William Voegeli of the conservative Claremont Institute puts it rather bluntly in this WSJ article. American conservatives were on the wrong side of the civil rights issue.
Bruce Bartlett notes in this WSJ op-ed that since the founding of the Republican Party, it has the best record of the two major parties on civil rights. But let’s be honest. During that past 154 years the faces of the two parties and of the conservative movement have changed. The GOP has not been consistently chiefly conservative, nor have conservatives always been chiefly Republicans. Today’s GOP taking credit for the Civil Rights Act of 1875 is a stretch into ancient history.
Voegeli uses the writings and utterings of Bill Buckley — the founder of the modern conservative movement — to prove his case. Buckley and his fellow conservatives constantly championed the causes of federalism and limited government. They even used these principles to denounce the evils of employing federal overreach to resolve the problems of legally institutionalized segregation and racism, particularly in the South.
Please note that federalism as currently used in conservative circles means the devolution of government power to the states, getting back to the federal government exercising only those powers specifically enumerated in the Constitution. Some detractors refer to this as “states rights;” a phrase that was used throughout the conflict over slavery as a euphemism for supporting slavery.
While Buckley and other conservatives asserted that they had no problem with ending institutionalized white preference, they stood on principle, boldly affirming that the only way this could be accomplished without trampling on the Constitution was to allow it to occur through natural societal evolution. Segregation would eventually end on its own, they assured.
Voegeli writes, “To the urgent insistence that ending segregation justified the government in doing whatever it had to do, conservatives responded by calling for the indefinite reliance on other people's patience.” Besides, conservatives listed a whole list of problems that would most assuredly arise if institutionalized segregation were ended by government fiat.
Conservatives were wrong. While we like to think of ourselves as far more enlightened than our progenitors, there is little evidence that segregation would be much better today than in 1960 had federal action not occurred. The forecast social upheaval as the result of federal action also didn’t last. Most conservatives today not only admit that federal action was required, but view this action with pride.
But if conservatives were wrong about using federal intervention to end segregation and its immediate ramifications, they were also right about where it would lead. When it came to civil rights, conservatives “had no starting point”, but liberals “had no stopping point.” Buckley saw early on where these excesses would lead. Indeed, some of these excesses have been liberalism’s greatest gift to the conservative movement.
Having captured the moral high ground by employing federal power to quash segregation, liberals have assumed that this can be translated to just about any issue. There is no logical limit to what can and should be accomplished by centralized political power. Moreover, the morality of civil rights is borrowed as justification for this.
Conservatives are left having to look like the dour faced accountant wearing a green eye shade, trying to remind Americans that there is a cost to every brick of the socialist program. It’s a message that Americans that are used to having what they want when they want it find hard to listen to. Still, it would mean a lot more to voters if the GOP, which has been the bastion of conservatism since the 70s, hadn’t spent recent years working against the its own cherished ideals of federalism and limited government.
The tale Voegeli weaves presents two conclusions. 1) There are occasions when problems can only reasonably be solved by employing federal power. 2) There are pretty strict limitations to what the federal government can and should do.
Each side likes one of these concepts but hates the other. Actually, for many that brand themselves as conservatives, point #2 simply boils down to a disagreement with liberals over which facets of life the federal government should control. They have no problem employing the force of government to abridge liberty, as long as their policies are favored.
So perhaps a bigger problem for the conservative movement is that few Americans today seem to buy off on the idea of limited government. Buckley and other conservatives once drew the line of limited government so firmly that there was no room for necessary exceptions. Now that this has proven to be too limited, liberals believe the principle is void while conservatives can’t tell the difference between the rule and the exception.
Thus, today’s GOP looks like Democrat-lite. And the party old bulls are fighting like made to keep it that way (see Kimberley Strassel article). Some of the same people that once worked to bring about a permanent GOP majority are working hard to maintain a permanent GOP minority.
This begs the question: does anybody out there really know what it means to be conservative anymore? Does anyone really care?