The Flawed Case Tying Conservatism to Racism

By Peter Berkowitz - March 5, 2013

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Finally, Tanenhaus writes that “just as Calhoun had defended the ‘positive good’ of slavery, so Buckley defended Jim Crow as being born of ‘custom and tradition . . . a whole set of deeply-rooted folkways and mores.’ ” Tanenhaus does not identify the source of this snippet. But if one takes the trouble to hunt down Buckley’s Feb. 22, 1956, editorial, “The Assault on Miss Lucy,” one discovers that in it Buckley denounces University of Alabama students for mob violence in reaction to the appearance on campus of a black student who had been admitted under court order. Contrary, however, to Tanenhaus’s misleading reconstruction, Buckley was not defending Jim Crow as a positive good, he was criticizing -- wrongly, to be sure -- the Supreme Court’s Brown decision as an act of judicial usurpation.

And that’s the entirety of Tanenhaus’s case that modern American conservatism was built around a devotion to John C. Calhoun’s politics of nullification: a few lines from one chapter presenting Calhoun’s view in a large book by Russell Kirk surveying the views of numerous conservatives; a single example of an ardent defender of Calhounism in the person of James J. Kilpatrick; and three fragmentary 1950s quotations from the young Buckley, all of which are troubling and all of which Tanenhaus subtly distorts to make sound more so.

Tanenhaus also distorts by omission. Despite working for many years on a biography of Buckley, Tanenhaus does not see fit to mention that two weeks after “Why the South Must Prevail” appeared in National Review, Buckley gave his brother-in-law L. Brent Bozell the opportunity for a sharp rebuttal:

“This magazine has expressed views on the racial question that I consider dead wrong, and capable of doing great hurt to the promotion of conservative causes,” Bozell wrote. “There is a law involved, and a Constitution, and the editorial gives White Southerners leave to violate them both in order to keep the Negro politically impotent.”

Nor does Tanenhaus note that Buckley acknowledged on several occasions that he regretted the positions he took on civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s.

Thin though his evidence is, Tanenhaus contends that Calhounism “formed the ideology that shaped a generation of conservative politicians, including Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan.” This is little more than guilt-by-association. The closest Tanenhaus comes to supporting this dubious claim is a passing reference to Goldwater’s defense of states’ rights in his 1960 bestseller, “The Conscience of a Conservative” -- a book ghost-written by the same L. Brent Bozell, who promptly and categorically rejected Buckley’s dalliance with Calhounism. Goldwater repeats the conservative criticism of Brown for intruding the federal government into the field of education without constitutional warrant.

At the same time, he declares his agreement with the objectives of the Supreme Court in Brown, states his belief that “it is both wise and just for negro children to attend the same schools as whites,” and urges democratic action -- persuasion and education -- to achieve integration. While he was mistaken to think that Brown was wrongly decided, Goldwater does not proceed from the political theory of Calhoun but from that of the Constitution, focusing on the principle of limited government, which protects freedom by preventing the accumulation and centralization of power. The principle of limited government is as venerable and deeply rooted in the American Constitution as any.

One can make the point that conservatives inconsistently invoke James Madison’s affirmation that the powers of the federal government are “few and defined” and that those of the state governments are “numerous and indefinite.” One can also observe, as William Voegli does, that extensive federal action in the 1950s and 1960s was both necessary and just to correct the evil of state-sanctioned discrimination -- and that this precedent complicates the defense of the principle of limited government.

And one can conclude soberly that the Republican Party today must find a way to translate conservative principles into reform and rhetoric that have greater appeal to blacks, Hispanics, Asians, and young single women.

What one cannot argue -- at least not consistent with a decent respect for facts and reason -- is that John C. Calhoun’s doctrine of nullification forms the basis of modern American conservatism -- and that the very appeal to limited government has been, is, and will continue to be a thinly veiled attempt to keep non-whites and women in their places.

The reduction of conservatism to a racially charged politics of nullification is not only illicit in its means but is also illiberal in its aim. It is an attempt to de-legitimize all dissent from left-liberal orthodoxy.

The progressives’ case for entrusting government with more and more power depends in part on the trustworthiness of government officials. If the editor of the New York Times Sunday Book Review and the editors of The New Republic can’t be trusted to present history and restate their political opponents views without flagrant distortion, why should partisan politicians on the left (or the right, for that matter) be trusted to exercise responsibly ever-expanding government power?

The conservative case for limited government is rooted in an appreciation of the propensity, amply illustrated by Sam Tanenhaus’s TNR hatchet job on modern conservatism, to abuse position and power. 

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 Peter Berkowitz is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.  His writings are posted at and you can follow him on Twitter @BerkowitzPeter.

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