David Frisk raised an interesting point in the comments section: Do speeches and articles by prominent conservatives half-a-century ago tell a fair-minded person anything about what conservatism stands for today? Josh Patashnik of the New Republic raised a similar point. “Every party and ideology has its past errors to answer for,” he said, but arguing about whose were worst or most recent is a “pointless” endeavor, “best suited to late-night conversations in freshman dorm rooms.”
I agree that harping on the past is often a way to win debates that no one is watching, and thus a waste of time when we should be working on the issues that confront us right now. The dogmas of the quiet past are often inadequate to the stormy present. Sometimes, however, those dogmas are implicated in these storms, and we cannot disenthrall ourselves without scrutinizing them.
Consider the 1974 Supreme Court decision in Milliken v. Bradley. By a vote of 5-to-4 the Court rejected the mad scientist scheme, devised by a federal district court and approved at the appellate level, to bus school children all over the Detroit metropolitan area - the city plus 53 suburban school districts - in order to achieve racial balance. The four dissenters included William Douglas, Byron White, William Brennan and Thurgood Marshall. All, especially Brennan and White, are liberal heroes. (White complicated his legacy with liberals by joining William Rehnquist in dissent against Roe v. Wade.) Many liberal writers and politicians openly hope that the next Democratic president will nominate Supreme Court justices who emulate Brennan and Marshall.
A 34-year-old court decision about an issue that gets discussed in history books, not newspaper stories, remains relevant for two reasons. First, even though busing is old news, the question about jurists who have such a high degree of confidence in their abilities and prerogatives to be social engineers is likely to come up in other contexts. Conservatives have a right to ask whether this is the kind of jurist Democrats intend to nominate and confirm.
Secondly, the question of liberal condescension, and even hostility, to working-class whites is not moot just because it’s trite. Obama’s famous remarks about bitter folks in small towns were clumsy and clueless, but the anthropologist’s vantage point he adopted vis-à-vis his fellow citizens has had malign implications in liberalism’s history, not just supercilious ones. The position Marshall and Brennan took in Milliken was primarily stupid and secondarily wicked, but the wickedness of busing cannot be discounted. More than a few liberals took satisfaction in the torment white parents felt about the prospect of sending their children to distant schools in dangerous neighborhoods. Busing was intended as a way of doing penance for America’s racist past, and the reaction against busing confirmed liberals’ belief in the continuing pervasiveness of racism among whites less enlightened than themselves. The liberals who levied these penalties to atone for racism, of course, unfailingly arranged for other whites to pay them by suffering the adverse effects of busing and affirmative action.
Liberals, now, would be happy to go on as if all this had never happened, similar to the way many conservatives treat the legacy of states’ rights and Dixiecrats. Conservatives would do themselves and the country some good by insisting that liberals come to terms with this part of their past. Conservatives, however, can hardly press for such a reckoning without going through their own.
The conservative position, now, about the civil rights struggle then embraces three tenets. First, America did well to eradicate Jim Crow and conclude the long, disgraceful era of second-class citizenship. Second, the conservative case brought to bear against the landmark civil rights decisions and laws may or may not have been right, but it reflected a legitimate and commendable concern: to maintain “a system of divided governmental authority intended to stand against absolute tyranny.” Third, neither in the 1950s nor at any point since, have conservatives described an alternative path to the eradication of Jim Crow, one not raising this specter of tyranny.
The interconnections among these three propositions are uneasy at best, untenable at worst. As a result, conservatives face a tough crowd when they talk to black voters about school choice, faith-based initiatives and safe streets. The suspicion lingers that a tepid commitment to securing blacks’ unimpaired rights as citizens is not an accident of conservatism’s history, but a reflection of its ideological essence. Conservatives’ protestations about their own benign sentiments won’t allay these suspicions; rigorous examination of their intellectual heritage to distinguish the good parts from the bad might.