In light of the recent Rand Paul debacle, there’s been an interesting conversation around Barry Goldwater and his “principled” opposition to the Civil Rights Act in the 1964 presidential election. Matthew Yglesias criticized conservatives for making him their icon, and Conor Friedersdorf responded by arguing that liberal icons have also been wrong on race. Adam Serwer and Dave Weigel both have excellent responses, and they are worth reading in full.
For my part, it seems that this entire discussion points to the continued needon part of conservatives to actually grapple with fact that their movement gained momentum and rode to power on the back of white racial resentment. As Adam and Dave both point out, opposition to the Civil Rights Act wasn’t just an unfortunate episode in an otherwise admirable campaign for conservative values; Barry Goldwater ran on opposing integration, and William F. Buckley opened his editorial salvo with a defense of segregation in the National Review. Richard Nixon pioneered the “Southern Strategy,” and Ronald Reagan took it a step further by inaugurating his campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi, where three civil rights workers were brutally murdered by Klansmen. For all the personal racism of Johnson or Kennedy, it remains the case that they took great steps to dismantle apartheid, while the conservative movement capitalized on the backlash.
I don’t say this because I’m trying to score points against conservatives, I say this because I desperately want to have a mature, productive conversation about race in this country, and doing so requires all sides to cop to their complacencies and errors. To an extent, liberals have done this, and will readily admit the racial failings of their icons. Conservatives have a tougher job ahead of them for various reasons, but it’s still possible. Granted, it might not be politically advantageous — I doubt that African-Americans will start voting differently because some Republicans apologized — but we’ll be able to understand and talk about our politics better (and avoid these recurring “racism and the conservative movement” posts) if conservatives could at least own up to the more problematic aspects of their heritage.
Image taken from Jeremy Mayer’s “Running on Race: Racial Politics in Presidential Campaigns, 1960-2000.”