Among the many questions about the new presidency of George. Bush with which the lips of Washington were afroth this spring was whether Lee Atwater is for real. The thirty-seven-year-old head of the Republican National Committee who made the name of Willie Horton as familiar to American households as the Domino’s Pizza gremlin is one of the few genuinely interesting people in an administration that seems chiefly notable for its skills in paper shuffling. Mr. Atwater is a gifted amateur guitar player, an assiduous student of the political thought of Aristotle and Machiavelli, and an utterly pitiless political consigliere whose genius at designing electoral landslides for the aspirants wise enough to hire him derives from his understanding that citizens usually vote against, rather than for, a candidate. But the question that Washington pundits were pondering this year had less to do with Mr. Atwater’s musical talents, his philosophy, or his skills as a campaign Svengali, than with the honesty of his announced commitment to lead black voters out of their bondage in a Democratic Egypt toward the promised land of the Grand Ole Party.

Mr. Atwater would seem to be an unlikely Moses. The native South Carolinian began his political career as an intern for Sen. Strom Thurmond, and many of the clients whom he has favored with his professional counsel over the years have probably wondered if Mr. Thurmond, in his later career, had not gone a bit soft on the civil rights issue. In the 1970’s Mr. Atwater was an enthusiast for a conservative-Republican strategy that sought the votes of what he called “the populists . . . lower- and working-class whites” whose “chosen leaders were hard-core segregationists.” Having done his part in making this strategy a success through the solidification of formerly Democratic white Southern or ethnic workingclass voters in the Republican presidential constituency, Mr. Atwater would appear to be entirely at sea in any serious effort to sway the political hearts and minds of black citizens.

Nevertheless, Mr. Atwater embarked on his mission manfully. He denounced ex-Klansman David Duke in Louisiana and eagerly accepted an invitation to join the board of trustees at historically black Howard University. But when Howard students exploded in protest of Mr. Atwater’s appointment (as well as of the crumbling walls of Howard’s dormitories), the shadows of reality began to creep across his vision of a color-blind Republican Party.

Mr. Atwater, of course, did not invent the idea of “luring” (as Republican strategists often put it) blacks into GOP ranks. Back in the 1970’s his predecessor at the RNC, Bill Brock, also talked about it, and more recently the idea has become a staple of the Republican banquet oratory of George Bush, Ronald Reagan, Newt Gingrich, Jack Kemp, and Bill Bennett, among other stalwarts of the party.

Their strategy is simple and appealing. As Mr. Atwater himself puts it, “we have entered into a post-civil rights era, civil rights are not the driving force,” and a growing black middle class will find a party that appeals to its economic interests, long thwarted by liberal paternalism, attractive. With few memories of segregation and with fundamentally conservative values on the family, crime, schools, and neighborhoods, middle-class blacks ought to recognize that the future belongs to the party of Lincoln. Whatever the errors of the Republican past, such as some very strenuous and unpleasant opposition to civil rights legislation, American blacks should see that only the Republicans can realize Martin Luther King’s dream of judging people by the content of their character rather than by the color of their skins.

The exponents of this strategy can adduce an impressive string of black community leaders and intellectuals to support it. But there are a few inconvenient truths about blacks in contemporary America that ought to cool Republican and conservative enthusiasm for the strategy. The insurgency against Mr. Atwater at Howard University this spring suggests some of them.

The students who seized buildings at Howard, prevented Mr. Atwater from speaking, and refused to shut up or sit down or go away until he resigned from the board were about as middle class in their backgrounds as blacks in the United States today can be. They also were intensely aware of the racial ambiguities of Mr. Atwater’s political biography. They knew all about the Willie Horton business and showed no appreciation for the lame line that Horton’s race was not explicitly mentioned in the original TV ads. Mr. Atwater is anything but a fool. He knew he had walked into a trap and that if he hung around trying to explain himself, he would be strung up by his heels and exposed. His whole strategy and plans for the next several years would be washed away in the next few days. He therefore did what any astute disciple of Machiavelli would do; he resigned and thereby defused the whole issue. The students went back to their dilapidated dormitories in the belief they had routed the foe.

Mr. Atwater’s embroglio at Howard ought to suggest to him and other Republican strategists that the black middle class is not about to desert the party and the programs that created it, and that it is deeply aware that the party is Democratic and the programs socialist. “Middle-class blacks,” say political scientists Michael Dawson of the University of Michigan and Gary Orefield of Chicago, “more than poor blacks, have been the beneficiaries of court and legislative interventions in the private sector, moving up the economic ladder on affirmative action programs, minority set-asides and other programs often opposed by Republicans.” They point out that middle-class blacks, far more than whites, have benefited from direct government employment. “A much higher percentage of blacks have achieved middle-class status through the public sector than whites.” Whatever the black middle class might think about the social and moral issues, economically it wouldn’t exist without democratic socialism and its legacy, and its support for free-market, small-government candidates and ideas would be tantamount to class suicide.

Moreover, say professors Dawson and Orefield, middle-class blacks are more conscious of racial and housing discrimination than poor blacks. After all, it’s the former who are trying to move out of the inner city and into white neighborhoods, and it’s probably fair to infer that black racial consciousness is most intense among the middle class. Just as nationalism served the psychic, social, and political needs of the Euro-American bourgeoisie in the 19th century, so a species of racialism (sometimes none too subtle) serves black middle-class aspirations today.

But the Republican strategy to attract black votes ignores this consciousness, just as it ignores American national consciousness in its prattle about “global democracy,” human rights, and a global economy. Mr. Atwater, Jack Kemp, Bill Bennett, and Newt Gingrich love to talk about the Lincoln legacy and the ideals of Martin Luther King, but that legacy and those ideals, at least in popular mythology, are liberal, egalitarian, and universalist. The racial consciousness espoused by black leaders such as Jesse Jackson is a horse of another color. It doesn’t want to integrate with white institutions but to legitimize nonwhite ones. It doesn’t want to join Western culture but to extirpate it. It doesn’t want to share and share alike, as nice liberals and neoconservatives want, but to dominate. That’s why Mr. Jackson ran around with explicit racists like Louis Farrakhan, and that’s why Mr. Farrakhan can meet comfortably with explicit white racists like Tom Metzger.

It’s also why Mr. Jackson wants blacks to start calling themselves “African-Americans,” in the tradition of Stokeley Carmichael and Rap Brown. It’s a label that helps to delegitimize black inclusion in American society and to formulate a new identity based on racial solidarity with the nonwhite peoples of the world. Dr. King himself planted the seeds of this growth with his observation, in his Letter From the Birmingham Jail, that the American black in the civil rights movement “has been swept in by what the Germans call the Zeitgeist, and with his black brothers of Africa, and his brown and yellow brothers of Asia, South America and the Caribbean, he is moving with a sense of cosmic urgency toward the promised land of racial justice.” But you can’t ride the tiger of racial consciousness for long before it slips its reins and begins hunting for something other than the right to sit in the front of the bus.

American blacks are indeed rejecting liberalism, as are American whites. But that doesn’t mean that either group will find the universalism and egalitarianism that today travels the country under the name of conservatism any more to their taste. In regurgitating the premises of the same indigestible liberalism, Mr. Atwater and his wunderkinder at the Republican National Committee are walking into a trap that Aristotle and Machiavelli would have been wise enough to avoid.