Race, Revisionism, and National Review
Progressives should cheer Kevin Williamson’s current cover story in the
National Review, in which he claims that Republicans, not Democrats, are
the true historic bulwark of civil rights. Who’d have thought that a
pro-civil rights piece would ever appear in the magazine of William F.
Buckley, who once assailed the civil rights movement for being “far gone in
a commitment to state socialism” and an enemy of “the American way of life and our civilization”?
That’s a cheap shot, true—views evolve, and Williamson shouldn’t be held accountable for Buckley’s troglodytic racial views. But the distinction between the National Review then and the National Review today highlights Williamson’s embarrassingly basic misunderstanding of American history.
Williamson writes that, according to the conventional wisdom, the Republicans and Democrats “flipped” positions on race in the 1960s—that the Democrats, once a bunch of backwoods racists, became enlightened, while the Republicans, the party of Lincoln, became the party of George Lincoln Rockwell (or thereabouts). This, he says, is a “myth,” since a majority of Republican senators support the 1964 Civil Rights Act, while the Southern Democrats opposed it.
True, all true. But—and this is so basic that it’s embarrassing to say it—the political landscape has changed dramatically in 50 years. In 1963 both parties were ideologically diverse coalitions. The Democrats included everyone from Adam Clayton Powell (black nationalist) to Richard Daley (white urban ethnic) to James Eastland (Southern white supremacist), while the GOP included Jacob Javits (Jewish urban liberal) to Bill McCulloch (small-town Ohio conservative) to Barry Goldwater (Sunbelt libertarian). Rather than falling along an ideological spectrum, the parties were constellations – there were Southern racists who backed the New Deal (Lister Hill) and Midwestern, small-government conservatives who backed progressive civil rights legislation (Everett Dirksen). So, yes, in the 1960s some Republicans supported civil rights. Some didn’t. Some Democrats were ignorant racists. Others weren’t.
For a variety of reasons—including, but not only, racial politics—both parties went through ideological realignments in the postwar decades, so that today we speak of Republicans as almost uniformly conservative and Democrats as almost uniformly liberal. The GOP of today is simply not the GOP of 1963. Williamson claims that you can draw a pro-civil rights line through a century of Republicans, from Lincoln to Susan B. Anthony to the likes of Jacob Javits. True. But you can’t draw a line from Javits to, say, Jim DeMint, so drastically has the party changed. Williamson is either willfully ignorant of that fact, or he has never cracked a political science textbook. Either way, somewhere in America a high school history teacher is crying behind his desk.
This isn’t the only con job that Williamson botches. He also argues that the realignment of the South, from overwhelmingly Democratic to overwhelmingly Republican, had nothing to do with race. To prove it, he name checks a 2006 book by the political scientists Byron Shafer and Richard Johnston, which argues that rising incomes, not race, drove the South to the GOP. It’s not clear that Williamson actually read Shafer and Johnston’s book, which is much more nuanced than he presents it (he doesn’t quote from it, instead relying on a squib from a potted synopsis, written by yours truly). And it’s obvious he hasn’t read the towering stack of books by such luminaries as Earl and Merle Black that argue the opposite, that race did in fact play a major part in the Southern realignment. In any case, no serious political scientist—not Shafer, not Johnston, certainly not the Black brothers—argues that race was irrelevant to the Southern realignment. Williamson is alone on this one.
Williamson also ignores, or isn’t aware of, the fascinating recent historical work that demonstrates how race and class in the postwar South were complementary, not mutually exclusive. As Princeton’s Kevin Kruse demonstrates in his seminal history of postwar Atlanta, White Flight, the rising income among whites allowed overt racism to morph into something more subtle, from dominance through social control to dominance through space—in other words, whites just moved to the suburbs, where high property values proved just as effective as Jim Crow in keeping blacks at arm’s length. The new breed of conservative Republican politicians, in turn, realized they could avoid the stain of overt racism by appealing to these middle–class, de facto segregationists: hence the rise of anti‒bussing, anti‒urban politics in the 1970s and 80s, campaigns in which the words “black” and “segregation” never needed to be mentioned. Any serious discussion of race and American party politics needs to at least engage with such work. Williamson doesn’t.
If nothing else, Williamson’s article is instructive because it points up a depressing fact about American political culture. We cheer on Republicans or Democrats like we do sports teams, with little appreciation for the underlying values they claim to represent. That’s hardly news, but Williamson’s anachronistic ignorance takes it to an absurd extreme—presenting incoherent revisionism without actually understanding the history he’s trying to rewrite.
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