Fiscal Conservatism and Race, Part 1

Unfortunately, in recent decades, there has been an alarming trend in American political dialogue. Many people have come to link fiscal conservatism with bigotry, especially racism. A widespread perception seems to be that if a person favors low government spending and a laissez-faire economy with most economic programs being provided by the private sector, they are a racist. This idea is rather strange. How does opposing national health insurance, favoring food stamp cuts, and wanting to privatize Medicare and Medicaid indicate that one also believes in racial profiling, thinks the Bell Curve is good science, and is convinced slavery and segregation were no big deal? In order to understand how this strange association came about, it is important to look back through history.

For a long time, there seems to have been no strong association between support for conservative civil rights policies and conservative economic policies. George Fitzhugh, a social theorist from Virginia, defended slavery while despising capitalism. (He dreamed of a Communist society in which all workers, white and black, would be slaves “for their own good.”) Racially egalitarian abolitionists included both Socialists like Wendell Phillips and supporters of the interests of big business like William Lloyd Garrison. Roscoe Conkling (R-NY), a politician and lawyer, was one of the original proponents of “corporate personhood,” i.e. the idea that corporations have the rights of people–a concept despised almost universally by fiscal liberals. He also vehemently opposed the Dred Scott decision, was a member of the “Radical Republicans” faction calling for increased rights for ex-slaves, and lamented the end of Reconstruction. One story in particular showcases the fact that Conkling’s views on race were probably as liberal as almost anyone outside of the abolitionist movement. When the Mississippi state legislature, under the influence of Northern Republicans, appointed a black man named Blanche K. Bruce to the Senate, Mississippi’s senior Senator James L. Alcorn refused to escort Bruce to the front of the chamber to take his oath of office, despite the fact that it is a tradition for the senior senator to escort the junior senator. Roscoe Conkling, who was then serving as New York’s junior Senator, accompanied Bruce instead, leading to Bruce naming a son after him.

In the 20th century, other historical figures further illustrate the danger of tying fiscal conservatism with racism. Consider Ben Tillman and James K. Vardaman. Tillman was a governor and later Senator from South Carolina. Vardaman was a governor and later Senator from Mississippi. Both men were rabid segregationists who defended lynching. And both were economic populists who battled the fiscal conservatives of their era. The most racist president of the 20th century was the big business-regulating Woodrow Wilson. His successors, Harding and Coolidge, were much more fiscally conservative and less reactionary on race. William Jennings Bryan, the man who was nominated three times for president on a platform of left-wing economic populism, accused Theodore Roosevelt of being too liberal on race. Meanwhile, Moorfield Storey and Louis Marshall, two of the leading NAACP lawyers in the 1910s and 1920s who persuaded the Supreme Court to strike down laws mandating residential segregation, were both strong opponents of the progressive and populist movements. Joseph Foraker had opposed Jim Crow laws in Ohio while serving as governor, and as a Senator in the early 1900s, he stood up for unjustly discharged soldiers from an African American infantry regiment in Texas and staunchly supported the interests of big business.

During the New Deal, the Roosevelt administration followed a policy of segregation. Wisconsin wished to have its Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camps integrated. CCC Director Robert Fechner responded that this was unacceptable and deported black CCC workers living in Wisconsin to segregated camps in Illinois. The Social Security Act was written in such a way as to make sure that as few black workers as possible received pensions. Huey Long, the Louisiana governor who attacked the New Deal from the Left, refused to stop a lynching for the stated reason that, “we just lynch the occasional [racial slur],” and that it was necessary for the whites in Louisiana lynch mobs to get the desire for racial violence out of their systems every once in a while. Both of the men who represented Mississippi in the Senate during the 1930s, Pat Harrison and Theodore Bilbo, were New Dealers and segregationists. Bilbo in particular was so reactionary on race that he was quite conservative even compared to other segregationists and almost universally considered an extremist by Northern politicians. Even Claude Pepper, whose fierce devotion to New Deal reforms and praise of the Soviet Union earned him the nickname “Red Pepper” won re-election partly by defending the right of state Democratic parties to have white-only primaries after the Supreme Court ruled the practice unconstitutional. Meanwhile, Congressman Hamilton Fish III (R-NY) opposed both FDR’s liberal economic policies and his neglect of civil rights. Senator Robert Taft (R-OH) was known for his anti-New Deal views and favored federal legislation against poll taxes and lynching. Indeed, he was involved in a successful attempt in 1945 to prevent Bilbo from being seated by the Senate, largely due to the Mississippi Senator’s extreme race-baiting. To be sure, Taft was not exactly a hardcore supporter of racial equality, opposing strong anti discrimination laws. Most of the Republicans in the New Deal and World War II era who strongly supported racial equality, such as Harold Stassen, Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. and Irving Ives, were moderate economic progressives, not doctrinaire anti-New Dealers. Still, Taft and other Republicans of similar fiscal views were more liberal on race than most white Southern New Dealers. And some supporters of racial equality did also take a hard line against the New Deal. Branch Rickey, the baseball mogul known for signing Jackie Robinson to the Dodgers and less well-known for saying, “I may not be able to do something about racism in every field, but I can sure do something about it in baseball,” was a staunch opponent of the New Deal. Rose Wilder Lane, a writer for the Pittsburgh Courier, denounced racism and the New Deal with equal vitriol.

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2 responses to “Fiscal Conservatism and Race, Part 1

  1. Joe

    You’re correct in noting a lack of connection between bigotry and “fiscal” conservatism…at least, you’re right about that up until the 1970s when the Southern Strategy was formulated (see Lee Atwater…his backhanded admissions on this point are rather startling). However, bigotry was closely associated with “social” conservatism before this period. The term “conservative” has only existed as a political label for about 200 years. For just about that entire period (up to the 1970s, anyway), the documentary record is replete with overt expressions of bigotry which were explicitly labeled “conservative” viewpoints. For example, while campaigning for president in 1859, Abraham Lincoln advocated overtly white supremacist views which he explicitly labeled an “eminently conservative” viewpoint. From a speech in Columbus, OH on 9/16/1859: “I agree with Judge Douglas, he [the negro] is not my equal in many respects—certainly not in color, perhaps not in moral or intellectual endowments.” Over the next couple of paragraphs he articulated, at some length, his political goals of maintaining white supremacy over black people and then summarized these goals as follows: “This chief and real purpose of the Republican party is eminently conservative.” Of course, these expressions were interspersed with claims of support for some economic freedom for blacks but, socially, Lincoln held views which were just as bigoted as anyone else’s. We see expressions along this same line in the writings and/or speeches of Jefferson Davis, Alexander Stephens and many others. However, from my observation (purely anecdotal as I haven’t conducted a statistical analysis), direct connections between bigotry and social conservatism were explicitly uttered more often by Democrats rather than Republicans. In actuality, the Democrats claimed the mantle of conservatism at the time and the Republicans were basically castigated as foaming-at-the-mouth left wing loonies (i.e. “Radical” Republicans/destroyers of the nation). Really, the fact of the matter is that ideological purity didn’t really exist prior to the 1970s. Before then, it wasn’t uncommon for folks to claim to hold mixed views (i.e. fiscal liberalism/social conservatism a la Woodrow Wilson and fiscal conservatism/social liberalism a la Dwight Eisenhower). In fact, Republicans probably had a stronger record of giving lip service to equal rights for blacks during the first half of the 20th century, even if they didn’t really have the political will to undertake strong actions to make that a reality. However, the fact is that bigotry was often explicitly associated with “social” conservatism all the way up through the Civil Rights era (i.e. Strom Thurmond’s Dixiecrats in 1948 and George Wallace’s segregation platform in the 1960s). These folks, among many others, repeatedly asserted their bigoted policies were merely expressions of their conservative viewpoints.

    • Great reply! You’re totally correct that bigotry was associated with social conservatism pretty much from the foundation of the U.S. Part of the purpose of my blogging on this topic was to address the truth that you point out: social conservatism and fiscal conservatism were not associated to the extent that they are now. And one of the secondary purposes of this blog in general is to attempt to promote the socially liberal-fiscally conservative set of views that is so marginalized in contemporary American politics. I’ve long thought of Wilson as a social conservative/fiscal liberal, and you’re the first person besides myself that I have heard explicitly state this. So when I read that in your reply, I was thrilled. And I also fully agree–and have written a lot on this topic–that the Republican Party was definitely more liberal on race than the Democratic Party until the 1960s. The one point I would disagree with you on is on Lincoln’s social views. In an off-the-record comment before his presidency, he basically said he didn’t care if people of different races married and thought laws against it were pointless. (Although this differed from what he said in the Lincoln-Douglas Debates.) But overall, I thought your comment was excellent.

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