Since the beginning of the Obama era, we’ve seen the rise of a group of black Republicans, including figures like Allen West, Herman Cain, and Ben Carson, who defined themselves with extreme politics and outlandish rhetoric. Each was a flash in the pan—popular with conservative audiences but irrelevant to everyone else.
Tim Scott was the exception. A South Carolina state legislator who became a congressman—the first black Republican representative from the state since 1897—Scott has been in the U.S. Senate since 2013, when Gov. Nikki Haley chose him to fill the seat vacated by Sen. Jim DeMint. Last Tuesday, Scott completed his first campaign as a senator, and he won, entering history as the first elected black senator from the South since Reconstruction.
It’s worth a little background. Before his turn to national prominence, Scott had a modest history in South Carolina politics. He served on the Charleston City Council for 14 years until 2008, when he won a seat in the state House of Representatives. In 2010, following a vacancy, he announced a run for the 1st Congressional District, which includes his Charleston stomping grounds as well as most of the South Carolina coastline.
Scott entered the primary as a Tea Party politician. He opposed the Affordable Care Act and immigration reform, called for a flat tax, and demanded a balance budget amendment be added to the Constitution. On the strength of his campaign and connections to then-Sen. DeMint, he earned wide attention from national conservative groups, with endorsements from Sarah Palin, Eric Cantor, and Mike Huckabee. He won the primary, beating his opponent Paul Thurmond—son of Strom—by 36 points (68 percent to 32 percent) and walloping the Democrat in the general election.
Scott was a model Republican House member. He opposed the 2011 debt ceiling deal and the military intervention in Libya. He introduced a bill to strip the National Labor Relations Board of its power to stop employers from punishing workers who join unions by relocating, and another to deny food stamps to families whose incomes were lowered because a family member was participating in a strike. In the Senate, the 49-year-old Scott has followed a similar path, joining the Republican minority on most issues, pushing South Carolina’s interests (especially around military installations and veterans) and pursuing his own agenda, which is anti-labor and anti-spending.
At the same time, 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. “When I eat my Häagen-Dazs ice cream,” he joked during a riff against calorie labeling at this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference, “I want to enjoy those 1,292 calories, and all 100 grams of fat, in one sitting.”
That’s not to say Scott can’t employ the language of Sen. Ted Cruz and other more dogmatic conservatives. He just tends to avoid it. His preferred conservatism is less ideological and more practical, the kind that’s informed by experience more than anything. “My journey has been filled with potholes—I hit them all,” said Scott during a 2012 speech to the Republican National Committee, “But in America a kid born anywhere at anytime can rise to the level that he or she wants to go.” Scott recounted the story of a mentor who helped him as a struggling teenager, and who told him he could “think his way out of poverty” and achieve success. His message is focused on education, entreprenuership, and self-reliance. “Education and hard work are the closest things to magic,” is a typical Scott-ism, reflective of his entire approach to politics.
With that said, 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.
Which raises a question: If Tim Scott speaks in terms of a distinctly black conservatism, then why is he unpopular with actual black voters, who overwhelmingly voted against him in last Tuesday’s election?
Part of the answer is partisanship. Black Americans tend to hold more liberal views on government and are inclined to support Democrats, even if Republicans have a black candidate. Barring an extraordinary turn in South Carolina politics, there’s little chance Scott will ever win a substantial number of black voters.
But like any other group, black voters respond to rhetoric as much as ideology, and there, Scott has a problem. Scott doesn’t just echo Booker T. Washington in his language, he echoes him in his hands-off approach to racial injustice. The black conservatism of Washington doesn’t have a critique of white society—it focuses inward on the concerns of the community.
In the same way, Scott has said little on the racial controversies and civil rights issues of the last four years, from the killings of Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis to the death of Michael Brown and the explosion of anger and rage in Ferguson, Mo. It’s possible these omissions have harmed him with black South Carolinians, who might agree with him on an issue like education, but aren’t sure that he’ll represent their particular interests as black Americans.
But while this silence might hurt Scott with blacks, there’s a good chance it helps him with whites. It’s rare for black politicans to win statewide office, and it’s obviously rarer for them to win seats to the U.S. Senate; since Emancipation, only five blacks (including Scott) have been elected to the upper chamber of Congress.
One reason for this—besides simple racism—is that black politicians tend to represent black constituencies: Black mayors lead black cities, and black lawmakers are from black districts. In addition to material disadvantages—this often puts black politicians outside important donor networks, for example—it creates a key political problem: Because blacks are much more liberal than the median voter, black politicians are more likely to be outside of the political mainstream, making a statewide bid more difficult.
Put another way, the more a black politician is associated with black politics, the less likely she’ll escape city- and district-level politics. And the converse is also true—the less a black politician is associated with black politics, the more likely it is he’ll succeed beyond the local level.
I should say that this goes beyond Scott. Before Barack Obama was a national name, he was a University of Chicago law professor and state senator running against Rep. Bobby Rush for a House seat in a heavily black district. He lost, and afterward helped gerrymander his senate district to include more white voters, giving him a better path to the U.S. Senate. But what if he had won? Could Obama have made his way to statewide office from a House district in the South Side of Chicago? Or would he have been stuck, limited by the liberalism of his community?*
Given his start in Newark, N.J.—a mostly black, low-income city—you could call Sen. Cory Booker the exception to this dynamic. Or maybe not. Almost immediately after becoming mayor, Booker worked to raise his national profile, regularly appearing in media and arguably trying to untether his political identity from the city he was leading. The strategy worked, though at the cost of his reputation in Newark itself—the former mayor was all but repudiated in the most recent city election.
Tim Scott is a talented politician. But if he were a South Carolina Democrat—representing black voters—he may have never made it out of the statehouse, much less into Congress. His rise was faciliated by his Republican affiliation, his largely white constituency, and an almost colorblind conservatism. Ironically, his historic position as the first black senator from the Deep South since Reconstruction might only be possible because he doesn’t represent a black constituency.
Which is to say that the examples of Scott, Obama, and Booker raise a question: Can ambitious black politicians represent black people and thrive? Or is blackness a stigma they have to escape?
Correction, Nov. 11, 2014: This article originally misstated that Barack Obama ran for state senate after losing a House race. Obama joined the Illinois State Senate in 1997, three years before running for the House of Representatives in 2000. (Return.)