The Corner

Yes, the Party of Civil Rights

Greetings from sunny Madrid, where I am observing the disintegration of the Spanish economy. You wouldn’t know that the country was in crisis, though: The local soccer team seems to have won an important match, and the streets are filled with singing. 

I am pleased to see that my piece on Republicans, Democrats, and civil rights has generated a great deal of discussion while I was en route. The reaction from the Left has been more or less what I expected: hysteria, intentional misreading, denial, angst, wailing, content-free sarcasm, aspersion-casting, and a great deal of attention to William F. Buckley’s 1957 column on civil rights (and, of course, no attention to his subsequent thinking on the issue). 

I will address the criticism thematically rather than case by case. The arguments go, roughly:

First theme: Sure, Republicans were good on civil rights for a long time, but those were liberal Republicans, so you can’t claim them, since they’d be Democrats now. That is the not-very-smart take from Jay Bookman at the Atlanta Journal Constitution. This line of argument has a lot going for it: It begs the question, inasmuch as it assumes the falsity of my thesis (that the parties did not “flip” on civil rights) without bothering to establish it; it is unfalsifiable; it appeals to the shallow rah-rah partisan instincts of those who are disinclined to account for the full depth of the Democrats’ culpability on civil rights. 

Built into this response is an intentional misrepresentation of what conservatism is. In essence, liberals look back at history, identify the social changes of which they approve, and define “conservatism” as opposition to those changes, since conservatism is, in this reading, opposition to social change. Thus the hilarious New York Times reference to those seeking to maintain Communism in post-Soviet Russia as “conservatives.”  

This doesn’t hold up to very much scrutiny: The abolitionist movement, for example, was populated largely by people who would be viewed with contempt by modern liberals, because they were crusading Christians who sought to write their own interpretation of morality into the law. (Or, in the case of John Brown, militant anti-government activists pursuing Second Amendment remedies.) One of the things I like most about Frederick Douglass is his economic analysis of slavery. In Douglass’s view, one of the great crimes of slavery is that black Americans were denied the profit of their labor and the ability to invest and engage in enterprise. One of his great sources of bitterness was that even after emancipation, black Americans remained excluded from the economy, and therefore unable to better themselves. Lincoln’s views on the importance of a man’s ability to work to better his condition would be right at home on conservative talk radio today. Those of us who believe in the transformative power of free enterprise would do well to study Douglass — not that he was a perfect anticipation of the modern free-trader (I would not want to resurrect his views on tariffs), but because his values are our values. We too often think only in terms of abstractions such as growth and efficiency, but Douglass, because of his own experience, took a more personal view of things.

And a lot of those so-called liberals from the northeast who supported civil rights look pretty good by today’s Republican standards: sober, free-enterprise, small-government guys. Not ideological flamethrowers, to be sure, but not as bad as we remember them.

A variation on this theme is to take what any given conservative did or thought at any given moment and take that as the authoritative expression of what conservatism is. Thus all of the attention to WFB’s 1957 remarks. This is a childish approach, a high-school debater’s trick at best: “WFB was a conservative, WFB favored segregation in 1957, ergo conservatism is the philosophy of segregation.” This is easily turned about: “FDR was the founding father of modern liberalism, FDR put American citizens into prison camps, ergo liberalism is the philosophy of putting American citizens into prison camps.” Of course it isn’t. (And neither is conservatism, I hope.)

And, of course, conservatives disagree on things. WFB and Ronald Reagan disagreed very strongly about some things: the so-called War on Drugs was one, the Panama Canal was another. Are we to read one of them out of the conservative movement because he disagreed with the other? The idea is absurd. I am second to none in my admiration for the man, but there is more to the history of conservative thinking than William F. Buckley, and conservatism is not idolatry — it is an inclination to learn from one’s mistakes. (Strange that none of these alleged NR-ologists seems to have heard of Harry Jaffa.)

Another variation on this is simply to define opposition to racism as liberal and racism as conservative, as most of my critics implicitly do. But that also makes no sense: Lyndon Baines Johnson was the architect of modern liberalism as practiced by the Democratic party. He spent his entire career associating himself with the New Deal and seeking to supplement it. The Great Society was his tribute to New Deal liberalism. Many of the totems of modern Democratic liberalism — Medicare, Head Start, etc. — are Johnson creations. He was also a man who voted against anti-lynching legislation, gutted civil-rights reform in Congress, and denounced Republican-backed civil-rights action as “the nigger bill.” He was, by any reasonable standard of evidence, both a big-government liberal in the familiar Democratic mold and a pretty ugly bigot. The same can be said of such Democratic lions as Robert Byrd, who loved infrastructure spending and despised African Americans (name me another politician who was using the word “nigger” on national television during the Clinton administration), and William Fulbright. The Democrat racists of the 1950s and 1960s were not conservative outliers; they were the men who built modern liberalism.


Second theme: It wasn’t a Republican/Democrat dispute, it was a North/South dispute. There is something to that, but it is far from the entire story. As I pointed out, John F. Kennedy, who I am sure never tasted grits, opposed critical civil-rights reforms backed by Republicans. 

Third theme: If Republicans were really good on civil rights, why did blacks stop voting for them? This argument keeps getting presented as though I had not dedicated a great deal of the column in question to answering it. The proximate cause of northern blacks’ first drift toward the Democratic party was the New Deal, not civil-rights legislation. As I pointed out, Democrats first won a majority of northern black votes in the 1940 election, when Democrats were still extraordinarily hostile to civil rights, in bed with the Ku Klux Klan, etc. Black voters seem to have a longstanding preference for activist government, and it is not difficult to imagine why, even if one does not share the preference.

Civil rights are not the only thing blacks care about; in fact, they probably are not even the main thing motivating black voters, given that reversion to the Jim Crow regime is unthinkable. Segregated lunch counters aren’t coming back. But there are many things that African Americans generally support that Democrats back and Republicans oppose. The fact that black voters have a particular preference does not make that preference a civil-rights issue. Consider this Chicago Tribune dispatch from the days of the Clinton impeachment, when the embattled president was looking to black voters to save his career: “Clinton wins praise for his black appointments and support for Haiti and affirmative action. Seemingly forgotten are Clinton’s support for controversial crime and welfare-reform legislation. As one friend put, it, ‘black people don’t desert a friend in need.’”

If we are to define “civil rights” as appointing black supporters to federal office, intervening in Haiti, and backing affirmative action, we’re stretching the meaning of the term. If we are to define supporting civil rights as being against “controversial crime and welfare-reform legislation” — the areas in which Clinton was faulted for failing to further black interests — then we’re in another realm altogether. But that is not what “civil rights” means.

Blacks are a little more than a tenth of the population and a third of TANF recipients. Studies of black attitudes toward welfare are complicated and often contradictory, but let us say, for the sake of argument, that black voters see conservative welfare-reform initiatives as contrary to their interests. (Black leaders certainly said as much during the last round of welfare reform.) That does not make welfare a civil-rights issue — just an issue that is important to black voters. 

Thus the boneheadedness of Jonathan Chait’s claim: “That this strategy has sucked in more than 90 percent of the black electorate, and is currently being executed at the highest level by Barack Obama (who — at this point, it may be necessary to inform Williamson — is black) suggests a mind-blowing level of false consciousness at work among the African-American community.” A variation on this is that I view black voters as “lacking agency,” as being too stupid to understand their own interests, etc. But that does not follow. Blacks need not suffer from “false consciousness” (will we ever be rid of that Marxist term?) to have political preferences that are different from my own and that I think are in error. Andrew C. McCarthy and Ramesh Ponnuru have some preferences at odds with my own, but not because they don’t understand the issues. Old people, the Chamber of Commerce, college students, public-school teachers — all have some pretty dumb political attitudes. Jonathan Bernstein is closer to the truth when he writes that my argument “assumes a lack of agency on the part of most voters,” which is true — I think, in fact I know, that voters are in the aggregate ignorant and prone to making bad decisions.

Thus Jesse Curtis’s argument that the Republican party has lost black support in the past 50 years because it has failed to further “black interests, as black people themselves saw them,” is a non sequitur, unless by “civil rights” we mean “black interests as black people see them.” But a policy preference does not become a civil-rights issue because blacks have a strong view about it. If nine out of ten black voters prefer strawberry ice cream to butter pecan, that does not make strawberry ice cream a civil-rights issue. 

Black voters, like white voters, are voting on issues beyond civil rights. Chait especially does not seem to understand this, which is why he attributes to me an argument I did not make and do not believe: “The Republican takeover of the white South had absolutely nothing to do with civil rights, the revisionist case proclaims, except insofar as white Southerners supported Republicans because they were more pro-civil rights. . . . To the extent that Republicans replaced Democrats in the South, Williamson sees their support for civil rights as the cause.” Again, none of this follows from what I wrote. It is true that the Republican party was, by any measure, more enlightened on civil rights than were the Democrats in the 1950s and 1960s. It is also true that southern whites began to support Republicans during those years while blacks began to support Democrats. There is no because between those facts. Chait imagines me to have committed a correlation-causation error that I did not make, and then promptly destroys an argument that exists only in his imagination. The evidence suggests that economic self-interest, not race, was the driving factor in the changing demographics of the two parties in the past 60 years. 

Chait also adds: “Williamson is willing to concede that opponents of civil rights laws have philosophical principles behind them, but only if they are Republican.” We have Goldwater’s words on his opposition to the 1964 act, and we have Johnson’s words on his opposition to earlier legislation. I do not have to theorize about whether Johnson’s opposition to civil-rights laws and anti-lynching laws were principled; they were not, and, as I point out, we have Johnson’s own word on that. 

Curtis goes on to argue: “The fundamental assumption of Williamson’s piece is that the Democratic Party cynically keeps blacks on ‘the plantation’ rather than attempting to serve them like any other constituency.” I did not use the word “plantation” and am uncomfortable with that kind of rhetoric. But Curtis misses the point: I think Democrats cynically exploit blacks exactly like any other constituency. No special treatment. Ed Kilgore at Washington Monthly similarly puts words in my mouth: “This is a man, after all, who think’s it is obvious that LBJ and other Democrats were pursuing a consciously racist strategy of ‘enslaving’ African-Americans by promoting the social programs associated with the Great Society.” I did not use the word “enslave,” and would not, inasmuch as I do not think that comparisons with chattel slavery are very often apt, any more than Holocaust comparisons. 

Indeed, the critics have smashed a lot of arguments I did not make. Bernstein writes:  “It’s bizarre to say that the Democrats didn’t flip on civil rights.” I wrote: “Supporting civil-rights reform was a radical turnaround for Johnson and the Democrats.” But not for the Republicans.

But I do thank Mark Schmidt of the Roosevelt Institute for an important correction: George H. W. Bush did not defeat an odious racist Democrat to win his House seat; the odious racist Democrat was redistricted, and continued in his odious and racist ways with the full support and cooperation of the Democratic party until retirement; the relatively enlightened Bush won an open seat created by the redistricting.


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