The fact that Trent Lott’s career-splattering comments came out at the 100th birthday of Strom Thurmond will be recognized by historians as profoundly symbolic. Here was an ancient living relic of a past nearly forgotten. Despite a steady diet of civil-rights history — and, occasionally, hagiography — in schools, churches, universities, as well as in the media, it needed to be explained to most Americans why supporting Strom Thurmond in 1948 was so bad. The mainstream press missed the story for days and were it not for the highly acute ears of the civil-rights establishment, the story might have been missed entirely.
This does not excuse Trent Lott’s indefensible comments, but it does put it in an important context. This event represented the death rattle of conservatism’s racist fringe, not its reemergence. Two decades ago, many on the Right would have leapt to Lott’s defense using code words or plain language to defend the Jim Crow south’s “unique” institutions. As it turns out, virtually none did. From across the Right, Lott’s comments were denounced as indefensible morally, intellectually, and politically (though, in this case, one might say these are distinctions without a difference).
The most-prominent exception, predictably, is Pat Buchanan, a man who had to leave the Republican party entirely because his views, not just on race, but on economics, trade, and foreign policy made him far more at home with the likes of Gore Vidal, Noam Chomsky, and the like. (See David Frum’s excellent column today on this.) Indeed, in the Nineties, his political allies seemed picked from an otherworldly menagerie of political creatures entirely unwelcome in conservative circles.
But for the rest of conservatism, the lesson of the Lott fiasco is that the Right has purged its demons, not that it tolerates them. This is the natural way. When social ill is widespread, it tends to be accommodated. When it is on its way out, its last vestiges tend to be purged with great excitement and outrage. For example, Americans had few problems with child labor when the practice was common. But, when families could afford to treat their children as luxuries instead of wage-earners, the practice increasingly came to be seen as horrific. America banned child labor in a flurry of social protest and outrage only when it became incredibly rare — perhaps five percent of children — and therefore easy to do so.
It is thus with social attitudes as well. Racism, at least the open and active racism which sustained the 1948 Dixiecrat vision, is simply astoundingly rare on the Right. In fact, prior to Trent Lott’s idiocy, most conservatives I know would have assumed it did not exist at all — except among the fever swamps of the so-called paleo-Right. It did not seem intellectually risky for most conservatives to denounce Lott because we feel no allegiance to the racism of the past. We could be just as outraged as sincere liberals if we felt so inclined. Indeed, most conservatives felt a hell of a lot angrier than many of the liberals who seemed somewhat joyous that their suspicions had, at long last, been confirmed.
But this certainly doesn’t exonerate the Right. Conservatives should feel some embarrassment and shame that we are outraged at instances of racism now that it is easy to be. Conservatives — though not Republicans — were often at best MIA on the issue of civil rights in the 1960s. Liberals were on the right side of history on the issue of race. And conservatives should probably admit that more often.
One reason they do not is that liberals are no longer on the right side of race. Today, liberals favor policies which seek to treat racial and ethnic minorities in ways that were they to be advocated by whites about white people would be seen as indisputably racist. My old boss, Ben Wattenberg, is fond of saying that he’s never changed his position on racial quotas. He was against them as a liberal Democrat when they kept Jews and blacks out of universities and he’s against them now that they keep Jews and Asians out of universities. That fairly summarizes the position of most conservatives when it comes to race-based policies.
In this sense, I think this mess has been very good for conservatives, though not necessarily good for Republicans. One needs one’s views challenged in order to fully embrace them. Conservatives were put in the spotlight and asked to defend or reject an encomium to their racist past. They rejected it. The debate served as a useful dye-marker for many of us on the health and status of conservative body politic. The self-diagnosis was painful for many, especially given the bad faith of many liberals who used the opportunity to claim — once again — that any disagreement with them constitutes racism. But even then Lott’s defenders defended the man, not his the views he expressed. Indeed, even there the generally reasonable defense was that the man is not racist not that the racism found in his words was defensible. Conservatives emerge from this with their views firmly on the record. I for one do not feel that I should be more “careful” or “sensitive” in calling for a colorblind society, because I did my part in purging the idea that conservatives stand for anything else.
Similarly, this episode will no doubt be seen by younger conservatives as a “teaching moment.” They will see that the voices of the conservative movement rejected a past best represented by a 100-year-old man being put out to pasture and few comments made in his defense.
We still await the liberals’ teaching moment on race.