There’s a useful piece available at ThinkProgress today from Zack Beauchamp about the recent racial history of the Republican Party and its contribution to conservative radicalism. You should keep it on hand for the next time Rand Paul or Kevin Williamson tries to convince you that the GOP is the uninterrupted party of civil rights.
But Beauchamp’s piece is valuable beyond its utility as a mental laxative for use against revisionist histories and outright lies. He helps us understand how racial fears helped turn the white southerners who were busy switching parties from the 1960s to the 1990s into hard-core economic as well as cultural conservatives.
For one thing, obviously enough, long before Goldwater became the first GOP presidential nominee to oppose a major civil rights bill, southern segregationists got into the habit of cooperating with the more rigorously conservative northern Republicans who fought the New Deal and the Fair Deal much as they later fought the Great Society. So once they switched parties, their natural allies were the more conservative Republicans who shared their generally reactionary (in the literal and figurative senses of the term) outlook.
But in addition, after Jim Crow died, the anti-civil-rights agenda became more overtly anti-government:
By the Johnson-Goldwater election, it had become clear that overt racism and segregationism was politically doomed. Brown v. Board of Education and LBJ’s support for the 1964 Civil Rights Act saw to that. As this scary recognition dawned on Southern whites, they began searching for a new vehicle through which to shield themselves and their communities from the consequences of integration. The young conservative movement’s ringing endorsement of a minimalist federal government did the trick — it provided an on-face racially neutral language by which Southerners could argue against federal action aimed at integrating lily-white schools and neighborhoods.
Kevin Kruse, a Princeton historian whose work focuses on the South and the conservative movement, finds deep roots in segregationist thought for this turn. “In their own minds, segregationists were instead fighting for rights of their own,” Kruse suggests. These “rights” included “the ‘right’ to select their neighbors, their employees, and their children’s classmates, the ‘right’ to do as they pleased with their private property and personal businesses, and, perhaps, most important, the ‘right’ to remain free from what they saw as dangerous encroachments by the federal government.”
Kruse traces this language through white resistance to desegregation from the 40s through the 60s, using a detailed examination of “white flight” in Atlanta as a synecdoche. In the end, he finds, “the struggle over segregation thoroughly reshaped southern conservatism…segregationist resistance inspired the creation of new conservative causes, such as tuition vouchers, the tax revolt, and the privatization of public services.” The concomitant rise of the modern conservative movement and the civil rights movements’ victories conspired to make Southern whites into economic, and not just racial, conservatives.
I’d argue Beauchamp misses, at least in this piece, another element of what turned white southerners into opponents of government generally instead of just being opponents of government intervention to promote civil rights: religion. In an extraordinarily under-examined development (though Sarah Posner has certainly done yeoman’s work in this area), conservative evangelical Protestants have ever-more-aggressively embraced capitalism and hostility to government as biblically ordained values as important to their political creed as demands for abortion bans and “traditional marriage.” Here’s how I put it in a 2011 essay on the emergence of the “Teavangelicals:”
The worldview of many Christian Right leaders has involved into an understanding of government (at least under secularist management) as a satanic presence that seeks to displace God and the churches through social programs, to practice infanticide and euthanasia, to destroy parental control of children, to reward vice and punish virtue, and to thwart America’s divinely appointed destiny as a redeemer nation fighting for Christ against the world’s many infidels.
Like fear of minorities, this development is hardly limited to the South (as the power of conservative evangelicals in many midwestern and western Republican parties attests). But wherever it has shown influence, it’s helped introduce an absolutist tone into resistance against “big government” on the economic as well as the cultural front. It’s no accident, for example, that conservative evangelicals first became active politically in the fight for tax subsidies for private schools that were both academies for conservative values and refuges from integrated public schools. It’s not that far a leap to today’s mobilization of homeschoolers as a major GOP constituency group, along with talk of “government schools” and the steady destruction of Republican support for improvements in public school outcomes and resources.
Suffice it to say that there were many roads that took conservative white folk in the direction of attitudes towards government that sound like the atheist libertarian Ayn Rand. As noted in my earlier post today on Stan Greenberg’s GOP focus groups, the belief that government mainly serves “those people” was and remains among the most important.