Skip to content

…And If You Don’t Know, Now You Know…

2010 October 3
by Matthew Hunte

There are people in this country who are adamantly opposed to every item of what they call the gay lifestyle or the gay agenda and yet they insist they are not homophobic. They may not be homophobic but if there is nothing about gay life, never mind gay marriage, if there is nothing about gay life, about the way gays live or the rights gays want, about adoption, about health benefits or about- none of this; If they oppose all of this, even if they are nothomophobic, they will have to explain that they are not homophobic. Similarly, there were Southern Democrats opposed to every Civil Rights Bill that ever came before Congress, insisting that they were not racists and some were not racists…But those people had to expect that they would be accused of being racists and had to explain why they were not racists and if they explained it plausibly, then they were cleared of the charge.

Leon Wieseltier, 2010

In a recent article for the Washington Post, AEI scholar and University of Virginia associate professor Gerard Alexander sought to dispel what he felt was the false association liberals have made between conservatism and racism. The framing of the issue was a sign that Alexander was perhaps not terribly interested in a candid examination of the issue; instead he was primarily presenting an apologetic, with more warmth than heat. It’s only the arguments which count and to illuminate the public, Alexander has posited an alternative theory of postwar American political history.

Alexander acknowledges the conventional narrative, which regardless of its interpretation, is generally accepted :

“The narrative usually begins with Barry Goldwater opposing provisions of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and with Richard Nixon scheming to win the presidency through a “Southern strategy” — appealing to the racial prejudice of working-class whites in the South to pry them away from the Democratic coalition assembled by Franklin Roosevelt….Wooing them entailed much more than shifting the party slightly away from Democrats on racial issues; in return for political power, Republicans had to move their politics and policies to where bigots wanted them to be. This alliance supposedly laid the foundation for a new American politics.”

For the rest of the article, he doesn’t so much refute it as he ignores it. I will examine some of the key claims Alexander makes before expanding to explainwhy, for many, conservatism is synonymous with racism.


Alexander nicely sums up his views in a single paragraph, which I will examine line by line.“First, it assumes that Republicans depended on white Southerners to become politically competitive in the 1960s. Second, it assumes that Republican presidents from Nixon forward swayed these voters by giving them the policies they wanted.

Third, it assumes that the modern conservative policy agenda is best seen as racially motivated. Finally, it assumes that conservative positions on recent controversies are just new forms of that same white-heartland bigotry.” This succinct statement has great implications which need to be unpacked for clarification; I will examine the first two directly and the other statements in a more diffuse manner.


    “First, it assumes that Republicans depended on white Southerners to become politically competitive in the 1960s.” A subtle but important distinction must be made : While Republicans didn’t depend on white Southerners, Conservatives did, not just to be ascendant within the GOP but also to construct an enduring political coalition. Alexander insinuates that the terms “Republican” and “conservative” are completely interchangeable; while that maybe be true in 2010, it certainly wasn’t in the 1950s and 1960s. When forced to delve into (the often interminable) discussions of intellectual/political taxonomy, it is useful to refer to this heuristic : “The notion that political parties retain some kind of essential, stable (and nationally uniform) character over time — and that these hypothetical lineages should have any determining effect on contemporary voter preference — is dishonest and idiotic.” John Lindsay and Barry Goldwater were both Republicans; Fannie Lou Hamer and George Wallace were both Democrats. What does one make of this?
    This bias for “presentism” underlays another argument, that the GOP had a higher percentage of votes for the Civil Rights Act. Thankfully, Alexander doesn’t put forward this line of reasoning; however, this is because he avoids addressing this time period. This is the breakdown of the Civil Rights Vote of 1964; as we can see, this was a breakdown along regional lines :
    House bill:
    Southern Democrats: 7-87
    Southern Republicans: 0-10
    Northern Democrats: 145-9
    Northern Republicans: 138-24
    Senate bill:
    Southern Democrats: 1-20
    Southern Republicans: 0-1
    Northern Democrats: 45-1
    Northern Republicans: 27-5

The Dixiecrats, in perhaps their final hour, voted overwhelmingly against the bill, which was put forth by a president from their own party and a fellow Southerner as well.

In 1995, at the perhaps the apex of conservative rule in America, Michael Lind wrote :

“When the new Republican Congress was sworn in last January, the South finally conquered Washington…all but one of the new leaders of the Republican Congress hail from a former state of the Confederacy: Speaker Newt Gingrich is a Georgian, House Majority Leader Dick Armey and Whip Tom DeLay are both Texans and Senate Majority Whip Trent Lott is from Mississippi. Only Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas remains as a fossil of the era in which the GOP was a party of the Midwest and the Northeast that seldom received a Southern vote. Strom Thurmond, the 1948 presidential candidate of the segregationist States’ Rights Party, the so-called Dixiecrats, is now chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee–a grim irony, inasmuch as the integration of the armed forces was one of the reforms that inspired Thurmond to bolt from Harry Truman’s Democratic Party in the first place.”

It should be noted that when Dole retired from the Senate in 1996 , he was replaced by Trent Lott…. One would think a brief examination of the regional affiliations of most of the Republican leadership would suggest that the South’s influence on the party, and it’s rightward turn, is significant. Indeed, not only is the South the heart of the Republican Party, arguably America politics assumed its shape over the past forty years. Yet Alexander argues that the South was just a late, nonessential addition to a solid coalition.

Here, Alexander tries to play a zero-sum game, claiming that the South was irrelevant to the rise of the Conservative movement because they didn’t vote for Nixon overwhelmingly until 1972. The point is they had left the Democratic Party, which by itself was a major boost to the Republicans. Nixon only won 43% of the vote in 1968

(and as I’ve mentioned, to isolate the fallout from the racial conflicts to the Deep South is highly misleading. The only reason the Deep South didn’t go to Nixon, who was clearly courting them is that Wallace ran to his right on race issues, i.e. he was a more fervent support of what is euphemistically termed “States’ Rights.”)

Alexander seeks to strengthen his argument by arguing that the South was already part of a winning conservative coalition, thus eliminating the necessity of a “Southern Strategy,” which be addressed later on :

“Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour (R) recently argued that race did not play a central role in the partisan shift in the South, saying the transformation was led by a younger generation of Southerners in the post-segregation 1970s. But the best evidence that things other than race mattered most in the shift was that it was an even older generation that moved to the GOP in the peripheral South. By the time Lyndon Johnson reportedly remarked that the Civil Rights Act would deliver the South to the Republicans for a generation, the GOP had already won nearly half the region’s Electoral College votes three times in a row.” (Rachel Maddow was not impressed however.)

There is an element of truth to this assertion: the South, mainly the upper South and Florida, did start trending Republican in the fifties. While Alexander stretches his time-line just enough to dilute the impact of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which wasn’t when race first met politics, he avoids going so far back that he’d have to account for another seminal event: the 1948 Democratic Convention. This is where the Democratic Party, inspired by a rousing speech from then Mayor of Minneapolis Hubert Humphrey, inserted a civil rights plank into the party platform. President Truman had desegregated the military that very year. The segregationist Southern Democrats protested and later hosted their own convention, where Senator Strom Thurmond was nominated to run on the Dixiecrat ticket, peeling off votes from Truman’s re-election bid. Thurmond ultimately joined the Republican Party in 1964 because he felt the Democrats were getting too liberal on race. But of course the Sixties don’t count.


“Second, it assumes that Republican presidents from Nixon forward swayed these voters by giving them the policies they wanted.”

Actually, they had to do the swaying to attain office in the first place. Nixon was forced to make concessions to the Southern wing of the Republican party to get the party’s nomination, and to fend out a late challenge at the convention from the preferred conservative candidate, Ronald Reagan. According to Garry Wills in Nixon Agonistes :

“ Only the South added Republican strength in 1964 when Goldwater ran at the top of the ticket; and convention votes are apportioned to the states according to their performance in the last national election. Moreover, each state that gave its electors to Goldwater – and only Southern states did – got a bonus of six extra votes. This meant that the Southern states had a whopping 316 votes to cast in Miami. Add Arizona and Texas, and he total came to 388 votes. If Nixon could add a border state like Maryland (by adopting its governor), he would be bargaining for a package of 414 votes (with only 667 needed to nominate him.)”

Just prior to the convention in Miami, Nixon told the Southern delegation, lead by Strom Thurmond,“he would not run an administration which would ‘ram anything down your throats,’ that he opposed school busing, that he would appoint ‘strict constitutionalists’ to the Supreme Court and that he was critical of federal intervention in local school affairs”. He also promised not to select a liberal running mate, thus ruling out Lindsay or the recently-elected anti-war Senator from Oregon, Mark Hatfield. As Wills put it “If Nixon gave more,more flamboyantly, to the South, that was because the whole convention hinged on the south. Others he could soothe or try to placate; these delegates he had to serve.” The Republican platform at Miami in 1968 did not include a plank on civil rights, instead substituting a single phrase : “ ‘We pledge…energetic,positive leadership to enforce statutory and constitutional protections to eliminate discrimination’”.

Alexander writes,“Nixon made more symbolic than substantive accommodations to white Southerners.” Queue Dennis Wrong: “Political leaders, in office or out, frequently talk one way and act another or follow inconsistent policies regardless of their rhetoric. The achievements of politics are often symbolic ones- which is not to diminish their significance.” This is an amazing concession from a supposed defense. Alexander continues:

“He enforced the Civil Rights Act and extended the Voting Rights Act. On school desegregation, he had to be prodded by the courts in some ways but went further than them in others: He supervised a desegregation of Deep South schools that had eluded his predecessors and then denied tax-exempt status to many private “desegregation academies” to which white Southerners tried to flee. Nixon also institutionalized affirmative action and set-asides for minorities in federal contracting.”

At this point I am wondering whether Alexander is trying to vindicate Nixon by arguing that he wasn’t in fact a conservative; probably not but he would have a case. Wills put forth the case he was ‘The Last Liberal.’ Certainly, Nixon has been to the left of every president since him. But with Tricky Dick, things are never quite that simple.

Later in his first term, Nixon fulfilled a promise by nominating three southern conservatives,Clement Haynsworth, G. Harrold Carswell. and Herschel Friday to the Supreme Court. After the 1972 election, Nixon forced the liberal chairman of the Civil Rights Commission , Father Theodore Hesburgh,to resign. He also opposed the extension of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 in its original form,

In the area of school desegregation, Nixon had a mixed record, in large part due to his desire to shore up support in the South without alienating voters elsewhere. A week after his inauguration, school districts in the Carolinas and Mississippi were going to have their federal funds cut for not complying with desegregation. Nixon had White House Counsel, and Thurmond supporter, Harry Dent to arrange a 60-day delay. He also directed the departments of Justice and Health, Education and Welfare to request a federal court to postpone the desegregation of public schools in the South. In 1972, Nixon requested that Congress place a moratorium on school busing orders by Federal courts. The Republican platform of that year echoed Nixon’s position stating that “ ‘we are irrevocably opposed to busing…we regard it as unnecessary, counter productive and wrong.’”

Reagan was somewhat unlike Nixon in that he was a bona fide, ideological conservative. He opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the 1965 Voting Rights Act and the Fair Housing Act of 1968. He launched his 1980 presidential campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi, where Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney were killed,at the urging of Congressman Trent Lott, and regaled the crowd with his promise of support for “State’s Rights.” How likely is it that a man dubbed “The Great Communicator” was oblivious to the symbolism of his actions?

Once in office, Reagan attempted to weaken the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which he described to Laurence Barrett as “humiliating to the South,”though he eventually signed the extension into law, against the advise of then Assistant Attorney-General John Roberts. During the Reagan administration, the federal government has put hundreds of school desegregation cases on hold and supported tax breaks for Bob Jones University, in spite of its segregated status, which wasn’t lifted until 2000 after the controversy surrounding George W. Bush’s speech. However in Bob Jones University vs. The United States, the Supreme Court ruled that the IRS had the right to revoke its tax-free status stating “Racially discriminatory educational institutions cannot be viewed as conferring a public benefit within the [above] ‘charitable’ concept…” The sole dissenter was William Rehnquist, who Reagan would later elevate to Chief Justice.

Reagan fired three Democratic member of the Civil Rights Commission who criticized his administration’s positions, Mary Frances Berry, Blandina Cardenas Ramirez, and Rabbi Murray Saltzman, and failed to reappoint Mary Louise Smith, who succeeded George H.W. Bush as chair of the RNC, because her views were too ‘liberal.’ The controversy over this lead to a revamping of the way commissioners were appointed. He initially opposed a national holiday for Martin Luther King’s birthday before it passed Congress with a veto-proof majority. In 1988, he vetoed a bill to expand the reach of Federal civil rights legislation. In his 1984 landslide, Reagan received the lowest percentage of black votes of any Republican candidate, other than Goldwater, up to that time.


“For eight years, the movement has necessarily been on the lead-string of the left with Eisenhower Republicans in power, conservatives were, from every point of view a captive faction. They could protest, but there was no requirement on anyone to listen. They could counsel, but could not develop any direction of their own. They could plot, but as long as the GOP- their natural vehicle to power- was still running and was in the opposition’s hands, any direct bids for power were bound to fail. Worse still, they could not even build; for powerful forces among them fostered the down-the-line support of Republican leadership as a lesser evil. Now [election of Kennedy] the movement is provisionally emancipated. What it does and where it goes are essentially matters of its own choosing.”

Brent Bozell, National Review, 1960

This line contains the thread holding Alexander’s political narrative together:

“…Republican presidential candidates pried apart the New Deal coalition in the 1950s, with the performance of Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 and Nixon in 1960. This chronology has big implications.”


William Rusher, former publisher of the National Review presents this case in the Claremont Review of Books:

“At its founding, the Republican Party was hardly a conservative party in the typical sense. Abraham Lincoln led a party that smashed the institution of slavery, waged all-out war, suspended and amended parts of the U.S. Constitution, launched a hugely ambitious social program known as Reconstruction, imposed a short-lived progressive income tax, as well as creating a national banking system, a Department of Agriculture, and a system of land-grant colleges. Here’s how Lincoln himself, in his Second Message to Congress, characterized his party’s governing philosophy: ‘As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew.’

Though the party would change over the intervening years, it remained in a general way the party of activist government and progressive causes at least through the presidency of Teddy Roosevelt. Even Republican presidents Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover thought of themselves as progressives of sorts (“We are a nation of progressives,” Hoover once remarked), while President Dwight Eisenhower liked to call himself a “New Republican.

Not until the post-World War II period does the association of the word “conservative” with Republican become prevalent. Around this time a kind of conservatism begins to emerge in the intellectual world, led by such figures as William F. Buckley, Jr., Russell Kirk, and Frank Meyer, among many others.” He even adds later “The fact that President Eisenhower had made his peace with FDR’s New Deal, and in particular had no intention of rolling back Social Security, earned him the opprobrium of the editors of the National Review. Goldwater, in contrast, floated the idea of Social Security reform during his ’64 presidential campaign.”

In reality, Eisenhower was courted by both political parties, maintained the New Deal, expanding welfare and created the interstate high system via theNational Interstate and Defense Highways Act of 1956. Eisenhower’s farewell speech warning against the ‘military-industrial complex’, was hardly the type of rhetoric one expects from a die-hard conservative. As for the ideological significance that Alexander ascribes to his election, in an essay on Barry Goldwater in the Fall of 1964, Hans Morgenthau declared: “Eisenhower’s victories are but accidents without consequence in the history of the Republican Party.” (Goldwater described Eisenhower’s 1958 budget as “a bow to the siren song of socialism” and “government by bribe.”)

Since his argument is structured in a way to avoid the sixties, he can ignore the internecine struggles between the liberal Rockefeller Republicans and the Goldwater Conservatives for control of the party. This excerpt from Nelson Rockefeller’s Bastille Day Speech, prior to the 1964 Republican Convention, illustrates the divide :

“The transparent purpose behind this plan is to erect political power on the outlawed and immoral base of segregation…A program based on racism or sectionalism would in and of itself not only defeat the Republican party in 1964, but would destroy it altogether.”

(It would be remiss of me to not mention that Earl Warren of the notorious Warren Court was former Republican Gov. of California and was Thomas Dewey’s running mate in 1948. Indeed Dewey preceded Rockefeller as leader of the liberal Republicans and helped draft Eisenhower in 1952 to prevent conservative Senator Robert Taft from winning the party’s nomination.)

When Goldwater initially announced his presidential run in January of 1964, Jackie Robinson, who has featured prominently in Michael Steele’s re-branding efforts, wrote an article in the Saturday Evening Post titled “The G.O.P: For White Men Only?”Robinson saw “a striking parallel” between the Black Muslims and Goldwater Republicans: “Both groups want to detour from the highway to racial integration. Both groups feel they can reach their goals by traveling the road of racial separation.” Robinson also argued in the Amsterdam News that “the danger of the Republican Party being taken over by the lily-whiteist conservatives is more serious than many people realize.” He subsequently threw his full support behind Rockefeller, who he said “…has once again displayed his deep concern for justice and human right”, and became deputy director of his presidential campaign.

After the 1960 election, Barry Goldwater criticized Nixon for not trying harder in the South in the 1960 election, where he was dispatched to campaign for him. Part of the reason Nixon was reluctant to do so was because, at the behest of Nelson Rockefeller, the Republicans included a strong civil rights plank, calling for “aggressive action to remove the remaining vestiges of segregation in all areas of national life.” Goldwater referred to this as the “Munich of the Republican Party.” Four years later Goldwater showed no such reluctance and became the first Republican to win the Deep South since Reconstruction: 87% in Mississippi, 70% in Alabama, 59% in South Carolina, 57% in Louisiana and 54% in Georgia. This shift, along with the Voting Rights Act of 1965 exposed the inner contradictions of the New Deal Coalition. Nixon would be free of his inhibitions by 1968 and would actively seek to exploit the power vacuum in the South.

When Alexander writes “Liberal interpretations that portray modern conservatism as standing athwart the ‘rights revolution’ of the 1960s are hard pressed to explain the growing number of minority and female candidates favored by the conservative rank and file…” one is tempted to ask why black support for the Republican Party has cratered since the Sixties. It should hardly be noteworthy for the soi disant ‘Party of Lincoln’ to have minority supporters. (To be honest, The Party of Lincoln probably ended with the election of Rutherford B. Hayes and the Compromise of 1877 but that’s another story.) More precisely, why did the Republican party hemorrhage black support even as it started to gain support in the Southern states, with large black populations? In the 1976 election, even when Jimmy Carter carried most of his native South, he only won 46% of the white vote. It was his support from black voters which pushed him over the top.

Edward G. Carmine and James A. Stimson argued in “Issue Evolution: Race and The Transformation of American Politics” that the midterms in 1958, a great Democratic triumph, marked the last point at which black allegiance was fairly split between the Democrats and the Republicans. Following this, the outreach to the black community by J.F.K coupled with L.B.J’s legislation and Goldwater’s winning the 64 Republican nomination drove black votes to the Democrats. Eisenhower won 40% of the black vote in 1956, Nixon won about 32%; Barry Goldwater won about 6%. (When Rockefeller lost the nomination to Goldwater, Robinson threw his support behind the Johnson-Humphrey ticket, in large part because of his admiration for the Minnesota Senator’s stance on Civil Rights.)

There is another problem with this alternative history: if the New Deal Coalition had collapsed in 1952, how did the Great Society come into being? (Let’s assume that Johnson benefited disproportionately on sympathy votes for Kennedy.) Indeed, it could be argued that Johnson’s legislative agenda -the War on Poverty, Medicare/Medicaid etc.- marked the high-point for liberalism in the century. In the middle of a period of conservative ascendancy? Remember the reason L.B.J was able to get all that legislation through, not only because of his past experience in the Senate, was because his popularity at one point reached over 70% amongst Republicans. (Reagan argued that Medicare was a sign of creeping totalitarianism.) By shifting the time frame, Alexander is not only able to downplay the significance of the Civil Rights Movement and, amazingly given the thrust of his argument, the Conservative movement.


“The central question that emerges…is whether the white community in the South is entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail politically and culturally, in areas in which it does not predominate numerically. The sobering answer is YES — the white community is entitled because, for the time being, it is the advanced race.”

William F. Buckley “Why The South Must Prevail.” August 24,1957

It is ironic that a defense would be made of conservatism while steadfastly trying to avoid examining the people and institutions most responsible for creating it. Goldwater is mentioned once, William F. Buckley, pehaps the most important intellectual of the past half century, is merely cited as an example of Irish-Catholic assimilation into the white-protestant ideal of conservatism. (To be fair, very little scholarly interest is paid to conservatism from anywhere; most don’t know that Young Americans for Freedom was larger and more influence than Students for a Democratic Society.) Another , less prominent figure is the aforementioned William Rusher, who wrote an article for the National Review in 1963 which serves as one of the earliest articulation of a strategy for the Republicans to become competitive in the South:

  1. The Republicans had not been a national party since the end of Reconstruction. The Democrats had for years begun each race with an assured batch of delegates from the South. (By 1968, the entire South held 112 votes in the electoral college, where 270 were needed to elect. Border states bring the number up to 177- two thirds of the number needed to elect.) In the past, Democrats competed with Republicans for the rest of the country, not needing to win a majority there-only the amount that, added to the Southern bloc, would make a majority. (If the initial bloc goes as high as 112, they would need only 50 percent minus 111).
  2. The Republicans, accepting this situation, have traditionally had to “win big” in the rest of the country to offset this initial handicap. That meant they must look to large electoral blocs in the Eastern states as their one (fairly desperate) hope –whence the power of moneyed liberals in the Eastern Establishment of the party.
  3. But the Southern bloc has latterly been crumbling when it comes time to vote for a President (i.e., where prized Southern seniority in Congress is not at stake) – rumbling sometimes to Republicans (Ike in ’52, some states to Nixon ’60), or to third parties (Thurmond in ’48). What is more, the South has come unglued in some congressional and local races. The race issue mainly, but also suburbanization and industrialization, the loss of blind loyalty and the end of the Civil War, the increasing homogeneity of society through the nation, have led to this result.
  4. The Republican strategy needs re-figuring, given a chance to break into this bloc once denied them – that alone would make the Eastern states less vital.
  5. But an even greater calculation is necessary if one counts in the difficulty Republicans would have competing the Democrats for traditional centers of urban liberalism, weighed against the comparative ease with which conservative Republican could woo the South. Which leads to the prospect that
  6. Republicans can put themselves in the position of having the Southern bloc as a starting handicap; after again that, they can compete for the rest of the country, needing only that 50 percent minus (say) 111. This number can easily be made up in the Old Republican areas of the Midwest and the new Republican West, without any need for the Northeast.

Just few years later, Kevin Philips, author of The Emerging Republican Majority, and Pat Buchanan would incorporate this into Nixon’s successful 1968 campaign, before perfecting it in time for the 1972 landslide re-election. Importantly, one should not assume that racial conflict was purely a Southern issue; indeed, Martin Luther King claimed his toughest campaign was in Chicago, fighting against segregated housing in a city dominated by the Democratic machine of Mayor Daley and his now upwardly mobile white ethnic supporters, who would eventually morph into the “Reagan Democrats”, finally ending the New Deal coalition. The various riots in Northern cities during the mid to late sixties and the later clashes over busing in particular show this is misleading. A significant reason for the collapse of the New Deal coalition with the abandonment of ethnic whites in the North. Pat Buchanan laid out in an interview :

“What we talked about, basically, was shearing off huge segments of F.D.R.’s New Deal coalition, which L.B.J. had held together: Northern Catholic ethnics and Southern Protestant conservatives—what we called the Daley-Rizzo Democrats in the North and, frankly, the Wallace Democrats in the South.”


One of the secrets of the New Deal coalition was that it was held together in large part by acquiescing to the demands of Southern Democrats, by excluding blacks from access to many of the benefits. Historian Linda Gordon recounted this in a 2009 article :

“Because work relief was administered by local authorities, people of color found it much harder to get onto relief rolls. Those who did suffered further discrimination because they so often got lower stipends. In San Antonio whites needed $35 a month, the local relief administrators figured, while to Mexicans $12-15 represented a fortune because, it was alleged, all they liked to eat anyway was beans, grease and cornmeal. The same division prevailed in the southeast between whites and blacks or even between whites and “white trash.” When people of color got WPA work, they were often segregated into stereotyped, low-wage tedious jobs. The proportion treated in this way was greater in states with a high proportion of minorities, in New Mexico as well as Mississippi.”

Why did this happen? Roosevelt has to compromise with the Southern wing of the Democratic Party to pass his legislation and thus agricultural and domestic workers, where most minorities would have been categorized, were excluded from the best of the New Deal programs.

In a 2005 article for the Washington Post, historian Ira Katznelson, author of When Affirmative Action Was White wrote :

“The GI Bill adapted to ‘the southern way of life’ by accommodating itself to segregation in higher education, to the job ceilings that local officials imposed on returning black soldiers and to a general unwillingness to offer loans to blacks even when such loans were insured by the federal government. Of the 3,229 GI Bill-guaranteed loans for homes, businesses and farms made in 1947 in Mississippi, for example, only two were offered to black veterans… A full generation of federal policy, lasting until the civil rights legislation and affirmative action of the 1960s, boosted whites into homes, suburbs, universities and skilled employment while denying the same or comparable benefits to black citizens. Despite the prosperity of postwar capitalism’s golden age, an already immense gap between white and black Americans widened. ”

Given knowledge of this history,and the fabulous textbooks in Texas, this line “Many conservatives may support issuing school vouchers and shutting down the federal Education Department, but those positions concern which level of government should control schools — not whether government should pay for education for all” becomes more ominous. (italics added.) In any case, it is nice to know that conservatives do believe in having large education budgets. That’s socialism we can all believe in.


“First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says : ‘ I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’;who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season.’

Martin Luther King, Letter From A Birmingham Jail

Obviously conservative ascendancy didn’t come solely on the basis of race : The disastrous handling of the Vietnam War and crime were also key; theories of mono-causality are by their nature overly simplistic. There is nothing essentially racist about lowering the marginal-tax rates, eliminating Medicare or any other policy, no matter how vehemently one disagrees with them. However, opposition to many tenets of the New Deal/Great Society have taken on a racial tinge, and I say this as someone with great respect for the approach to public policy taken by the early neoconservatives, who were often unfairly maligned.

Using the metaphor of natural selection,political scientists Carmines and Stimson substitute the term “racial conservatism” for “racism.” They argue that “racial conservatism” was initially an adaption of western conservatism, not of Southern racism. This analysis seems to have some validity to me but misses a salient point, once we are done arguing the abstractions that classical conservatism was supposed to be wary of. The question of whether conservatism is inherently racist is besides the point, especially if, like me, you adopt Karl Mannheim’s definition of conservatism as “traditionalism become conscious of itself.”

The problem is that movement conservatism, with its defense of the status quo and veneration of the Ancien Régime , combined with its view of the federal government, furnished those not sympathetic to civil rights the arguments to support their position. The personal beliefs of politicians don’t matter as much as their actions in the public sphere: Barry Goldwater was personally opposed to segregation and supported the NAACP in Phoenix but he voted against the Civil Rights Act (the two young lawyers who supplied his legal argument against the Act were William Rehnquist and Robert Bork.) Goldwater and his ideological acolytes, some racist, some not, ultimately privileged their ideological and political purity over the lives of real people. Whatever was in their hearts, this much is irrefutable.
Perhaps Goldwater, essentially a romantic, thought a distinction could have been made between his position on civil rights legislation and those of the followers he acquired because of his, at the very least tacit, support for Jim Crow; it is entirely possible he was that naïve. But even if it is so, whether or not Goldwater and his intellectual comrades were standing on principle by not supporting Civil Rights, and many of them were, the fact remains that they were tacitly supporting Jim Crow. While conservatives were “Standing athwart history yelling STOP!” Martin Luther King was arguing “Why We Can’t Wait.”Examination of the efficacy of welfare is a policy issue; perpetuating the trope of the black welfare queen, driving around in a pink Cadillac, living off the hard work of (white) taxpayers is political.

Regardless of their critiques of welfare, the minimum wage or busing, some of which I have sympathy for, if they continue to make disingenuous arguments such as this, conservatives will have to account. They still don’t get why folks who support the enforcement of existing immigration laws are concerned that some people would be targeted because of their phenotype; they are oblivious to the possibility that they are supporting not only anti-illegal immigration activism but anti-Mexican nativism. They still don’t get how some people would question their motives when they claim to be sacrificing American blood and treasure to save Muslims in Babylon while trying to, not so subtly, dissuade them from exercising their rights in Manhattan; back then it was “States’ Rights”, now it’s “their deeper distance from American sensibilities” and “the insensitivity…to 9/11’s emotional legacy”. What ever became of the vaunted commitment to individual rights?

(This is tangential but I couldn’t help myself: “There is no doubt that the contemporary Republican electorate contains some out-and-out bigots, just as the Democratic electorate contains people who hate others on the basis of class.” Because rich people are persecuted in America?)

For a more candid reflection on the issue of conservatism and race, William Voegeli wrote an essay in the Claremont Review of Books which explores William F. Buckley’s evolving views on race and civil rights. Also Ramesh Ponnuru wrote a piece in the National Review reacting to Rand Paul’s comments on the constitutionality of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Robert A. George also wrote an article back in 2000 about George W. Bush’s attempts to court black voters. Though I don’t agree with everything (most times I don’t even agree with myself), these pieces try to grapple with the issues and attempt for some type of reconciliation, instead of taking the easy way out and distorting history. As they say in down in the islands “You can’t play sailor and ‘fraid powder.”

”You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘Nigger, nigger, nigger.’ By 1968 you can’t say ‘nigger’ — that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites…And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I’m not saying that. But I’m saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me — because obviously sitting around saying, ‘We want to cut this,’ is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than ‘Nigger, nigger.”’

Lee Atwater, 1981

…and if you don’t know, now you know…

8 Responses
  1. Lee permalink
    October 4, 2010

    RE the Southern Strategy: I get pissed whenever Liberals mention it, because of its truth and the deeper fault with the reasoning. The South’s Conservative roots are not necessarily racist, in the same way that Phillies fans are not necessarily battery-throwers or Santa-booers. That the two are associated there can be little doubt. But, to die hard adherents of either cause, the knuckleheads–a numerical minority–make us look bad. And in both cases they miss greater forces behind fundamental beliefs. To say I’m racist because I’m generally against welfare, and many blacks are on welfare, is a chicken-or-egg proposition–which comes first? Am I also reverse-racist because I dislike white trash people getting handouts too? CF. Lebron James/ President Obama criticism-as-racism bolshie. Not doubt many crackers hate their blackness, but far more, I hope and pray, dislike the former’s greedy mercantilism and the latter’s gigantification of an economically insupportable welfare state.

    The issue of race in this country is so fraught, so f___ed up, that, well, I hate it. I reject differences of race as scientifically/etymologically inaccurate, and leave it at that. This leaves me open to accusations of ignoring capital R racism inherent in capital S society. Point given–but I’ve grown up my whole life hearing relatively privileged white people decrying racism and sexism without seeing a ton of evidence of the same. In fact, hearing about the race-neutral world we should all live in confused me when it seemed like, superficially, the evil sterotypes I must-not-perpetuate had some traction in real life. To brand any criticism of black behavior is racist seems lazy to me. And to tar (pun intended) my party with the same is dangerous, because it belittles genuine critics’ points as unserious, atavistic. The bill will come due in a month or so, and no bailouts are forthcoming.

    • October 4, 2010

      Um? Seriously? Despite the fact that this comment lacked basic grammar, you’ve just proven to everyone reading this that racism runs rampant in this country, and the worst offenders are people like you, who rant about your white-guilt and then close with something about tar, while intending the pun. Wow.

    • October 4, 2010


  2. Karl Steel permalink
    October 5, 2010

    to say I’m racist because I’m generally against welfare, and many blacks are on welfare, is a chicken-or-egg proposition–which comes first?
    And more whites are on welfare. Your connection of welfare to blacks is at the least statistically suspect.

  3. Matthew Hunte permalink
    October 5, 2010

    A Free Associative Response (@Lee. Sorta)

    1. Nice to see you’re venting your inner Norman Podhoretz! (Sorry about the bike though.) Let’s not forget that this was primarily the critique of some analysis rooted in a historical argument. I was less interested in showing that the beliefs with relation to politics and racism were true but whether they were justified; not a wholesale condemnation but certainly a shifting of the burden of proof. I was somewhat hemmed in, all things being relative, by the impetus for the piece.

    2. I was not providing a critique of the political ideology per se but of a particular movement and of specific political actors. As I pointed out, Nixon essentially continued many of the Great Society programs; whether that would have continued in his second term we’ll never know for sure. The targets of my philippic were the members of the conservative movement, not completely synonymous with conservatism, who framed their critiques of the welfare state that in order to exploit pre-existing racial tensions. This isn’t true across the board : George Wallace was initially a New Deal Liberal who refused to join the Dixiecrats in 1948; Perhaps the most fervent Republican supporters of civil rights, was one of the fathers of supply-side economics, Jack Kemp.

    3. As such, I wasn’t able to really delve into issues like busing which are (were?) racially charged but aren’t amenable to simplistic dichotomies. While browsing through a symposium on George Scialabba, I discovered this trenchant passage from Christopher Lasch: “The wrongs suffered by black people in America were so glaring and their demand for reparation seemingly so compelling that advocates of busing found it impossible to admit that white workers had important grievances of their own, especially when those grievances were couched in the idiom of racial abuse and championed by leaders who exercised no control over their own followers.” What we see here is essentially a lack of empathy- as opposed to sympathy- and ultimately this is my grand target.

    4. Dennis Wrong : “the strength of conservatism lies in the emotional attachment of mortal men to the world as they have known it, in an only apparently irrational conviction that “what is,is right,” which actually implies the unspoken major premise that it is right because it is.”  He continues “It’s strength has been habitually underestimated by the Left, even within the Left’s own constituency of the deprived and oppressed; the  naturalness of conservative emotions is too often facilely dismissed  as indoctrination…or more pretentiously, as false consciousness…”

    5. It is a mistake to reduce the South to just race, even though that issue is inextricably linked to it as are its even more pervasive caste/class system, as anyone who has even skimmed Faulkner would know. The South’s conservatism is rooted could in large measure in its rural setting and agrarian culture; essentially the divide between North and South mirrors that between Hamilton and Jefferson. (Lets not forget that New York also had a history of slavery.)

    6. Note this line from the beginning of the Southern Agrarian manifesto, I Take My Stand: “Even the apologists of industrialism have been obliged to admit that some economic evils follow in the wake of the machines. These are such as overproduction, unemployment, and a growing inequality in the distribution of wealth.”  

    7. So while I concur that Southern conservatism is not necessarily rooted in its racism, without being glib, an argument could be made that the reverse is true, which is a greater distinction than is immediately obvious. This recognition doesn’t absolve any individuals of responsible for their thought or actions; the concept of personal responsibility is a farce if only applied to those without power, as often happens in political discourse.

    8. African-Americans, many of whom have roots in the South,  are in large part social conservatives, both relative to the rest of the Democratic coalition and in absolute terms. (However this is not reflected in support for the Republican Party. When Colin Powell was considering a presidential run in 1996, 60% of black identified as either conservative or moderate; only 8.7% identified as Republican.)

    9. Of course paradoxes abound; few institutions are more hostile to traditionalism, for better or worse, than laissez-faire capitalism, an insight few on the Right embrace other than some paleo-conservatives.

    10. I also “reject differences of race as scientifically/etymologically inaccurate.” But I don’t just leave it at that; just because race is nothing more than a social construct doesn’t make it any less real.

    11. This article in the Economist of Western vs. Southern Conservatism and racial politics is enlightening , no pun intended :

    12. This Damon Linker piece on Irving Kristol’s intellectual trajectory should make for somber reading :

    13. Here are interviews with Jason Deparle on welfare :
    14. Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s aphorism is useful to keep in mind during loaded discussions like this : “The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself.”

    15. These are some links find useful in the angle the race discussion has taken:

    John McWhorter :
    Richard Thompson Ford :

  4. Matthew Hunte permalink
    October 6, 2010

    This is a link to the above comment, with the hyperlinks :

  5. Matthew Hunte permalink
    October 14, 2010

    This is a discussion with Amy Wax, whose book is reviewed by John McWhorter in one of the links above :

  6. December 13, 2010

    Things you brought up a lot of sense.I like it! Greetings!

Comments are closed.