In order to fend off even more e-mail, let me explain where I’m coming from.
For the last several years preening liberals have argued that conservatism and “Dixiecrat-ism” are symbiotic, if not one and the same. These liberals, in the words of Bill Voegeli:
“… believe—or avail themselves of the political advantages of professing to believe—that the essence of conservatism is and always has been Dixiecrat-ism. This is not a point of antiquarian interest; the clear implication is that everything that conservatism has accomplished and stood for since 1965—Reagan, the tax revolt, law-and-order, deregulation, the fight against affirmative action, the critique of the welfare state…everything—is the poisoned fruit of the poisoned tree.”
In his eulogy for Helms in yesterday’s Washington Post Marc Thiessen argues:
What his critics could not appreciate is that, by the time he left office, Jesse Helms had become a mainstream conservative. And it was not because Helms had moved toward the mainstream — it was because the mainstream moved toward him.
Thiessen overstates things, I think, when it comes to foreign policy — the exclusive topic of his op-ed — but he’s on solid enough ground. But I don’t think it’s remotely true when it comes to race, and Thiessen should have acknowledged this somehow rather than ignore it entirely. The line peddled by Paul Krugman and countless others, that the GOP majorities and victories of the last thirty years are all the poisoned fruit of the poisoned tree of Dixie is simply untrue. Whatever Helms’ personal druthers, his political maneuvering room was constrained by the fact that the GOP is not a racist party.
Gerard Alexander’s famous essay on the subject cuts through a lot of the muck. An excerpt:
Yet liberal commentators commit a further, even more obvious, analytic error. They assume that if many former Wallace voters ended up voting Republican in the 1970s and beyond, it had to be because Republicans went to the segregationist mountain, rather than the mountain coming to them. There are two reasons to question this assumption. The first is the logic of electoral competition. Extremist voters usually have little choice but to vote for a major party which they consider at best the lesser of two evils, one that offers them little of what they truly desire. Segregationists were in this position after 1968, when Wallace won less than 9% of the electoral college and Nixon became president anyway, without their votes. Segregationists simply had very limited national bargaining power. In the end, not the Deep South but the GOP was the mountain.
Second, this was borne out in how little the GOP had to “offer,” so to speak, segregationists for their support after 1968, even according to the myth’s own terms. Segregationists wanted policies that privileged whites. In the GOP, they had to settle for relatively race-neutral policies: opposition to forced busing and reluctant coexistence with affirmative action. The reason these policies aren’t plausible codes for real racism is that they aren’t the equivalents of discrimination, much less of segregation.
Why did segregationists settle for these policies rather than continue to vote Democratic? The GOP’s appeal was mightily aided by none other than the Democratic Party itself, which was lurching leftward in the 1970s, becoming, as the contemporary phrase had it, the party of “acid, amnesty, and abortion.” Among other things, the Democrats absorbed a civil rights movement that was itself expanding, and thus diluting, its agenda to include economic redistributionism, opposition to the Vietnam War, and Black Power. The many enthusiasms of the new Democratic Party drove away suburban middle-class voters almost everywhere in the country, not least the South.
Now, a word about the South. I’m no expert, but the story of the South’s sloughing off of racism and its movement into the GOP fold, is one of the most egregiously under-told and distorted tales of modern political history. (John O’Sullivan points to one aspect of it here.) The bigotry aimed at the South never ceases to amaze me. Indeed, it is astounding to me how the left tells us we need to understand the nuance of, say, the Jihadi mind in all of its shades of gray, but when it comes to the voting habits of law-abiding white North Carolinians all you need to know is that if a white hand pulls a lever for a Republican politician, that hand must be attached to a racist, and that racism guided the hand to vote for a Republican. The South is a complicated place. Racism was certainly its central shortcoming, but it was hardly its only feature. That so many people can only see the racism, even as its half-life accelerates, says more about their myopia than it does about the region it casts its gaze on.
Finally, I have no problem celebrating Jesse Helms’ contributions to this country, and I think the praise he received from so many decent and un-racist conservatives should have been a sign to flummoxed liberals that there was more to the man than racism, rather than confirm their conviction that there’s nothing more to the right than racism. But even though I bristle and being told to dance to whatever tune liberals whistle, I don’t think I should allow my annoyance to take the contrary position for contrariness’ sake. So, yes, Helms was heroic on many issues, but he was no hero of mine.