It’s a battle over the true meaning of conservatism, and for once it doesn’t solely involve individuals on the right.
Kevin Williamson of National Review and Professor Kevin Kruse of Princeton recently had a bit of a back and forth that was essentially over the question of whether it was accurate to call the segregationist southern Democrats whom Joe Biden once buddied up to “conservative.” Williamson, answering in the negative, originally responded to a series of tweets sent by Kruse in response to Tom Cotton. Kruse took to Twitter to reply to Williamson. Williamson replied here, and Kruse in turn answered back here and here.
Just summarizing the exchange would take about 3,000 words, and I’m not doing another one of those right now*, so I am counting you all to look through each link and carefully read every word of it. I’ll wait.
Now that you’re back, I’m not going to go all Hot Air on you now and copy and paste a whole bunch of stuff with commentary intermingled until you are just about nauseous. The quick summary is that Williamson thinks it is absurd to categorize the southern Democrats of this era as conservative. As a counterpoint Kruse cites the words of men like William F. Buckley and Richard Nixon who thought these southern “conservatives” could be won over to the GOP (indeed belonged in the GOP), as well as Congressional voting scorecards to prove that they were indeed conservatives, properly understood.
I think Williamson is largely right in hitting back at Kruse on the fallibility of WFB, who was just frankly wrong when it came to segregation. As for Kruse’s reliance on scorecards, I think it leaves a lot to be desired when it comes to measuring ideological coherence. It’s a bare step up above using those Facebook quizzes to measure where you are on the ideological spectrum. First of all, the scorecard is in the eye of the beholder. What counts as a “liberal” vote is determined by the person doing the scoring. If voting for (or against) civil rights legislation is the major criterion by which one is judged, and voting for such legislation is considered “liberal,” then it makes sense that the southern Democrats would be adjudged to be less conservative. But is that really a good measure when a majority of Republicans voted the same way? It’s at best debatable. As for other scores, who knows how these votes are being scored. Moreover, these scorecards are limited to actual legislation before Congress, and in the context of the 1960s, are further skewed by the dramatic over-representation of Democrats. For example, the 89th Congress (1965-1966) had 67 Democratic Senators as opposed to 33 Republicans, and the proportion was similar in the House. The Democrats lost a few seats in the 90th Congress, but still had a significant majority. That is going to affect the nature of legislation being proposed in Congress, as well as the relative partisan scores.
It would be much better to look at the careers of these southern Democrats and the specific legislative focus before determining they are conservatives. Herbert Talmadge, for example, voted in favor or Medicare and Medicaid and was generally a reliable supporter of Great Society programs. It is true that other southern Democrats, such as Eastland and Stennis of Mississippi, voted against these programs, but southern Democrats largely fell in line. Moreover, Talmadge sponsored the legislation that created foodstamps (albeit with then proviso that the able-bodied must work to receive them), and his legislative history was one that wasn’t exactly a model of Hayekian fiscal libertarianism, even if he was a bit of a budget hawk towards the end of his career.
Kruse waves away Williamson’s quite accurate depiction of southern Democrats as being progressive supporters of the New Deal by pointing out that they started to align with Republicans in the late 30’s to vote against New Deal expansion. But this is both misleading at the same time as it is subtly damning to Kruse’s general thesis.
First of all, Kruse overstates the amount of southern Democrat defection from the New Deal, as neither the entire southern delegation nor their electors completely turned against the New Deal. As a crass generalization, it would be more accurate to label most of these southern Democrats as populists: generally socially conservative, but also economically interventionist. Ironically, they would be a better fit in today’s Republican party than the GOP of their era, but more on that in a moment.
But if one concedes that the Dixicrats and other southern Democrats were generally to the right of their own party, and some Republicans thus saw an opportunity to recruit them into the GOP, that in and of itself refutes the long-held contention that Republicans and Democrats “switched places” ideologically. Though the original histories of both parties are complicated to place on an ideological spectrum, the relative right/left configuration of both was pretty clear by the end of World War I. Woodrow Wilson had begun the process of moving the party in a Progressive direction, while the waning influence of men like Robert LaFollette, combined with the presidency of Calvin Coolidge and the leadership of Robert Taft, moved the Republican party inexorably to the right.
It’s true that “American” conservatism became much more of a true ideology as a reaction to the New Deal, but the GOP had become the more rightward tilting party long before then. What’s more, the right-wing of the Republican party, generally speaking, were not opposed to civil rights. Opposition to civil rights on the right was generally due to states rights and libertarian purity rather than racial animus (though I won’t pretend the latter no doubt played a part in some right-wing thinking).
It is also important to note that men like Talmadge were replaced in the Senate not by populist conservatives, but traditional Reagan conservatives. When the south began slowly moving to the Republican column beyond the presidential level, one of the first Republicans voted into Congress was Newt Gingrich. I think it’s safe to say Gingrich, at least at this period, was a more emblematic of conservative thought than Talmadge. As for Talmadge, he was ultimately defeated by Mack Mattingly, whose political thought was in tune with Gingrich’s. It would take another couple of decades for southern Republicans to become dominant in the south, and there are two notable aspects about these Republicans: they were by and large much orthodox in their conservatism than men such as Talmadge, and they were very much not segregationists.
The south moved slowly towards the Republican party because older southerners – many of whom maintained some of their original racial sentiments – continued to vote Democrat, while younger voters generally shed the racism of their forebears and tended to vote Republican. That is not to say every younger southern Republican was completely pure on race, or that racism is a uniparty phenomenon. But by the time the Republicans truly came to dominate the south in the late 1990s and early 2000s, race had become a drastically less important issue, at least on the surface.
In a way, this confrontation between Williamson and Kruse is another round in the debate about what conservatism truly means. I think Williamson is grounded in traditional conservative thinking, and thus sees at least the economic voting record of southern Democrats as being wholly incompatible with true conservatism. As I alluded to above, Kruse would actually be on more solid ground if we defined conservatism as it is being practiced (or promoted) by the more “Trumpist” Republican party. If conservatism is defined as a culturally reactionary and economically interventionist philosophy dedicated to helping the forgotten American, then indeed Kruse might have the better of the argument. As a matter of historical accuracy, Williamson has the better of the argument. Going forward, I only hope Williamson’s conservatism is what we all recognize as conservatism.