At the 2012 Democratic National Convention, Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said the Republican platform “looks like the platform of 1812.” The following year David Brooks wrote: “You can define what kind of conservative a person is by what year they want to go back to.”
The claim that conservatives want to take the country back to some bygone era undergirds liberal talking points on most political and cultural issues, particularly those related to race, women, organized labor, and gay rights.
But the way liberals talk about these issues shows that it is they, not conservatives, who are nostalgic for the past. Many liberals seem to pine for the days when they had genuine and clear-cut injustices to fight — from inhumane working conditions to institutionalized discrimination against women and minorities.
The civil-rights movement was a moral response to an objectively evil system — one in which black Americans were anchored to the bottom of what civil-rights historian Taylor Branch called a “formalized caste system.” It was a time when racist violence was widespread, when juries refused to convict racist killers, when blacks were threatened and even murdered for registering to vote, and when there were legal and religious prohibitions against intermarriage.
While racism and racial prejudice are not a thing of the past, institutionalized racism largely is. Yet many on the left seem unwilling to accept this fact. That’s why, for example, we see the bloody struggles of the civil-rights era invoked in debates over laws requiring voters to display photo identification at the polls.
Several states have passed voter-ID laws in recent years. The Left says they are racist because they disproportionately affect racial minorities, who are among those least likely to have photo IDs. NAACP president Benjamin Jealous compared opposition to voter-ID laws to the fight waged during “Selma and Montgomery times.” And after Virginia Republicans cleansed their state’s voter rolls of ineligible voters last November, an MSNBC commentator called the Republican party the “rightful heir to the Jim Crow legacy.”
Such comparisons are absurd. The Supreme Court has upheld voter-ID laws as constitutional, and they are supported by overwhelming majorities of Americans, including most blacks and Hispanics. When Rhode Island adopted a voter-ID law in 2011, it was passed by a legislature that was 85 percent Democratic and sponsored by a black Democrat in both houses.
Language surrounding women’s issues can be just as hyperbolic. The goal of the women’s-rights movement was to secure for women political, legal, and social equality with men at a time when they had few rights and married women were effectively their husband’s property. It is ironic, then, that liberals have adopted the “war on women” phrase at exactly the point when women are approaching parity with men (and in some cases surpassing them).
Today’s women’s-rights activists aren’t fighting for voting rights or the right to own property, but for the right to sexual expression through the coercive use of state power. Charges of a Republican “war on women” ring hollow when the share of women that supports legal abortion is no higher than the share that opposes it.
To be pro-woman a century ago meant fighting to pass the Nineteenth Amendment, extending the franchise to women. To be “pro-woman” today means suing Catholic religious orders for refusing to provide free contraceptives to their employees.
Organized labor is another movement that has largely outlived its original reason for being. Unions once played a major and positive role in America by shining a spotlight on exploited workers. Formed in response to the industrial revolution, unions fought to improve working conditions, established uniform wage scales and work hours, and ended indentured servitude and what amounted to child slavery.
Since the mid 20th century, though, unions have experienced steady declines in membership and public-approval ratings. Labor unions have waned because they became corrupt, undemocratic, and overtly partisan, and because many of the problems they were created to address were ameliorated or corrected altogether.
Today’s major union battles are fought over mandatory unionization requirements, compulsory collection of union dues, and whether union members should be required to pay into their pensions, as most non-union employees do. Whatever one thinks of these debates, they aren’t nearly as morally compelling as, say, fighting to protect five-year-olds from being forced to work in coal mines for 14 hours a day.
For many on the left, gay rights has become, as Attorney General Eric Holder labels it, “a defining civil-rights challenge of our time.” But even same-sex-marriage advocates should be able to concede that being prevented from marrying your same-sex partner, or having to select another wedding photographer because your first choice has religious objections to taking your photos, is in a different moral universe from the regime of public lynchings, systematic violence, and segregation that defined Jim Crow. Tellingly, according to one poll, blacks reject by a two-to-one margin the notion that gay rights are comparable to the civil-rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s.
Much of the liberal agenda depends on convincing the public that today’s political debates are just as urgent and profound as the civil-rights struggles of previous eras. But most of the Left’s current battles simply do not compare to the injustices Americans fought against in the past.
When liberals equate today’s political fights to yesterday’s, it diminishes the important changes that have occurred in America. It also does an injustice to the memory and meaning of the heroes and movements that generated those changes.
— Gary Bauer is president of American Values, where Daniel Allott is senior writer.