Politics & Policy

Was Senator Russell a ‘Conservative’ Democrat?

Georgia Senators Richard Russell (left) and Walter George look over a drawing of Gainesville’s Roosevelt Square, 1937-38. (Harris & Ewing/Library of Congress)
‘Conservative’ is not a synonym for ‘segregationist,’ and ‘racist progressive’ is not an oxymoron.

There is an effort under way to change the name of the Senate office building. It currently is named for Senator Richard Russell, a segregationist Democrat, and there is a proposal to rename it for the late Senator John McCain, a war hero and a Republican. At the moment, it is the Democrats who seem more eager to strip the Democrat’s name from the building, and it is hard to blame them for desiring to put behind them the aspect of their party’s legacy with which Senator Russell is today most closely associated.

The ever-helpful and frequently confused New York Times offers this: Senator Russell was “a towering New Deal Democrat” and “an ardent New Dealer who helped start the free school lunch program.” The Times also insists he was a “conservative Democrat.”

How so?

There was more to Senator Russell’s progressivism than the school-lunch program. He was described as a “progressive” by no less a figure than Franklin Roosevelt, and for good reason: Governor Russell of Georgia, and later Senator Russell, was by and large a practitioner of what his contemporaries would have recognized as progressivism: welfare-statism, big federal development projects, the works. Roosevelt recognized as much.

Perhaps we might, as well.

Russell said that he wanted to be remembered as a soil conservationist and a friend of small farmers, one who sought to protect them from Big Business. He shared the progressive-era mania for centralizing bureaucratic reform, and as governor of Georgia he oversaw the radical reorganization and streamlining of Georgia’s state government. He created the University System of Georgia and put all of the state’s public colleges and universities under a single board of regents. Georgia’s 1936 Democratic primary has been described by historians as something very close to a two-party election: In one camp were Richard Russell and his progressive and New Dealer allies, and in the other was Eugene Talmadge, a New Deal critic whose campaign was supported by out-of-state Republicans hoping to hand the Roosevelt administration a defeat and derail the New Deal.

See if you can spot the man we might call a conservative today. From the Atlanta Historical Journal:

Talmadge became increasingly outspoken in his criticism of Roosevelt. In one speech he claimed that the child labor amendment, the banking reform act, and the Wagner Labor Relations Act were “almost the complete Communistic form of government.” On another occasion he asserted that the National Recovery Administration (NRA), the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), and the AAA were “all in the Russian primer and the President has made the statement that he has read it twelve times.”

Senator Russell, like Lyndon Johnson, was a New Deal man who strongly supported the TVA, rural-electrification programs, and other federal initiatives to help encourage (and, inevitably, direct) economic development in the South and in rural communities more generally. The Atlanta Historical Journal describes the outcome of that campaign in a way that is worth reading aloud: “In almost all of the state-wide campaigns, candidates lined up as either pro-Roosevelt or as pro-Talmadge. In 1936 the liberals had their day as Georgians voted overwhelmingly for Rivers, Russell, and the other pro-New Deal candidates.”

The who?

The birth of the American conservative movement was inspired by antipathy toward the New Deal at home, opposition to the Soviet Union abroad, and opposition to Communism more generally. The refusal of the Eisenhower administration and the postwar Republican party to seek the overthrow of the New Deal was the proximate cause for the launch of this magazine. “Our principles are round, and Eisenhower is square,” as William F. Buckley Jr. put it at the time.

So, in what sense was Senator Russell a “conservative” Democrat? In what sense were other Southern Democrats “conservative”?

There is the issue of nomenclature: Senator Russell was an important figure in the informal “conservative coalition” that sought cooperation between Southern Democrats who were anti-union, and opposed to federal labor regulation more generally, and business-oriented Republicans who shared that view. (Talmadge was particularly vexed by the minimum-wage rules attached to certain New Deal projects, which effectively mandated that black workers and white workers be paid the same minimum wage.) In 1937, bipartisan critics of the New Deal issued a “conservative manifesto,” calling for (this will sound familiar) lower taxes on capital gains and business profits, balanced budgets, recognizing the importance of free enterprise, keeping welfare programs at the state and local level, “restoring peace between labor and industry,” etc. And: maintaining states’ rights.

Political branding is not always a very good guide to what lies underneath: President Eisenhower called himself a “progressive conservative,” whatever in hell that hopes to mean. As a matter of substance, the actual voting records of the so-called conservative Democrats in the South reveal a party faction that was broadly onboard with the progressive program of the time, with the main exception of labor-related issues.

“And race,” you might be tempted to add. But in fact the progressive movement was as riven as the Democratic party itself over segregation and what Senator Russell straightforwardly and proudly described as “white supremacy.” Woodrow Wilson, the godfather of American progressivism, was a segregationist and a hardcore Klan man. He was, as Vox puts it, “extremely racist even by the standards of his time,” a president who sought to amplify presidential power and who used that power to, among other things, resegregate the parts of the federal government that had been desegregated. Racist politics did not suddenly vanish from the progressive movement when Wilson finally assumed room temperature. Progressives did not overcome external racist opponents: They liberated themselves, over time, from the racism that had long been intertwined with the rest of their movement. That matters enormously to an accurate understanding of what is, after all, still one of the dominant tendencies in American political thinking.

The New York Times and many contemporary progressives behave as though there were some paradoxical quality to being both progressive and a god-awful racist backing a program of official legal segregation. But that view is entirely ahistorical. Racist progressives were as common as lice in Senator Russell’s time, and he was one of them.

Don’t take my word for it. As my former Atlantic colleague Ta-Nahesi Coates puts it:

There is some sense that when we talk about the period leading up to the New Deal and beyond, that we are talking about progressives in the North making a tragic, yet necessary, bargain with white racists conservatives in the South. In fact what Ira Katznelson shows in Fear Itself is something a little more complicated. The white supremacists in his book are, indeed, for the most part, Southern. But they also are very much married to to the prospect of progressive liberal reform. It may break our brains a bit to imagine, say, a Southern white supremacist backing railroad unions. But that’s actual history.

And if you think about it, it makes sense. Ben “Pitchfork” Tillman and Tom Watson were populist and (ultimately in the case of Watson) white supremacists. The division goes back to the days of pre-slavery politics when the South was somewhat divided between planters and yeoman farmers. I say “somewhat” because on the issue of White Supremacy, there was no division.

No character in Katznelson’s book troubles the waters like Mississippi’s governor, and then senator, Theodore Bilbo. Here is a man who, in one breath, can be hailed as “a liberal fire-eater” and then in another dubbed “a bulldog for protecting traditions of the South.” Bilbo was a Klansman who stumped for Al Smith. But black equality was a bridge too far.

The tendency of the modern, morally and politically illiterate progressive is to insist in essence “Racism = Conservatism” and “Anti-Racism = Progressivism.” But that does not stand up to very much scrutiny, either. The Democrat most strongly associated with advancing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, President Johnson, was also a longtime opponent of anti-lynching laws and, when it served him, a cynical exploiter of racial hatred. The backbone of American progressivism, and the bulwark of the New Deal, consisted largely of segregationist Democrats. The Republican most closely associated with opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, conservative Senator Barry Goldwater, was a longtime supporter of earlier, Republican-sponsored civil-rights legislation — and an NAACP member who personally helped fund desegregation litigation in Phoenix out of his own pocket. Bill Buckley wrote some ill-considered columns about racial politics in the 1950s; in the 1960s, he was raking George Wallace (who held office as a Democrat) over the coals for his backward and malicious racial politics. Did Buckley cease being conservative sometime between 1957 and 1968? Of course not. No more than Woodrow Wilson ceased being a progressive when he was screening Birth of a Nation at the White House.

If Senator Russell was a “conservative,” I for one would like to know which issues he was conservative on. The same question could be asked about many of the other “conservative” Democrats of his time. It is true that he opposed some labor regulation and was an advocate of a well-funded military, positions that are recognizably linked to what we call “conservatism” today. But then, Senator Goldwater favored gay rights and was vocally critical of the influence of Christian social conservatives in his party. Does that make him a “liberal Republican”? To ask the question is to taste its absurdity.

How we talk about politics — and political history — matters. “Conservative” is not a synonym for “segregationist,” and it never has been. “Racist progressive” is not an oxymoron, and never has been. Democrats can change the name of the Russell Senate Office Building, but they cannot change who Senator Russell was: one of them, and not only as a matter of formal party affiliation.

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