Is Modern Conservatism Inherently Racist?


That was Sam Tanenhaus’s argument, charting the origins of today’s Republicans back to Calhoun. Peter Berkowitz goes to task dismantling the piece’s over-reach. Money quote:

What one cannot argue — at least not consistent with a decent respect for facts and reason — is that John C. Calhoun’s doctrine of nullification forms the basis of modern American conservatism — and that the very appeal to limited government has been, is, and will continue to be a thinly veiled attempt to keep non-whites and women in their places. The reduction of conservatism to a racially charged politics of nullification is not only illicit in its means but is also illiberal in its aim. It is an attempt to de-legitimize all dissent from left-liberal orthodoxy.

I urge you to read the Tanenhaus essay as well, and mull it over. I think Peter’s corrections – and philosophical defense of conservatism’s principle of limited government – are well taken. Maybe my English take on conservatism distorts my take – because Britain never had a third of its population under racist tyranny. But the GOP’s legacy on race since the 1950s has been painfully obtuse and many of the strains on today’s actual right are obviously influenced by Calhoun. Some of the ugliness came simply from ignoring the existence of an actual civil rights movement, or the existence of African-Americans, period, other than through a prism of fear:

When it came to discussing the concrete realities of race in America, NR had almost nothing to say, and the little NR said did not differ much from what was appearing in the Mercury. Other small-circulation journals, including The New Republic and The Nation, sent reporters to the South, commissioned articles from Southern journalists, and combed the local press, black and white, for up-to-date information on school desegregation campaigns, sit-in strikes, and protests. But none of these were covered or even seriously discussed in the country’s most ambitious and high-minded conservative journal.

It reminds me of their position on gay rights this past decade or so. There has been no attempt – and I’ve read a lot of the conservative media on this subject – to understand or report from the perspective of gay Americans. It makes for an irrelevant politics, and a desiccated moral imagination. And, in the end, mercifully, electoral defeat.

(Engraving: South Carolina politician John C. Calhoun pictured on a $100 bill issued by the Confederate States of America, 1862.)