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Williamson writes that it is “remarkable how far back the ideological-partisan lines of U.S. politics are at least partly visible and comprehensible. In the Wilson era, you have a Democratic party pursuing centralization and central planning, suspicious of free markets and competition, allied with academic elites, and pursuing an agenda of regimentation that Democrats presented as ‘scientific’ and supported by dispassionate, empirical evidence. Against that, you have a Republican party allied with business interests, hostile toward taxes and redistribution, promising a restoration of an idealized prelapsarian American order—the ‘return to normalcy.'” As stated in my previous post, this only deals with economic issues, not social issues–more on that later. But even if we only focus on economics, this is an oversimplification. For one thing, “Progressivism” was promoted and opposed by different members of both parties. As Williamson himself references, Teddy Roosevelt left the presidency four years before Wilson entered it and was also a “progressive.” (“Progressive” refers to those who shared the progressives’ economic vision of greater regulation. A progressive in this era could be a social conservative like Wilson, a social moderate like Roosevelt, or a social liberal like Robert LaFollette, Jane Addams, and John Dewey.) As I discussed previously, some of the major supporters of black rights in Congress during this era were Republican progressives. In the nineteenth century, some Republicans, such as Orville Platt and William P. Frye, supported increased rights for black people and government support for American industry mixed with “up by your bootstraps” capitalism for working class and poor Americans. Others, such as Charles Sumner, Henry Wilson, and George Frisbie Hoar, were economic leftists, sometimes even backing radical labor union groups. Democrats in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were similarly divided. Grover Cleveland, the last Democratic president before Wilson, was a social and fiscal conservative with certain fascist tendencies. In 1924, Democrats nominated another social and fiscal conservative, John W. Davis, for president.
It is certainly true that some socially conservative Republican did defend black rights during these years. For example, Senator Boies “Big Grizzly” Penrose of Pennsylvania was anti-women’s suffrage, anti-Chinese immigration, and pro-suspension of civil liberties in wartime. He also opposed segregation, including bans on interracial marriage. Meanwhile, his 1914 Senate Election opponent, Representative A. Mitchell Palmer, was seen as a progressive Democrat and favored women’s suffrage but voted to ban interracial marriage. Still, close analysis does not support Williamson’s assertion. Firstly, Palmer became infamous as Attorney General for his suppression of leftists’ civil liberties via the “Palmer Raids” that were a precursor to the Red Scare. He may have leaned left, but he was hardly a Robert LaFollette. Additionally, the 1914 Pennsylvania Senate race was a three-way contest. Penrose and Mitchell also ran against Gifford Pinchot. While Pinchot was nominated by the Progressive Party in this election, he spent most of his career as a Republican and was liberal on most domestic issues besides crime. He was also generally supportive of African Americans’ rights. Conservatives like Penrose did not support civil rights because they were conservatives. They supported it because they were Yankee Republicans. I previously argued that Southern Democratic support for segregation was so entrenched that even a liberal Southern Democrat like Bilbo could champion it. I would also submit that support for black rights was entrenched enough among Northeastern and Great Lakes Republicans that even conservative Republicans from those parts of the country often subscribed to it.
What about Warren G. Harding, Wilson’s Republican successor. Williamson says he was “allied with business interests, hostile toward taxes and redistribution, promising a restoration of an idealized prelapsarian American order—the ‘return to normalcy.'” Again, while Harding was fiscally conservative, his social views were moderate. In addition to being markedly less anti-black than Wilson, he voted against the Sedition Act and pardoned Eugene Debs, a Socialist presidential candidate arrested in the Wilson Administration for encouraging draft resistance. Williamson goes on to reiterate his points about Wilson’s and Teddy Roosevelt’s racism, which I have already discussed at length in my previous essay. He then continues conflating social and fiscal liberalism and conservatism, which, again, has already been throughly covered by me. Williamson poses the question: “If the southern Democrats were ‘conservatives,’ then the New Deal was passed on conservative support, which is a very odd claim to make. What do we call the Republican anti-New Dealers, then?” Based on the facts of their record, I believe we should call them social conservative-fiscal liberals or populist authoritarians. But it begs another point. Throughout the bulk of their history, Southern Democrats have generally opposed not only emancipation and later desegregation but also such liberal ideas as women’s suffrage, nonEuropean immigration, Separation of Church and State, and civil liberties for leftist radicals. They generally favored suspension of individual rights in the name of national security, capital punishment, harsh “law and order” policies generally, traditional views on gender, etc. If they are labeled “liberal” or “left-wing,” what, then, do we call the people who disagreed with these social views? Similarly, before the 20th century, many Republicans favored not only more rights for black people but also women’s rights, nonEuropean immigration, environmentalism, ending the death penalty, and Separation of Church and State. They also voted for many of these policies at a much higher rate than Democrats. The support by many Republicans of keeping religion and government separate is worth looking at in some depth. It was Charles Sumner who helped kill a constitutional amendment that would have virtually declared Christianity the State Religion. It was Republican president and 1884 GOP presidential nominee, Ulysses S. Grant and James G. Blaine, respectively, who were some of the most prominent opponents of taxpayer funding for religious schools. In Illinois and Wisconsin, Republican state Supreme Court judges were pivotal in ending or severely scaling back official Bible readings, recitation of the Lord’s Prayer, and Devotional Hymns in state public schools. (This, of course, was different from students choosing to recite and read religious texts themselves, which most social liberals have favored allowing.) My previous post discussed both Teddy Roosevelt’s and Robert Taft’s support for separation of Church and State. If being pro-black rights, pro-women’s rights, pro-nonEuropean immigration, pro-environmentalism, pro-Separation of Church and State, and anti-death penalty in the 19th and early 20th centuries makes one a conservative, then the term loses much of its meaning.
I want to first apologize for the lateness of this blog. I have been very busy recently with a 10-day trip to Maine and a new puppy named Wendell Phillips Boyd.
Anyhow, I have finally gotten around to responding to another article by National Review‘s Kevin Williamson. I plan on writing another two rebuttals to other essays written within the last couple of weeks or so by James Kirchick and Tom Woods as time permits. I also feel that while the article by Williamson that I am responding to is from June 23, the claims he made are repeated frequently by conservatives and have become effectively a timeless issue. Williamson recently attempted to further argue that segregationist Democrats were liberals. After touting his admiration of William F. Buckley as a disclaimer, Williamson writes that, “Professor Kevin Kruse of Princeton, pretending to correct my assertion that it is a mistake to call the segregationist Democrats of the Roosevelt era ‘conservatives,’ correctly notes that WFB believed he had found a kindred conservative spirit in some of those Democrats and thought that they might be pried away from the Democratic party by the Republicans, among whom self-conscious conservatism was ascendant by the middle 1960s.” Williamson then insists that Buckley was wrong, because “with a tiny handful of notable exceptions (the grotesque opportunist Strom Thurmond prominent among them) the segregationist Democrats remained Democrats.” While I agree that Thurmond was a grotesque opportunist, it is not at all true that only a “tiny handful” of white Southern Democrats left the party. Kruse gave a rather lengthy list of racist Democratic defectors here, while also pointing out the problem with focusing only on politicians who switched parties and ignoring rank and file voters. And it has been demonstrated that racism is critical to explaining why so many white Southern voters left the Democratic Party. It is also worthwhile to consider ticket splitting. In the 1968 presidential election, George Wallace won a plurality of votes in Georgia, with Democrat Hubert Humphrey coming in third place in the Peach State. At the same time, Georgia voters reelected Talmadge in a huge landslide. In North Carolina, voters backed Republican Richard Nixon for president and Sam Ervin for Senator. In 1972, Alabama voters backed Nixon for president and Sparkman for Senate. Arkansas did the same with Nixon and McClellan. Mississippi reelected Nixon and Eastland. Similar patterns could be observed with other segregationist Democratic Senators. Interestingly, a parallel pattern took place with antiracist Republicans in liberal Northern states. In 1968, New York voters supported Humphrey for president and reelected Javits to the Senate. In 1972, Massachusetts was the only state to vote for Democratic presidential candidate, George McGovern, yet also reelected GOP Senator Edward Brooke. In 1976, both Democratic presidential nominee, Jimmy Carter, and Republican Senate nominee, John Chafee, handily won in Rhode Island. In 1988, Minnesota voters backed the Democrat Michael Dukakis for president and Republican David Durenberger for Senate. Thus, even if many racist, white Southern voters did not stop voting for racist Democratic Senators after 1964, they did often begin voting for Republican presidential candidates. And even if many pro-civil rights Republican voters in the North did not stop voting for pro-civil rights Republican Senators after 1964, many voted for Democratic presidential candidates.
After repeating his old points about Dixiecrats’ support for left-wing economic policies–which, as stated in my last post, give no insight into the Dixiecrats’ social liberalism or lack thereof–Williamson writes, “WFB helpfully published a list of those Democrats he thought possibly ready to defect to the Republican party. You would have done well to bet against him. James Eastland? No. John McClellan? No. John Stennis? No. Sam Ervin? No. Herman Talmadge? No. Allen Ellender? No. Spessard Holland? No. John Sparkman? Strike . . . eight.” Let’s consider the 1962 ratings for these Senators by Americans for Democratic Action, a group dedicated to advancing liberal positions in the party. Eastland and Stennis of Mississippi both either abstained or voted against the ADA’s position on every issue used for ratings purposes. McClellan voted with the ADA two times out of twelve. Ervin voted with the ADA one time out of twelve. Talmadge abstained once and voted against the ADA’s position eleven times. Ellender voted with the ADA only twice. Holland voted liberal three times out of twelve. Sparkman voted liberal four times, making him look like the radical lefty of the group. What about some of the Republicans who had pro-civil rights voting records? Were they basically Tom Cottons who just voted liberal on race issues? Not quite. Take Jacob Javits and Kenneth Keating of New York, two of the great civil rights champions of the Senate, both Republicans. Javits voted conservative twice, abstained twice, and voted liberal…eight times. Keating was less liberal but still voted with the ADA half the time. Senator Clifford Case of New Jersey voted liberal eight times out of twelve. Representatives Frank Morse and Silvio Conte of Massachusetts voted liberal four times out of eight. Robert Stafford of Vermont, William Scranton of Pennsylvania, and William Cahill of New Jersey voted liberal six times out of eight. Representative Florence Dwyer of New Jersey voted liberal seven times out of eight. Representatives Seymour Halpern of New York and Stanley Tupper of Maine voted liberal eight times out of eight. Even many pro-civil rights Republicans who received lower ratings scored higher than most of the Dixiecrats mentioned above. Senator Prescott Bush of Connecticut voted liberal four out of twelve times. Senator Thomas Kuchel of California voted liberal five times out of twelve. Diehard conservatives they were not. What about the man Buckley referred to as “liberal,” Olin Johnson? Johnson voted liberal four times, abstained once, and voted conservative seven times. Not a diehard conservative voting record, but not a strong liberal one either.
Kevin Williamson Lumps Together Social Liberalism and Fiscal Liberalism With Erroneous Results, Part 2
Furthermore, some of the fiscally conservative Republicans who opposed the Dixiecrats on race and economics in the Progressive Era and New Deal Era were definitely not social conservatives. Williamson does not bring up Robert Taft, but the Ohio Republican was famous for his fiscal conservatism. He was no champion of black people, but as I have argued elsewhere, Taft was a “passionate moderate” on race and one of the few politicians to denounce Japanese American internment. Unfortunately for his modern conservative admirers, Taft’s social views were Centrist. He spoke out against a bill to require daily Bible readings in Ohio public schools, called strict separation of Church and State “the whole basis of the American Constitution,” and opposed public funds for religious schools. Going back further to the Progressive Era, we have New Hampshire Senator Jacob Gallinger. As early as 1902, Gallinger was calling on Congress to investigate lynchings. In 1916, he called for federal protection of black voting rights. For these stances, he was mocked by Southern Democrats. Gallinger also largely opposed the economic reforms of the progressives, favoring the interests of big business. But he was also a believer in women’s suffrage, an environmentalist, and an advocate of animal welfare, including tighter restrictions on animal testing. He spoke out against efforts to further crack down on Chinese immigration and voted against the Sedition Act. If anything, he could best be described as a social liberal-fiscal conservative.
Williamson goes on to approvingly cite the inestimable Ta-Nehisi Coates’s description of rabid Mississippi segregationist Senator Theodore Bilbo as a liberal. On most issues except race, Bilbo was liberal. He even broke with most fellow Southern segregationists by backing women’s suffrage. However, he also came from a very socially reactionary Southern state. And in his case, it might be said that there was a conflict between his Southernism and his liberalism, and his Southernism won out. This is evidenced in part by his decision to call Eleanor Roosevelt “the greatest [n word] lover in the North.” Eleanor Roosevelt, of course, was the bleeding heart liberal that her husband was portrayed as at the time. But unlike Bilbo, she was from the Northeast. Please understand that I am well aware that racism was and is rampant in the North. But there were and are still marked differences in aggregate racial attitudes in the North versus the South. And in the Jim Crow era, white Northern liberals tended to see civil rights differently from Southern liberals. Pro-civil rights white Southern writer, Lillian Smith once estimated that 75 percent of white Southern liberals favored “separate but equal.” But that was not because they were liberal. It was because they were Southern. Indeed, Northern fiscal conservative Robert Taft joined forces with the diehard Northern liberal Senator Glen Taylor to prevent Bilbo from taking his seat after his last election victory. Taylor would go on to run as the 1948 vice presidential candidate for the Progressive Party, which called for civil rights, leftist domestic policies, and an end to the Cold War. During the campaign, he would be arrested for violating Alabama segregation laws.
I would like to close this essay with two final points. In the first place, going back to at least 1860, support for increased rights of African Americans was understood as a liberal or radical position, while opposition was understood as conservative. The New York Times used Abe Lincoln’s stated support for fugitive slave laws and opposition to racial equality as evidence of his conservatism. Lincoln would go on, of course, to back a constitutional amendment ending slavery. To quote Dinesh D’Souza in one of his rare moments of honesty, “that is why the right wing can never forgive him.” During Reconstruction, moderate Republicans who wanted to uphold at least some civil rights for black people while returning sovereignty to the former Confederate states were called “Liberal Republicans.” This title appears to have been their attempt to position themselves to the left of conservative Democrats but to the Right of the “Radical Republicans” who pushed harsh terms for ex-Confederate states and strong federal protection of civil rights. George Wallace had nothing but contempt for liberals in the 1960s. And what about William F. Buckley, the right-wing founder of National Review? By now, many of you probably know his 1957 defense of the Jim Crow South. To hear his old compadres at National Review tell it, he became a civil rights champion in the 1960s. Not quite. According to historian Kevin M. Schultz, “‘My position on the moral aspect of segregation,” Buckley wrote to a sixteen-year-old correspondent in 1964, is that “[s]egregation is morally wrong if it expresses or implies any invidious view of a race, not so if it intends or implies no such thing.’”
Kevin Williamson Lumps Together Social Liberalism and Fiscal Liberalism With Erroneous Results, Part 1
Since getting hired and fired from The Atlantic faster than Donald Trump can change his mind about attacking Iran, then un-ironically taking to The Wall Street Journal to complain that he was being silenced, Kevin Williamson is back to writing columns for the dumpster fire of political magazines we call National Review. In a recent column titled “Joe and the Segs,” Williamson uses Joe Biden’s self-inflicted controversy about his old Dixiecrat work friends to argue that the traditional, segregationist Southern Democrats were primarily liberal, not conservative. In response to claims from historians such as Dr. Kevin M. Kruse that the parties have largely shifted and that the Dixiecrats were conservatives, Williamson writes, “That is, of course, false. Conservatives largely opposed the New Deal, while segregationist Democrats were critical to making it happen. Most of the segregationist Democrats of the FDR–LBJ era were committed New Dealers and, by most criteria, progressives. They largely supported welfare spending, public-works programs, the creation of the major entitlement programs, and, to a lesser extent, labor reform.” This is true so far as it goes, but it involves a key oversimplification. All of the issues that Williamson cites here are fiscal issues. None of them provide any evidence that these Southern Democrats were socially liberal. And, of course, being liberal or progressive as we understand those terms today requires being at least left of center on fiscal and social issues. With his denunciations of corporate excesses and proposed cuts to Medicare and Social Security and support for strong regulation of businesses, Tucker Carlson is arguably at least Centrist, if not slightly leftish, on fiscal policy. But we don’t call him a liberal or progressive, because he’s very conservative on most social issues. Putting aside the Dixiecrats’ conservative views on race, what were their views on certain other social issues? During the New Deal era, Congress passed the Smith Act, a bill which made it illegal to advocate overthrowing the government and required non-citizen adults to register with the government. On July 29, 1939, 48 members of the House of Representatives voted to recommit the bill to the Judiciary Committee without instructions as a method of preventing it from being passed. Not one of those 48 came from a former Confederate state. In 1940, Southern Democrats voted overwhelmingly in favor of a peacetime draft. Meanwhile, this draft was opposed by many liberal/left-wing members of Congress, such as Vito Marcantonio, Burton K. Wheeler, Warren Magnuson, Charles Wolverton, Merlin Hull and Usher Burdick, as well as other liberals and far-left radicals such as John Dewey, Norman Thomas, Bayard Rustin, A.J. Muste, James Farmer, and John Haynes Holmes.
According to Williamson, “Many of the Democrats who were instrumental in the reforms of the Wilson years, the golden age of American progressivism, were virulent racists, prominent among them Woodrow Wilson himself. Given such figures as Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt, one might as easily write that progressives of both parties were racists.” Wilson was, again, an economic progressive. But he was a social conservative. Setting aside his support of segregation, Wilson was conservative on most social issues except for immigration. As I discussed here, Wilson was very much a latecomer to women’s suffrage and either outright opposed it or wanted it left to the states for most of his career. He also signed a Selective Service Act, the Espionage Act, and the Sedition Act to suppress civil liberties in wartime, all of which provoked massive opposition from people well to the left of him and were pivotal in the formation of the ACLU. Indeed, prominent conservative and National Review contributor, Ben Shapiro, once argued for essentially a reinstatement of Wilson’s wartime (anti) free speech policies until he reversed positions to begin arguing that they were an example of leftist intolerance. Teddy Roosevelt is a bit more of an interesting case. He was undoubtedly a white supremacist. He also favored school desegregation, proudly sent his children to school with black classmates, invited a back man to dine at the White House, and closed a local Mississippi post office for a year after residents reacted violently to a black postmaster. And Teddy Roosevelt, while not a social conservative, was not a flaming liberal on social issues either, favoring both liberal and conservative social policies, such as the death penalty, separation of Church and State, immigration restrictions, and women’s suffrage. I have previously argued and will continue to argue against the idea that the post-World War II alliance between many fiscal conservatives and the socially conservative, bigoted Right means that fiscal conservatism is inherently bigoted. I will now argue against the idea that the racist views of Wilson and Teddy (and Franklin) Roosevelt give us any special insight about the nature of economic progressivism. James W. Wadsworth, Jr. was a staunch socially and fiscally conservative Republican who entered politics in the 1910s and went on to become a dogged foe of the New Deal. He was also one of the most racist members of his party, breaking with the vast majority of fellow Republican Representatives to vote against a federal anti-lynching bill. Furthermore, other prominent progressive Republicans during the days of Wilson and Roosevelt, including Moses Clapp, Ira Copley, and arch-liberal Robert “Fighting Bob” LaFollette were quite supportive of civil rights for black people.
Williamson goes on to contrast the fiscal liberalism of Biden’s old work friend, Herman Talmadge, with Ronald Reagan. He points out that, “when Ronald Reagan was out denouncing the proposal for Medicare as the camel’s nose of socialism in America, Senator Talmadge was . . . voting for it. Other signers of the Southern Manifesto, though by no means all of them, voted for it, too.” There are a couple of problems here. As I’ve discussed here, here, and here, Reagan viciously race-baited from the 1960s all the way through his presidency. On racial issues, he was to the Right of every Democratic candidate he ever ran against. Talmadge’s vile segregationist views do not change that. Furthermore, Williamson once again offers no evidence for any socially liberal stances by Talmadge and his ilk. When the Supreme Court ruled that teacher-led prayer in public schools was unconstitutional, Talmadge, James Eastland, and George Wallace all vehemently denounced the decision, while pro-civil rights Republican Jacob Javits defended it and cautioned against Congressional action to reverse it. Williamson stated anti-New Deal Republican Senator Frederick Hale “voted against FDR’s nomination of Hugo Black to the Supreme Court because of Black’s membership in the Ku Klux Klan, and also declared: ‘If Mr. Roosevelt is renominated next year it will be unnecessary for the Socialist party to put up a candidate.’ If on one side of the vote you have free-spending patrons of entitlement programs and on the other side you have a man denouncing those as socialism, it is clear enough who is the conservative in the sense we use that word.” I have been unable to find any evidence of Black espousing socially liberal policy positions prior to his Supreme Court nomination. Admittedly, he was generally though not uniformly a social liberal while on the Court, supporting causes such as civil liberties for leftist radicals (except schoolchildren), an end to teacher-led prayer in public schools, and greater due process for accused criminals. The problem for Williamson is that for whatever reason, Black also became quite liberal about civil rights for black people as a Supreme Court judge. So attempting to tie his socially liberal jurisprudence in with his Klan membership won’t wash. Looking at Dixiecrats post-World War II era, we find that they not only tended to oppose Separation of Church and State, they also frequently favored other socially conservative policies such as abortion bans, suppression of gay rights, censorship of Communists, “law and order” legislation, and thwarting the Equal Rights Amendment. Robert Byrd, for instance, was one of the most conservative Democrats on gay rights during the 1990s and early 2000s. James Eastland fought both Roe v. Wade and the ERA in his later years as a Senator. Strom Thurmond and Jesse Helms went from being socially conservative Democrats to being some of the most socially conservative members of the GOP.