That the Republican Party's post-1964 resurgence owes a lot to civil rights politics goes without saying, despite considerable debate on how much of a role that economics, suburbanization, sexuality, gender, and religion played in the rise of the New Right. William Voegeli, a conservative political scientist at the Claremont Institute, has weighed in on these issues with an unusually reflective and thought-provoking article on race and conservatism. Voegeli grapples with the connections between states-rights rhetoric and anti-civil rights politics, with William F. Buckley's infamous contention that whites are an advanced race, and with the New Right's indifference to civil rights (at best) and vocal support for segregationism (at worst).
Voegeli, however, makes at least two erroneous arguments that undermine his article's larger political point. The first, and most important, is his assumption that civil rights legislation fundamentally expanded the power of the federal government in ways that vitiated what he believes are legitimate arguments for reserving most, if not all powers, to the states and localities. The civil rights movement, he contends, succeeded in "politicizing all the spaces in which Americans live their lives. The lesson that federal government intervention could extinguish the wickedness of segregation was learned too well, and reinforced the liberal conviction that government could—-and therefore must—-intervene to eradicate every social ill, no matter how large or amorphous, affecting minority groups." Voegeli is right that the coercive power of the federal government made possible many civil rights advances, most notably the advent of integrated public education in the South and the abolition of segregated public accommodations. But whole areas of everyday life remained largely unaffected by federal civil rights legislation: most notably housing. The tepid 1968 Fair Housing Act (also known as Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act) left the most distinctive and pernicious feature of segregation and a prime cause of racial inequality--residential segregation--mostly untouched. Although rates of black-white residential segregation fell in the 1990s, most of metropolitan America remains intensely balkanized by race, the result of ineffective civil rights laws. And even federal intervention to desegregate schools was terribly limited. Most school districts in the North and West remained separate and unequal, untouched by federal law. And contra Voegeli, busing (that controversial remedy) was mostly the result of state administrative action (mandates by state departments of education), not federal intervention. The story of the implementation of civil rights legislation is not one of uniform triumph: it is one of struggle between advocates of racial equality and ideological or procedural critics of civil rights enforcement, most of them Republican. Often the Republicans won all out; more often still, they weakened civil rights policies without destroying them entirely. That's why affirmative action is on the rocks nearly everywhere and why, since the 1980s, American public education has grown increasingly segregated by race.
Voegeli's arguments about affirmative action are also problematic. "Affirmative action," he argues, "has been the civil rights movement's political gift to the conservative movement. Conservatives have been delighted by the chance, finally, to present themselves as the ones articulating a principled egalitarian argument on behalf of innocent people whose prospects in life were diminished when they were judged according to the color of their skin rather than the content of their characters." This is simply bad history. It is true that civil rights activists, among them Martin Luther King, Jr., the Urban League's Whitney Young, and CORE's James Farmer all argued for some form of compensatory programs to undo hundreds of years of systematic racial segregation. But affirmative action as we know it was the creation of a Republican president, Richard M. Nixon. And despite the fact that Ronald Reagan unleashed and legitimated conservative anti-affirmative action rhetoric and appointed scores of judges who have slowly eviscerated civil rights laws, affirmative action remained administratively intact throughout his administration. Reagan could have--but did not--gut the executive branch agencies responsible for enforcing affirmative action. On the other hand, the courts whittled away at affirmative action, particularly in education and contract set-asides, gutting remedial arguments for affirmative action and leaving the program resting on the thin reed of the diversity rationale. In other words, affirmative action is far more powerful in its critics' imaginations than it is in practice.
In the end, Voegeli hopes to defend the Republican Party against the charge that "the essence of conservatism is and always has been Dixiecrat-ism." Or put differently, "everything that conservatism has accomplished and stood for since 1965—-Reagan, the tax revolt, law-and-order, deregulation, the fight against affirmative action, the critique of the welfare state...everything—-is the poisoned fruit of the poisoned tree." I think the metaphor of a hybrid tree, grafted onto racist roots is better. The importance--and in most cases centrality--of race to the rise of the New Right is undeniable. Reagan, after all launched his 1980 campaign in infamous Philadelphia, Mississippi, and played to his Dixiecrat constituents brilliantly. Nixonian and Reaganite law and order politics--nothing to be proud of, especially given the steady rise in crime between the 1960s and the 1990s--resulted in the expansion of a carceral state which disproportionately impacted African Americans but had little impact on crime rates. It is impossible to ignore the racial roots of the transformation of criminal justice in symbolic moments like the infamous Willie Horton ad in 1988. Even though only a tiny percentage of whites were ever victims of criminal acts by blacks, crime had (and still has) a black face. On the welfare state, right-wing criticism of Social Security and Aid to Dependent Children (later Aid to Families with Dependent Children) is as old as the New Deal itself. But the poison fruit of anti-welfarism ripened in the post-1960s period, when the mainstream media represented welfare as a black problem (on this point read Martin Gilens's superb and impeccable book, Why Americans Hate Welfare) and when candidates like Reagan stoked white resentment with his racist and entirely fictitious depiction of the "welfare queen." And just ask Charlie Black, who crafted Jesse Helms's infamous anti-affirmative action ad (and who is now flacking for John McCain) whether or not there was racial symbolism in the white hands crumbling up a job rejection letter and in the laden and inaccurate phrase "racial quotas." Rightist anti-tax politics also has a racial component (Thomas and Mary Edsall's sometimes problematic Chain Reaction and more recently Robert Self's important history of Oakland and the East Bay, made this clear nearly twenty years ago) and has its origins as I have noted before, in the rhetoric of slaveholders in the nineteenth century.
Race is not all: anti-statism, libertarianism, law-and-order politics, and anti-welfarism have long pedigrees in the United States. But they bore abundant fruit only when grafted onto the roots of racism.
To Voegeli's credit, he acknowledges the Republican Party's racist past--and the moral and political costs of the New Right's position on civil rights. That's a start. But there's good reason why the G.O.P. remains America's white party.