The Conservative Connection

Many conservatives oppose affirmative action while supporting school vouchers. Let’s take a look at the ideology behind both issues.

By Barbara Miner

-photo: Reprinted with permission

Why are prominent supporters of school vouchers some of the most vocal opponents of affirmative action?

Take any number of conservative think tanks, from the New York-based Manhattan Institute to the Washington, D.C.-based CATO Institute, and you will find them ardently organizing to support vouchers and oppose affirmative action. Ditto with conservative publications such as The Weekly Standard and The National Review and with conservative pundits such as William Bennett and Linda Chavez.

One could focus on the irony that conservative voucher supporters portray themselves as defenders of low-income Black and Latino children and then turn around and oppose affirmative action policies that would increase the college opportunities of these children a few years later.

But there’s more at work than irony, coincidence, or political opportunism. Both positions spring from a conservative worldview that glorifies hyper-individualism and harbors a deep antipathy toward the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s. What makes it difficult to untangle this worldview is that, particularly on affirmative action and school vouchers, conservatives have masked their attacks with populist rhetoric and have consciously linked “individual rights” to “civil rights.”

The conservatives have “redefined fairness to apply only to the individual, not to the group,” notes Jean Hardisty, author of the book Mobilizing Resentment: Conservative Resurgence from the John Birch Society to the Promise Keepers.

The conservative perspective rejects the broadly democratic, egalitarian definition of rights that guided the civil rights and other social movements. Instead, conservatives articulate a narrow, individualistic conception of equality based on the right to be free from, as the conservative Center for Individual Rights puts it, “a meddlesome, interest-group-infested government.”

The Center for Individual Rights has led the legal opposition to affirmative action and organized the lawsuits against the University of Michigan undergraduate program and law school – cases that will be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court by the end of June. Many of the organizations filing friend-of- the-court briefs opposing affirmative action – the CATO Institute, Center for Equal Opportunity, Pacific Legal Foundation, Reason Foundation, and Ward Connerly’s American Civil Rights Institute – are prominent supporters of school vouchers.

One of the links between their views on affirmative action and vouchers is financial: The groups all receive significant support from right-wing foundations such as the Bradley Foundation and the Olin Foundation. In recent years, according to the web-based watchdog group, the CATO Institute has received $15.6 million from conservative foundations; the Center for Equal Opportunity, $2.7 million; the Pacific Legal Foundation, $4 million; the Reason Foundation, $5.2 million; the American Civil Rights Institute, $3.2 million; and the Center for Individual Rights, $4.3 million.

There is also an ideological unity. Supporting their positions is the belief “that institutional racism doesn’t exist and that people rise and fall on the basis of individual merit and responsibility,” Hardisty said in an interview.

Under the conservative perspective, the government should not be involved in protecting and expanding the rights of groups historically subjected to discrimination. Instead, government should get out of the way and let individuals flourish.

Perhaps no one better articulates this bedrock conservative principle than Clint Bolick. And no one is more skilled at using the rhetoric of civil rights to turn back the clock on the gains of the Civil Rights Movement.


Bolick, co-founder and vice president of the Institute for Justice in Washington, D.C., is known to education activists as the country’s leading legal architect of school voucher programs. But he first splashed into the national limelight with his opposition to affirmative action.

It was Bolick, for instance, who wrote an opinion in the Wall Street Journal in 1993 that dubbed Lani Guinier a “quota queen” and helped scuttle her nomination to head the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. A few years later, he authored the book, published by the CATO Institute, The Affirmative Action Fraud: Can We Restore the American Civil Rights Vision?

In his book, Bolick argues that the number one myth in this country on race is that “racism permeates American life.” To the extent racism still exists, he argues, it is on an individual level that can easily be combated by existing civil rights laws. Bolick argues that to even talk of covert or institutional racism is “destructive” because it leads to racial polarization and, more importantly, treats people as members of groups and calls into question the core American value of individualism.

Based on his belief in individualism and the dangers of viewing oneself as a member of a group, Bolick writes in the book’s introduction that “before long I came to view these approaches – eradicating government race and gender preferences and promoting individual empowerment – as two sides of the same coin.”

In a brief he wrote for the Michigan affirmative action case, Bolick programatically connects these two sides of the coin. First, he argues that affirmative action exacerbates the educational problems of people of color because it creates “the cosmetic illusion of progress.” Second, he promotes his favorite alternative education reform – school choice programs like vouchers.


Sometimes conservatives couch their programs in terms of “individual choice” (the buzz word for vouchers). Sometimes it’s “personal responsibility” (and the alleged lack thereof that leads to welfare and crime problems). Sometimes it’s “merit” (as in, people who work hard get ahead, people who don’t, don’t).

Trying to find the core of the conservative argument that links their causes “is like taking apart a nesting doll,” Michael Apple, professor of Curriculum and Instruction and Educational Policy Studies at the University of Wisconsin- Madison, told Rethinking Schools. “You peel off one argument, and a related one appears.” But in the end, there is a connected set of conservative beliefs. They include the following:

  • Promoting individual rights and allowing individuals to make choices within a marketplace framework best ensures progress. (Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher most crassly articulated this individualist view in 1987 when she said in a magazine interview, “And, you know, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families.”)
  • People succeed or fail in society based on their own personal responsibility and merit.
  • Institutional racism is a figment of the liberal imagination and racism is merely a problem of overt prejudice by a few bigoted individuals – and what’s more, would probably disappear if liberals didn’t talk so much about race.
  • The government and civic institutions must adopt a strict “colorblind” approach, because to do otherwise promotes “reverse racism” and sets back the struggle for racial equality.
  • Government structures have been captured by “liberal elites” who shun traditional American values such as individualism and who promote dependency on government programs.

Conversely, conservatives avoid certain phrases, such as “white privilege,” “social justice,” and “public institutions.” And they assiduously ignore that social movements, not lone individuals, have invariably led the struggle for social justice and a more inclusive definition of democracy. (To name just a few: the abolitionist movement, the women’s movement, the labor movement, the Civil Rights Movement.)

“Think of this situation as something of a road map,” Apple writes in his book Educating the “Right Way”: Markets, Standards, God, and Inequality. “Using one key word – markets – sends you onto a highway that is going in one direction and that has exits in some places but not others. If you are on a highway labeled market,your general direction is toward a section of the country named the economy. You take the exit named individualism that goes by way of another road called consumer choice. Exits with words such as unions, collective freedom, the common good, politics, and similar destinations are to be avoided, if they are on the map at all.”

Apple says the conservative perspective is particularly limited as a vehicle for social change that will broaden our democratic institutions.

“With the conservative individual philosophy, we are just individuals, and by promoting our own self-interests, this will add up to lasting change,” Apple said. “That’s nonsense. The engine of social transformation has always been social movements.”

In fact, Apple argues, the conservative individualist philosophy actually sets back the struggle for reform: “If we view ourselves merely as informed consumers making a good choice, that makes it almost impossible to form a larger social movement.”

Barbara Miner ( is the former managing editor of Rethinking Schools.

Summer 2003