The 1950s marked a turning point in the relationship between fiscal conservatism and racism in public discourse. In 1953, Robert Taft, the passionate moderate on civil rights and critic of the New Deal, passed away, leaving a leadership void among fiscal conservatives. This planted the seeds for a new “conservative movement” that was conservative on social as well as fiscal issues. In 1955, a magazine called National Review was formed by a thirty year old pundit by the name of William F. Buckley.
One of Buckley’s early articles was a condemnation of Brown v. Board of Education. At times, his rhetoric was framed in terms of support for states’ rights. But in 1957, Buckley wrote that, “the central question that emerges… is whether the White community in the South is entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas where it does not predominate numerically? The sobering answer is Yes – the White community is so entitled because, for the time being, it is the advanced race.” James Kilpatrick, a writer Buckley hired for National Review, defended the alleged right of states to disobey Brown. In 1963, Kiplatrick would state categorically that blacks constituted an inferior race.
As National Review condemned Brown and most of the other instances of federal intervention in the Civil Rights Movement, a new star was rising in the Republican Party: Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona. In contrast to more fiscally moderate Republicans, Goldwater positioned himself as a hardcore fiscal conservative who desired to roll back the New Deal. In 1960, Goldwater published the book “Conscience of a Conservative,” ghostwritten by Buckley’s brother-in-law, L. Brent Bozell, Jr. Most of the book focused on non-racial issues such as economics and foreign policy. However, Goldwater devoted a short chapter to civil rights. While he stated that he personally opposed segregation in public schools, he also said that the Brown decision had been unconstitutional and wrong. Goldwater was a different man than Strom Thurmond, James Eastland, or any number of other Southern Democrats. He favored the modest Civil Rights Acts of 1957 and 1960 and integration of the Arizona National Guard and Phoenix public school system. Yet there has been a claim by some Goldwater admirers that he was simply a consistent libertarian who only opposed the civil rights laws applying to private businesses, due to reasons that had nothing to do with racism. Goldwater’s 1960 opposition to Brown, a libertarian decision that applied only to discrimination by government, gives lie to this claim.
In 1964, Goldwater was one of just six Republican Senators to vote against the Civil Rights Act of 1964 just as he seized the presidential nomination in a bitter primary battle, supported by conservative writers like William F. Buckley and James Kilpatrick and old guard Southern Democrats like Strom Thurmond. The primary battle pitted Goldwater against liberal Republican Nelson Rockefeller and, after Rockefeller dropped out of the race, another liberal Republican named William Scranton. The differences between Goldwater’s faction and the “Rockefeller Republicans” are crucial to examine in detail. Goldwater Republicans were to the left of Southern Democrats on racial issues but generally opposed strong federal civil rights bills, while Rockefeller Republicans were staunch supporters of equal rights for blacks at the state and federal level and supported legislation outlawing discrimination in the private and public sectors. But their differences extended beyond race. While Goldwater Republicans tended to be staunch fiscal conservatives, Rockefeller Republicans generally accepted most of the New Deal and even supported new economic programs. In other words, Rockefeller, Scranton, and other liberal Republicans of the Cold War era–Clifford Case, Jacob Javits, Hugh Scott, Kenneth Keating, Irving Ives, Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., etc.–were not only liberal on civil rights but also liberal or at least moderate on economics. New York Congressmen Ogden Reid was a stalwart supporter of civil rights who might be classified as a fiscal conservative early in his career, but he seems to have become fairly liberal on fiscal issues after becoming a Democrat. (His party switch was prompted, in no small part, by the Republican Party moving the Right on race issues.) Another New York Congressman Charles E. Goodell also arguably showed some fiscally conservative tendencies early in his career and strongly favored civil rights, but his economic stances also appeared to become more liberal later in his career, especially after he became a Senator. Goodell’s and Reid’s fellow New York Congressman Barber Conable was one of only a small number of politicians in this era who was consistently a strong civil rights supporter and a strong fiscal conservative. While many staunch fiscally conservative Republicans in the House and Senate, including Everett Dirksen, Gerald Ford, and Karl Mundt, voted for strong civil rights legislation in the 1960s, they generally had to be cajoled into offering support. This was in stark contrast to the Rockefeller Republicans who were liable to complain that the civil rights legislation proposed by JFK and LBJ did not go far enough. Meanwhile, Democrats who were both fiscally liberal and strongly pro-civil rights, such as Hubert Humphrey, Paul Douglas, Robert and Ted Kennedy, and Gaylord Nelson, were becoming increasingly prominent in their party. In short, among politicians, there was emerging a strong correlation between fiscal liberalism and support for civil rights.
Also in the 1960s, an actor and former Democrat had allied himself closely with Goldwater. His name was Ronald Reagan. Reagan’s state of residence, California, had recently passed a law against racial discrimination in housing, called the Rumford Fair Housing Act. At the same time that he campaigned for Goldwater, Reagan came out publicly against the act, which was repealed in a referendum by a heavy majority of California voters–paradoxically, at the same time that they overwhelmingly rejected Goldwater’s candidacy. And in the 1966 governors’ race, Reagan defeated the pro-civil rights incumbent, Pat Brown. Reagan ran on a platform supporting fiscal conservatism and opposing anti discrimination laws for the housing market. During the 1960s, Reagan also at various points publicly criticized the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. Reagan and his defenders painted his opposition to civil rights bills during the 1960s as motivated by a belief in limited government. This was proven false by the fact that during his run for governor, Reagan also advocated stricter obscenity laws–hardly the position of a man concerned about government overreach. This strange inconsistency further demonstrated that most of the prominent Goldwater Republicans who opposed anti discrimination laws were not libertarians. They were not consistent supporters of small government. They were racists who used limited government rhetoric as a cover. In 1980, Reagan successfully ran for president and became synonymous in the public mind with lower taxes and free enterprise (though not, of course, low federal spending or balanced budgets.) He also described Jefferson Davis as a personal hero. As president, Reagan initially favored granting Bob Jones University tax-exempt status despite the fact that the school maintained restrictions on interracial dating, and he later vetoed a bill that would have imposed economic sanctions on South Africa as a means of opposing apartheid. Many of the individuals and institutions Reagan was allied with among the Religious Right—Jerry Falwell, W.A. Criswell, Bob Jones University—had records of defending segregation. Indeed, many Christian evangelicals, such as Jerry Falwell and Jesse Helms, backed Reagan’s leniency toward South Africa. Reagan also tried to appoint Robert Bork to the Supreme Court and appointed William Rehnquist to be Chief Justice. These two men had, in their capacity as constitutional scholars, both discouraged Goldwater from voting for the Civil Rights Act of 1964–and neither one of them were real proponents of small government either, defending policies such as bans on sodomy, bans on gay marriage, and bans on flag burning.
Claiming that a person is racist because they are a fiscal conservative is illogical and downright slanderous. But fiscal conservatives, including this author, must acknowledge that fiscal conservatism is lumped together with racism in the minds of many people largely due to the fact that the two presidential candidates of the last fifty years most strongly associated with rock-ribbed fiscal conservatism also fanned the flames of racial bigotry far more than even Richard Nixon ever did and were two of the individuals most responsible for causing the GOP to lay down its mantle as the party of civil rights. We must also acknowledge that many conservative pundits, from William F. Buckley and James Kilpatrick to Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter, have made their living partly through racist diatribes. And lest anyone think that my criticisms of Reagan are simply parroting of liberal hatchet jobs, I would like to end with a 1989 quote from a politician: “one of the gravest mistakes the Reagan administration made was its failure to lead aggressively in civil rights.” This quote comes not from Ted Kennedy or from Lowell Weicker but from Newt Gingrich.