In The Conscience of a Conservative, Barry Goldwater starts off the first chapter with a phrase that I often find myself thinking about these days: “I have been much concerned that so many people today with conservative instincts feel compelled to apologize for them.” That statement is just as true today as it was in 1960. All around me, I see conservatives—particularly young conservatives—constantly struggling to moderate or qualify their beliefs in order to make them acceptable to their peers.
As an undergraduate at a small liberal arts college, I myself became something of a political pariah among my classmates, who either dismissed my views out of hand or put me on trial every time I tried to have an honest discussion about them. My fellow students in the Theatre Department were particularly guilty of such close-mindedness. I even recall one instance when a good friend of mine informed me that, since she had come to know me well during our time together, she had been able to forgive me for being a conservative. It was as if my left-of-center friends and acquaintances were convinced that there was something inherently wrong about being a conservative—not just in terms of correctness, but also of morality and reasoning. And thus, I was expected to apologize for it.
Ironically, I think a lot of that has to do with the left’s preoccupation with the past when it comes to conservatives. They have a baffling tendency to conflate today’s conservatives with those of fifty, one hundred, or even one hundred and fifty years ago. Which brings me, finally, to the centerpiece of this post: President Obama’s remarks to David Remnick of The New Yorker in a feature piece earlier this week. As you probably already know, the media wasted no time in seizing on and overanalyzing his remarks about race and how it may or may not affect how some of the American public perceives his presidency. I’m actually not here to talk about that particular quote. I want to instead highlight what he said just after that, as reported by Greg Sargent of The Washington Post:
“There is a historic connection between some of the arguments that we have politically and the history of race in our country, and sometimes it’s hard to disentangle those issues,” he went on. “You can be somebody who, for very legitimate reasons, worries about the power of the federal government — that it’s distant, that it’s bureaucratic, that it’s not accountable — and as a consequence you think that more power should reside in the hands of state governments. But what’s also true, obviously, is that philosophy is wrapped up in the history of states’ rights in the context of the civil-rights movement and the Civil War and Calhoun. There’s a pretty long history there. And so I think it’s important for progressives not to dismiss out of hand arguments against my Presidency or the Democratic Party or Bill Clinton or anybody just because there’s some overlap between those criticisms and the criticisms that traditionally were directed against those who were trying to bring about greater equality for African-Americans. The flip side is I think it’s important for conservatives to recognize and answer some of the problems that are posed by that history, so that they understand if I am concerned about leaving it up to states to expand Medicaid that it may not simply be because I am this power-hungry guy in Washington who wants to crush states’ rights but, rather, because we are one country and I think it is going to be important for the entire country to make sure that poor folks in Mississippi and not just Massachusetts are healthy.”
I’m choosing, just as Sargent did, to highlight the last portion of that quote. Obviously, though, he and I have different things to say about it. First of all, Sargent and I can agree that this quote, taken in its entirety, is a rather welcome admission from President Obama that conservative Americans do, in fact, have a legitimate argument against his favored policy preferences and that such arguments should not be dismissed out of hand. Mr. Sargent also anticipates that conservatives “will probably accuse Obama of hinting GOP governors are opting out of the Medicaid expansion for racial reasons.” Well, that’s sort of what I want to say here, but not quite.
What I really want to address is the fact that our President, like so many other liberals out there, felt the need to connect today’s states’ rights proponents with those of the Civil Rights Movement, the Civil War, and all the way back to the Nullification Crisis. He’s saying, in a nutshell, that today’s conservatives for some reason have to answer for the bigots of bygone eras who happened to use similar constitutional arguments for entirely different (i.e. overtly racist) purposes. Once again, we have to apologize. Not only is such an argument completely absurd, it is also insulting, degrading, and fundamentally unfair for modern-day conservatives.
I am not going to deny that today’s conservatives and those of the Civil War and Civil Rights eras at times use similar language. The “states’ rights” advocates of the past indeed conveyed their agenda within constitutional arguments regarding the limits of the federal government. But let’s be clear—they didn’t make any real effort to hide their objectives. Carter Glass, a renowned Virginia politician of the early 20th Century, was a very influential delegate at the 1902 Virginia Constitutional Convention. That year, the Convention adopted a new constitution that instituted, among other things, a poll tax and a literacy test for voters. When asked if these new policies might be discriminatory, he responded: “Discrimination! Why, that is exactly what we propose. To remove every Negro voter who can be gotten rid of, legally, without materially impairing the numerical strength of the white electorate.” Subtle.
No matter how you spin it, today’s conservatives are clearly not of that ilk. Say what you want about voter ID, but I have yet to hear a Republican state official echo Carter Glass. And if anyone were to do such a thing, they would be skewered in the press and forced out of public life. And rightfully so. Such a person is not a conservative; he or she is what we call a racist. They are not one and the same, and it is an injustice to millions of well-intentioned modern-day conservatives to equate them with such filth simply because the legitimate arguments they use were once used to legitimize the social engineering of bigots.
And there is certainly a double standard here. Do we hold modern-day Democrats accountable for Senator Glass’s remarks? He was a member of Mr. Jackson’s Party, after all. He also served in the cabinet of President Woodrow Wilson, a well-known progressive. Should today’s progressives answer for Mr. Glass as well? Should they also answer for Margaret Sanger, another pioneer of the Progressive Movement who founded Planned Parenthood and used her push for contraception as a vehicle for eugenics? Yesterday was the anniversary Roe v. Wade. Am I to assume that everyone who came out to celebrate that historic decision agrees with Ms. Sanger that “birth control is nothing more or less than the facilitation of the process of weeding out the unfit [and] of preventing the birth of defectives”? I should note that by “the unfit” she meant African-Americans and by “defectives” she was referring to the intellectually disabled.
No, I don’t think today’s liberals need to apologize for the backward thinkers of the past who happened to use the same arguments and titles to frame their sickening ideas. Your average modern-day liberal is not a eugenicist, just as average modern-day conservatives are not racists. And none of them should have to answer for crimes that were committed a hundred years before they were born, perpetrated by people who were nothing like them.