Kevin Williamson Redux, Part 2

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.


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