It's Time to Choose a Side
with John McWhorter
As of this writing, it appears that, following last week’s midterm elections, the Democrats will hold the Senate and Republicans will take the House. Both parties have control of their respective chambers by the slimmest of majorities. Neither can credibly claim to have a mandate. I’m not at all embarrassed to say that, on the whole, I support Republican positions on many of the most important issues facing us today. But then, I don’t really see much of a choice. Democrats have ceded most sensible positions to the Republicans and conservatives. But it’s worth remembering that it doesn’t have to be this way.
If Democrats get serious about containing urban crime, if they get serious about instituting a sensible border policy, if they get serious about tamping down racial demagoguery in their party, then I might have a hard decision to make when it comes time to cast my ballot. I’m not a partisan. I don’t have an a priori commitment to the Republican Party. I think the 2020 presidential election was legitimately decided. My vote is winnable, as are the votes of many, many, many people like me who chafe at the idea of “party loyalty” but nevertheless find themselves consistently voting Republican, because that seems right now to the be the only party that understands the direness of the situation in which we find ourselves.
In the following excerpt from our most recent conversation, I ask John why, given his antipathy to woke nonsense and his real concerns about upticks in violent crime, he supports the party that is at least in some measure responsible for both. John says he believes the Democratic Party to be, on the whole, more thoughtful and mature, more capable of governing than the Republicans. Perhaps that is so. But how much more thought, how much more deliberation is required to understand the most urgent problems now facing us? Enforce the law. It doesn’t require a lot of chin-scratching to do that. If one party is willing to do it and the other isn’t, I know who I’m voting for.
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GLENN LOURY: Okay, but I want to probe this political identity thing a little bit. So the Democrats, in your view, are better than Republicans. Here, let me play devil's advocate. People will realize that, of course, I have a great deal more sympathy for Republicans than you do. They will realize that from our previous conversations.
JOHN MCWHORTER: I should say that I felt like you did 20 years ago, maybe 15. But things have changed. Go ahead.
Trump. Trump probably, and MAGA. I'm guessing that that's what's pushed you in this direction. But I wanna talk about crime. What do you think about the Justice DAs? How about Larry Krasner in Philadelphia? How about this guy in Manhattan, I forget his name now. Bragg. How about Kim Foxx in Chicago? And what about the guy that was recalled in San Francisco, Chesa Boudin? And what about the guy down in Los Angeles who's in a similar spirit? There are others. And they have rescinded the use of cash bail and put a lot of people on the street who are dangerous and there's a crime spike and whatnot, and you've got a whole lot of rhetoric around what to do about crime.
Democrats have one point of view. I think it's clear, at least the outlines of it are clear. And if they deny defunding the police, they can't deny the fact that at the core of their constituency are a lot of people who want to defund the cops, and so on. And the Republicans have a different type. What about the border? Very clearly different sensibilities, not just concrete policies, but fundamentally different philosophies about the nature of the country. Have the Dems got the better of that? Do they? I don't know.
What about wokeness? You wrote a book called Woke Racism, for crying out loud. The guy that just got through getting a landslide Republican victory in Florida—I'm talking about Ron DeSantis—in his victory speech, said, “Florida is where woke comes to die.” He's running against the thing that you're against. He's a Republican, John. What about critical race theory, et cetera? What about the 1619 Project, et cetera? What about affirmative action as a bible and so forth? What about appealing to racial little peculiar identity things like appointing people based on their genitalia and their skin color to the US Supreme Court? You for it or against it?
So I'm confused, John. Is this Democratic thing a posture, or is it rooted in a Democratic Party preference? A posture on your part—excuse me, with respect—or is it rooted in a comprehensive assessment of what the party stands for and what you believe in yourself?
Yeah, I get it. It would be very advantageous of me as the the “contrarian controversial black thinker” to always say, “But I'm a Democrat” because I'm hoping that people won't be so mad at me. That would be very canny. But in this case, it is genuine. For one thing, I've always been. So it wouldn't be that I was a Republican for a certain time and then saw the light or something.
Frankly, yeah. I was raised by somebody who literally taught a course called “Racism 101” at Temple University in the '70s. So this is me bred to the bone, despite the fact that, because of my reserved manner, many people assume that I must be a conservative Republican and also because I worked for the Manhattan Institute. But the Manhattan Institute doesn't mean that you're a Republican, and talking like this and moving like this and laughing like this does not mean that you are a Republican.
Now, that's not what you're saying, but frankly it's what a lot of people are thinking. But the point is, which party seems better poised to be in the position of running a complex nation in a mature, thoughtful way at any time in the future? And so all the things you described, which I did write a book against, are one kind of Democrat who get a lot of attention and scare a lot of people because of the way they use language. And what I've tried to argue in Woke Racism is that we need to stop letting them scare us.
Signs are, and I vary from week to week on this, but signs are that what made me so angry as to write that book in ten minutes in 2020 is ebbing. It's beginning to pass. I think David Brooks was right the other day. Those people are winning in some sub-quarters, but people are getting tired of the sorts of things that happened in 2020. Those people are beginning to be on the ropes. And to the extent that they're not, still.
So, for example, I'm disgusted at the idea that there's no real crime problem, using the numbers to pretend that there's been no uptick or that nobody has any reason to be concerned in particular districts. The idea that you let dangerous people out onto the street, all with the tacit assumption that it's what society deserves because it's not really these people's fault that they're criminals, et cetera. I have no truck with any of that, what used to be called "root causes." That's what all this is. But it doesn't always have to be that way. There is pushback against people like that.
And Glenn, the question for you is, if it weren't the Democrats who were in control, if you're not gonna put your hat in with the Democrats and you're gonna put it in with the Republicans, what do you think they would do about crime? Because if I may, you spent an awful lot of time in your career arguing about over-incarceration. Do you think that the Republicans would not wish to do what somebody could ten years later call over-incarceration, and it would be disproportionately black and Latino people who were over-incarcerated?
I don't see that the Republicans would have better ideas. Yes, some. But the Republican party has been taken over by lunatics. So why would I put my hat in with them when I don't see any chance of them changing anytime soon? It doesn't seem like there's as much of a vigorous conversation among Republicans other than the two or three we know in the think tank world who have kept their sense. But in terms of votes, in terms of this mostly rural white population who are voting for them and also the new people who are coming on, what would motivate me to start pulling the lever for Republicans? I just can't see it. Especially now. I thought about it in the '00s. But now? I don't wanna have to explain why I'm voting for the party of Trump, even to myself.
Okay. Would they be tougher? What would the Republicans do? They'd be more pro cop. They'd be more anti-teachers union. They'd be tougher on criminals. More people would go to jail. They would be disproportionately black. They'd be criminals. Yeah, I wrote a lot about over-incarceration because we went from 500,000 in 1980 to two million at the turn of the century. In a 20-year period, we quadrupled the number of people under lock and key. Blacks were overrepresented amongst them. Our sentences were too long. We were too punitive. We overshot, in my opinion.
But I think the post-George Floyd upsurge in crime that's come out since the disorder in the summer of 2020, where we stood down, Republicans would've done what Tom Cotton wanted to do. They would've deployed muscular forces. What President Trump wanted to do, although he didn't have the authority to do it without the request from local officials, they would've deployed force on the streets to try to keep order. There would've been a deep punitive aspect to it.
You're asking me, now. You're asking me to choose between Portland or Minneapolis or Kenosha, Wisconsin or Milwaukee or Baltimore, Freddie Gray, or whatever on the one hand—the way it went down—and a tough-minded, pugilistic speech is being given by people in the White House and other local officials cracking down and locking people up who are behaving disorderly. I choose the latter. I choose the latter, unapologetically. I would be saving black lives by choosing the latter. I'd be preserving the integrity of our society and the security and safety of our people by choosing the latter. I don't have to apologize about that.
To the extent that my disgust at over-incarceration would've led me into a defund the police posture, I would've been very wrong. I go with Ralph Mangual. I go with Heather Mac Donald. I go with Roland Fryer. I think the anti-cop reaction has been an absolute fiasco and a disaster for black people. In the immediate effect, more dead black bodies in the cities. And in the long-term political effect, alienation of a silent majority of the American populace from an identification with the causes of these communities. So I think the cost of wokeness, the certitude of moral rectitude and the kind of self-righteousness with which people have pronounced that has led into absurdities like prison abolition as a policy. The cost of that to the people on behalf of whom such arguments are alleged to have been made will be reckoned in the fullness of time.
I think when I look at these cities ... look at Baltimore. Democrats have ruined it. Look at what's going on in Chicago. Read Ken Griffin, the financier billionaire guy whose Citadel hedge fund just moved out of Chicago and relocated to Miami. And they're gonna spend a billion dollars building a headquarters in Miami that could have been built in Chicago, because that city is becoming unlivable. Follow what the journalists who don't have their heads up their butts are actually saying about what's going on on the streets in Chicago. Democrats have ruined city after city. They ruined Detroit, et cetera. Rick Caruso for mayor of Los Angeles. Even some trendy left-leaning celebrity political funders in LA are beginning to line up behind the Republican. I guess he's not a Republican, actually. I think he used to be Republican, is now officially a Democrat. But he's a businessman developer versus the black political royalty congresswoman, Bass, who's running out there. I go with the Republican.