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May 30, 2012 11:05 AM Fables, Continued

By Jonathan Bernstein

Kevin Williamson, who wrote the controversial piece in the National Review recently arguing that the Republican Party is the “party of civil rights,” responded to his many critics with a long post over the weekend, conceding virtually nothing but one factual error (my post on it here; Alex Pareene has a good post and links to several of the critics here).

Williamson more or less correctly categorizes three different strands of criticism. One, what I focused on, is that Williamson treats “the Democratic Party” as a unified group, unified in their opposition to civil rights, right up to 1964 — thus ignoring the clear split within the party between Southern segregationist Democrats and the rest of the party, a split that began yielding victories for the civil rights Democrats by the 1948 convention. The second, which Jonathan Chait focused on, is the Republican Party had a split, too — and that the conservatives, who had a mixed-at-best record on civil rights, were the complete and total winners of that fight. The third is about black voters, and how Williamson accounts for their complete shift to the Democratic Party in the face of his version of history.

I’ll start with the point about northern Democrats. Here’s all that he has to say about that:

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. 

He here ducks the chance to acknowledge the actual history of the Democratic Party in the first six decades of the 20th century, which is in fact complex, with plenty — plenty — of room for very legitimate criticism, but also quite a lot to praise for supporters of civil rights. I have no idea what exactly he’s referring to on JFK. It is certainly the case that civil rights supporters during the Kennedy Administration were frustrated at the pace of legislation — as liberals were with the pace of the entire liberal agenda — and it’s probably true that those for whom civil rights was the key issue would have been more likely to support Humphrey in 1960, but there’s simply no question at all that the Kennedy/Johnson ticket in 1960 ran on a civil rights platform, both literally and symbolically. If you want to read something fun about that, including the famous call to Coretta King, I came across a nice oral history interview with Harris Wofford. Obviously there are books and books and books written about this stuff, which Williamson is either unfamiliar with or ignoring. Look: it is more complicated than just North/South, and a fair amount of that complication is about internal Democratic Party politics. But to dismiss JFK like Williamson does here is just plain wrong; to ignore, as he did in his original article, the entire history of the civil rights movement within the Democratic Party is to totally butcher the history.

Second point: The Republican Party. Williamson’s argument is that the Republican Party was in favor of civil rights throughout, from Lincoln to now. His critics argue that he’s ignoring the old liberal/conservative split within the GOP, and that it’s dodgy to credit current Republicans for what liberal Republicans did back then — when those liberal Republicans were essentially read out of the party long ago.

Williamson’s response? He complains a bit about the usage of “conservative” in places it doesn’t apply, a complaint I think is often well-taken — but that doesn’t apply here at all. Williamson attempts to reclaim civil rights Republicans by noting that they were in favor of integrating black Americans within the market economy, which (he appears to assume) only conservatives support. But of course that’s not true at all; virtually all Americans, and certainly all mainstream political movements, support a market economy. He says, “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.” The larger point? There’s simply no question that folks such as Jacob Javits, Hugh Scott, and Clifford Case could not be nominated in today’s Republican Party; that everyone at the time considered that wing of the party “liberal”, and that everyone at the time considered the Goldwater wing of the party “conservative,” and that it was the Goldwater wing which opposed civil rights. The bottom line: a Republican Party which actually treated people like Javits, Scott, and Case as “pretty good” would be a completely, totally different party from the one we actually have.

What’s more, Williamson wants to think very narrowly — too narrowly — about what counts as civil rights. He’s correct that some mistakenly want to count any issue that African Americans supports as axiomatically part of civil rights, but he goes way too far in the other direction, explicitly excluding affirmative action as a civil rights issue. Similarly, Williamson entirely ignores voting access issues. There’s no question but that the liberal, civil rights Republicans of the past would oppose what today’s Republican Party is up to on voting.

Third point: Williamson complains about cherry-picking by those who have (a bit too gleefully, I’ll agree) played gotcha over William F. Buckley’s opposition to civil rights up to 1964. But is it really cherry-picking to talk about Buckley, surely a leading conservative voice of the time, and Barry Goldwater, the leading conservative politician of the time? And while it is also true that the new Southern Republicans were, in general, not nearly as bigoted as the Southern Democrats had been, they were hardly (as Williamson implies) supporters of civil rights when it counted: on the 1964 bill, the ten Southern Members of the House and the lone Southern Senator voted unanimously against it. Yet another point that you would not know from reading Williamson’s article.

I’m going to get to the other topic, about black voters, in another post.

Williamson’s history was and remains one that ignores the Humphrey Democrats, ignoring that they became the dominant voice of the party by 1948; and one that ignores the very mixed at best record of movement conservative Republicans, the Strom Thurmand and Jesse Helms — and Barry Goldwater — Republicans, on civil rights. It is true that the legacy of the Democratic Party, including outside of the South, is also mixed (that is: horrible within the South, mixed in the rest of the nation); it is also true that Republicans up through 1965 had a long history of supporting civil rights.

And I’ll close by repeating what I said above and in the previous post. What I’d suggest is that the first step Republicans could take if they really want to be the party of Lincoln and the party whose liberal wing strongly supported civil rights would be to support the position of civil rights leaders on voting, right now, and give up on the various schemes Republicans have been pushing that will have the effect of reducing African American voting participation. I think it’s pretty clear which way Hubert Humphrey and Hugh Scott, and Jesse Helms and  (segregationist Democrat) Harry Byrd, would have come down on this one.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

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Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.

Comments

  • sigaba on June 01, 2012 3:55 PM:

    "Williamson's response? He complains a bit about the usage of 'conservative' in places it doesn't apply, a complaint I think is often well-taken -- but that doesn't apply here at all."

    To be honest I thought this was the flakiest part of the response and it reveals the whole issue. He's not really trying to defend a group of people or a common interest group, he's trying to defend the word "Conservative" from unpleasant connotations.

    Communists in Russia are "conservative." Sorry, that's the word; just as pro-capitalism politicians in Russia are "liberals." If we adopted his definition, members of the Russian Black Hundreds and French monarchists of the Third Republic would be "liberals."

    The fact that these people are liberal and conservative within their own political system has nothing to do with what a National Review reader actually believes -- these definitions come from who these people vote with and form political coalitions with, and how they position themselves in the context of Russian history and political institutions.

    His problem is he doesn't read history this way. To him, it seems, people are guided by bedrock absolute principles and work to realize them at all times by any means necessary, and that everyone in a political movement (call it "conservative" or "republican" or whatever you want) throughout time and space, across national borders, and separations of language, culture and history, either thinks the same way or defers to the same set of principles.

    Thus, Lincoln's act of emancipation makes him a bigger civil rights hero than Lyndon Johnson, because he can use the Emancipation to attribute all kinds of modern ideas on Lincoln that the real Lincoln simply didn't accept, nor had the will or capacity to fight for -- such as, for instance, equal civil rights, something Lincoln positively didn't believe in.