Whatever Works

In recent weeks–not for the first time–I’ve been periodically pondering the contradiction between movement conservatives’ pretensions to a “populism” that represents a majority of Americans, and their regular adoption of the Calhoun tradition of righteous resistance to popular majorities. Today I ran across this simple historical reminder in Michael Tackett’s piece on the South and conservatism at Bloomberg today:

In the run-up to the Civil War, Southerners supported the federal government in enforcing a law that required slaves who had fled to the North to be returned to their owners. After the election of Lincoln, whose campaign pledged to limit the expansion of slavery, they became more hostile toward the government and eventually joined South Carolina in trying unsuccessfully to secede from the Union.

So conservatives with rigid policy goals–particularly among, though not confined to, white folk in the South–are going to support whatever means for implementing and protecting those goals that happen to be expedient at any particular moment. “Constitutional conservatism,” like “conservative populism,” is simply a convenient wrapper for a core commitment to reactionary economic and social policies.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.