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.