National Review has a piece up, The Party of Civil Rights. In it Kevin D. Williamson makes the case that everything you thought you knew about the relationship of the Democrats and Republicans to Civil Rights is wrong. There is a place I think for this general flavor of argument from the Right, broadly construed. For example, many Left-liberals are blithely not aware that the nadir of American race relations and the imposition of Jim Crow were in many ways a social revolution imposed from on high by the state and other assorted collective bodies with coercive power. Further back in history the rise of the “White republic,” and the imposition of universal white male suffrage and the revocation of the right to vote from non-whites in the early 19th century was in large part the work of populist Democrats who were forces for progress in their day.
But overall I think that Williamson’s piece is not true to the facts on the ground in relation to how the conservative movement viewed Civil Rights in the 1960s. Taking this as a given, does that make conservatism and skepticism of social change illegitimate on the face of it? No, not at all. In hindsight the American consensus is that Civil Rights was right and proper. It is natural that conservatives now want to claim that legacy, but the reality is that American Communists have a greater substantive claim than American conservatives to this issue. This should be no surprise if conservatism is oriented toward maintenance of traditional structures. Some of those structures will be unjust. And some of them will be useful, even necessary, for human flourishing. As humans do not have omniscient powers we do not always know which customs are worth keeping, and which are best discarded.
Progressives and Left-liberals have their own problem in this area, as they have long avoided addressing their movement’s connections to eugenics and racial hygiene, when that was the progressive stance. Previous Left-liberal admiration for the command economy, or enthusiasm for the massive growth of government via the Great Society, also went down the wrong path. But let’s go to something more shocking: the North American Man Boy Love Association has its roots in a particular sexual counter-cultural radicalism which was on the margins of the mainstream gay rights movement of the 1970s. For obvious reasons over the past few decades gay rights organizations have been purging any association or connection with groups like NAMBLA, conceding that the extreme radicalism of the 1970s fringe when it came to age of consent laws was neither useful nor justifiable on moral grounds.
My point is that sometimes we need to let history speak, and not try reach back into the past and impose the present upon it. The past made errors, and from the perspective of the future the present is also making errors. But there are also areas where the future will be thankful for the present that it preserves the past. Whether you are a liberal or a conservative is partly contingent on whether you are comfortable with error of adherence to wrong old ways, or with error of espouse of wrong new ways. But in either case the past is littered with mistakes.