The Flawed Case Tying Conservatism to Racism

The Flawed Case Tying Conservatism to Racism

By Peter Berkowitz - March 5, 2013

As the Republican Party girds itself for the consequences of sequestration, prepares for the coming rounds of budget battles, and continues to lay the groundwork for the midterm elections of 2014 and beyond, the question of “whither conservatism?” is much on the minds of observers of American politics. Sensible men and women, right and left, know that the answer is bound up with conservatism’s origins, guiding principles, and the strategic judgments of movement leaders.

According to Sam Tanenhaus, editor of The New York Times Book Review, conservatism is headed nowhere good. This, he maintains, is because modern American movement conservatism originated in the 1950s in a political doctrine poisoned by racism. And even though conservatives have enthusiastically elected young leaders who come from minority groups --including Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Marco Rubio of Florida, and Govs. Nikki Haley of South Carolina and Bobby Jindal of Louisiana -- the GOP remains in the grip of that poisonous doctrine.

Tanenhaus set forth these ugly judgments last month in a sweeping 5,500-word cover story in The New Republic. The article was emblazoned with the incendiary but fitting headline “Original Sin: Why the GOP is and will continue to be the party of white people” and appeared in TNR under the lofty category “History.”

The charge that the core of modern American conservatism is racist draws on the most disgraceful pages in the playbook of post-1960s progressivism. Tanenhaus is not the first prominent liberal intellectual to dress up such slander in scholarly finery.

In 2004, Boston College professor of political science Alan Wolfe took to the pages of The Chronicle of Higher Education in an article titled “A Fascist Philosopher Helps Us Understand Contemporary Politics” to argue that the ideas of Nazi political theorist Carl Schmitt animated the politics of contemporary conservatives, whether they knew it or not. Suffice it to say that Wolfe’s linkage was undermined by significant misrepresentations of Schmitt and of conservatism.

Tanenhaus’s TNR cover story suffers from similar defects. It would be of little interest were Tanenhaus not a gatekeeper at The New York Times, America’s preeminent progressive newspaper, where his editorial judgment helps form public opinion. And it would have been easy to ignore the essay had it not been published by The New Republic, a flagship publication of modern American liberalism, which to great fanfare was recently re-launched under the leadership of new owner and Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes and veteran editor Franklin Foer, and has publicly rededicated itself to the publication of serious opinion.

However, it is noteworthy when Tanenhaus employs his graceful prose and considerable knowledge of U.S. politics in the pages of the self-proclaimed new and improved New Republic to promulgate a shoddy and unscrupulous account of modern conservatism, His article provides further evidence, if any was needed, that high-brow argument by today’s left-liberal elites increasingly consists of smearing the other side.

As in a similarly sweeping TNR piece called “Conservatism Is Dead,” published after John McCain’s 2008 loss to Barack Obama, Tanenhaus advances his thesis as a diagnosis of Republican Party electoral woes. The GOP’s poor showing in 2012 among minority voters and single women was not just a matter of “strategy or ‘outreach,’ ” he says. It was not merely the predictable result of “a history of long-standing indifference, at times outright hostility, to the nation’s diverse constituencies -- blacks, women, Latinos, Asians, gays.” And, it cannot be fully explained even by a supposed “racialist political strategy dating back many decades.”

Rather, “the true problem, as yet unaddressed by any Republican standard-bearer, originates in the ideology of modern conservatism.”

That ideology, Tanenhaus asserts, is bound up with the darkest chapter in American history: “When the intellectual authors of the modern right created its doctrines in the 1950s, they drew on nineteenth-century political thought, borrowing explicitly from the great apologists for slavery, above all, the intellectually fierce South Carolinian John C. Calhoun.” Tanenhaus is quick to add that “[t]his is not to say conservatives today share Calhoun’s ideas about race.” But he carefully leaves open the possibility that they might.

It is a fact that in the 1950s conservative thinkers turned to antebellum Southern conservatives of whom Calhoun was a leading figure. It is also a fact -- about which Tanenhaus has little to say -- that in the post-World War II era conservatives turned to a wide variety of sources to help them clarify the threats to liberty posed by a massively expanding state at home and an expansionist communist totalitarianism abroad.

These sources included the classical political philosophy of Plato and Aristotle, Biblical faith, medieval political philosophy, early modern political philosophy, romanticism, Edmund Burke, the American founding, Tocqueville, the 19th-century resurrection of Toryism by Disraeli, the restatement of philosophical conservatism by Cardinal John Henry Newman, the poetry of T.S. Eliot, and the libertarian ideas of Friedrich Hayek.

By means of a brutal truncation of conservative sources, Tanenhaus portrays ideas that some conservatives in the 1950s gleaned from Calhoun about the right to “to resist, ignore, or even overturn the will of the electoral majority,” ideas which enjoyed some cachet in the tumultuous years following the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, as the crux of movement conservatism, then and now.

In the 1950s, according to Tanenhaus, Calhounism meant opposing the civil rights movement in the name of states’ rights. In 2013, Tanenhaus contends, Calhounism means criticizing the size and scope of government, supporting cuts in spending, favoring that voters be required to show IDs in order to cast their ballots, insisting on immigration reform, contesting affirmative action, opposing same-sex marriage, denying the need for stricter gun regulation, emphasizing individual responsibility, invoking the language of constitutionalism, and working for the repeal of Obamacare.

In other words, Tanenhaus discerns in the opposition to most any aspect of the president’s progressive agenda damning evidence that today’s conservatives “have fully embraced” the tradition of Calhoun and that the Republican Party “has become the party of Calhoun.”

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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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