The Right’s Civil Wrongs
From the June 21, 2010, issue of NR.


Ramesh Ponnuru

Civil rights are a problem for the American Right: a political problem, an intellectual one, a moral one. In the civil-rights debates of the 1950s and 1960s, many conservatives — including William F. Buckley Jr., other figures associated with this magazine, and Sen. Barry Goldwater — took positions that the vast majority of conservatives now reject. Most contemporary conservatives who know this history regret it and find it embarrassing.

In some cases these conservative positions were motivated by straightforward support for an official policy of white supremacy, or by a desire to enlist segregationist southern Democrats in the burgeoning conservative movement. But some people held these positions while also sincerely wishing for segregation to end. They believed that their conservative principles — principles that do not on their face entail hostility to blacks — compelled opposition to the civil-rights movement’s platform. Most critics place Goldwater in this group.

But if the conservative record on race cannot be dismissed as the product of conservative racism (or indifference to racism), the implications of that fact should be disconcerting rather than reassuring for conservatives. The principles that led the Goldwaterites to oppose civil rights are still upheld by conservatives today. Indeed, every segment of the Right cherishes a principle that was at least in serious tension with the triumph of civil rights.

Conservatives favor federalism. But the civil-rights laws involved a huge expansion of federal power over matters previously reserved to the states. Traditionalists believe that change should be incremental and organic. The civil-rights laws sought to effect a revolution in southern mores. Conservative legal thinkers believe that the courts should defer to Congress and state legislatures unless the Constitution makes judicial intervention unavoidable. The Supreme Court ordered the desegregation of the schools based on reasoning more sociological than constitutional. Libertarians think that private conduct should be unregulated so long as it is not coercive. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 banned private actors from withholding services or denying employment on the basis of race (or of religion, sex, or national origin).

It is this last point that got Rand Paul, the Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate from Kentucky, into trouble. Paul is a libertarian who has expressed opposition to the provisions of the Civil Rights Act that regulate private (that is, non-governmental) conduct. After his remarks set off a national controversy, Paul clarified that he believes that federal intervention in the South was necessary, that he would have voted for the act, and that he does not seek to undo the portions of the law that he thinks were wrong. He has not, however, backed off from his contention that the regulation of private behavior was wrong. Racist business owners may warrant boycotts and social ostracism, in his view, but the federal government should not bar them from acting on their noxious beliefs.

Some Paul supporters reacted to the controversy by questioning the newsworthiness of his views about 46-year-old legislation that nobody expects to see debated in the Senate. They are probably less important than his views about how to balance the federal budget, respond to Iran, or handle judicial nominations. Someone who agrees with him about those matters but disagrees with him about civil rights should probably vote for him. And it would be unfair to conclude that Paul is a racist or is trying to use opposition to the act to appeal to racist voters; he has instead acted as though he considers his views on the act a political liability that his philosophy unfortunately compels.