clear that Scott doesn’t represent a big political breakthrough, since he receives the same mainly-white votes as any other Deep South Republican and does not give voice to a single non-conventionally-conservative policy view. But on the other hand, he identifies Scott with an authentic if somewhat anachronistic African-American conservative tradition. This separates him from the Alan Wests and Herman Cains and Ben Carsons who offer wild-ass conservative stylings that are gleefully hailed by white wingnuts who want to absolve themselves from the rather obvious racial implications of their policy views:

Scott’s political orthodoxy belies his overall persona. He’s not a firebrand. He doesn’t denounce President Obama or indulge the harsh rhetoric of other black conservatives, who win huge applause with attacks on the so-called “big government plantation” of the Democratic Party. Instead, he’s a happy warrior who connects to audiences with stories and humor, building a sense of shared agreement, not shared anger….

Scott isn’t pioneering a new kind of conservatism as much as he’s channelling an old tradition. Specifically, Scott is speaking in a language of black conservatism that would be familiar to figures like Booker T. Washington. “Every persecuted individual and race should get much consolation out of the great human law, which is universal and eternal, that merit, no matter under what skin found, is in the long run, recognized and rewarded,” wrote Washington in Up From Slavery, articulating a belief that could count Scott as an adherent.

That is a genuine contrast with other black conservatives, like Allen West, who traffic in a movement conservatism untethered from the black community. Go to a black church or barbershop, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find Republican-style boilerplate on taxes and “tyranny.” But you will hear people talk about self-reliance and community empowerment.

Bouie goes on to point out that while Scott represents a real African-American political tradition, he doesn’t get any more African-American votes than his white political colleagues.. He spends some time ruminating over that reality, and I’d condense it by saying that a Booker T. Washington approach only makes sense in a place where African-Americans are incapable of making just claims on the broader community. That was definitely true of America in the days of Booker T. Washington, and quite probably of South Carolina today.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.