Is the GOP the Party of White People?

Sam Tanenhaus thinks that it isAccording to his recent piece at the New Republic it all goes back to John Calhoun.  I have included a taste of the essay below, but my post does not come close to capturing all of Tenenhaus’s argument.  I encourage you to read the entire thing.

…The true problem, as yet unaddressed by any Republican standard-bearer, originates in the ideology of modern conservatism. 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. This is not to say conservatives today share Calhoun’s ideas about race. It is to say instead that the Calhoun revival, based on his complex theories of constitutional democracy, became the justification for conservative politicians to resist, ignore, or even overturn the will of the electoral majority.

This is the politics of nullification, the doctrine, nearly as old as the republic itself, which holds that the states, singly or in concert, can defy federal actions by declaring them invalid or simply ignoring them. We hear the echoes of nullification in the venting of anti-government passions and also in campaigns to “starve government,” curtail voter registration, repeal legislation, delegitimize presidents. There is a strong sectionalist bias in these efforts. They flourish in just the places Kevin Phillips identified as Republican strongholds—Plains, Mountain, but mainly Southern states, where change invites suspicion, especially when it seems invasive, and government is seen as an intrusive force. Yet those same resisters—most glaringly, Tea Partiers—cherish the entitlements and benefits provided by “Big Government.” Their objections come when outsider groups ask for consideration, too. Even recent immigrants to this country sense the “hidden hand” of Calhoun’s style of dissent, the extended lineage of rearguard politics, with its aggrieved call, heard so often today, “to take back America”—that is, to take America back to the “better” place it used to be. Today’s conservatives have fully embraced this tradition, enshrining it as their own “Lost cause,” redolent with the moral consolations of noble defeat.

And a bit more:

Today, Calhoun is often described as a kind of crank—and with some reason. He called slavery “a positive good” and ridiculed the Declaration’s “all men are created equal.” (“Taking the proposition literally … there is not a word of truth in it.”) But in the early cold war years, when so many intellectuals, left and right, rebelled against the numbing dictates of consensus and conformism, there was a Calhoun revival. He became “the philosophic darling of students of American political thought,” Louis Hartz wrote in The Liberal Tradition in America, published in 1955. A liberal like the historian Richard Hofstadter was stimulated by his bold theories on class and labor (“the Marx of the master class”), and conservatives were drawn to his protest against encroaching big government. Calhoun, Russell Kirk wrote in The Conservative Mind (1953), was “the most resolute enemy of national consolidation and of omnicompetent democratic majorities” and had valiantly uncovered “the forbidding problem of the rights of individuals and groups menaced by the will of overbearing majorities.” The Calhoun apostle James J. Kilpatrick, the editor of The Richmond News Leader, wrote a defense of segregation, The Sovereign States (1957), that had an epigraph from the Fort Hill Address and exhaustively catalogued examples of “interposition” dating back to the origins of the Republic. Kilpatrick repeated the exercise in an attack on the Little Rock intervention, published in The New Republic.

2 thoughts on “Is the GOP the Party of White People?

  1. More cherry-picking about what “conservative” is. Remember, it was the “progressives” who were the eugenicists. That door swings both ways.

    And although Lincoln's Cooper Union speech is disingenuous if not sophistic, I like it anyway. ;-P

    “But you say you are conservative – eminently conservative – while we are revolutionary, destructive, or something of the sort.

    What is conservatism? Is it not adherence to the old and tried, against the new and untried? We stick to, contend for, the identical old policy on the point in controversy which was adopted by “our fathers who framed the Government under which we live;” while you with one accord reject, and scout, and spit upon that old policy, and insist upon substituting something new.

    True, you disagree among yourselves as to what that substitute shall be. You are divided on new propositions and plans, but you are unanimous in rejecting and denouncing the old policy of the fathers. Some of you are for reviving the foreign slave trade; some for a Congressional Slave-Code for the Territories; some for Congress forbidding the Territories to prohibit Slavery within their limits; some for maintaining Slavery in the Territories through the judiciary; some for the “gur-reat pur-rinciple” that “if one man would enslave another, no third man should object,” fantastically called “Popular Sovereignty;” but never a man among you is in favor of federal prohibition of slavery in federal territories, according to the practice of “our fathers who framed the Government under which we live.” Not one of all your various plans can show a precedent or an advocate in the century within which our Government originated. Consider, then, whether your claim of conservatism for yourselves, and your charge or destructiveness against us, are based on the most clear and stable foundations.”


  2. Tanenhaus is half right. The strain of conservatism that he identifies did pull from Calhoun, whether you call it social conservativism, pastoral conservatism, or (Bacevich's) counterculture conservatism.

    The other half of modern conservatism, however–the libertarian strain–does not fit so snugly. While Russell Kirk and the southern agrarians were borrowing from Calhoun, the fiscal conservative/libertarian types were looking to Austrian economists from the early 20th century(Hayek, Mises) and European classical liberals from the 19th (Bastiat, Cobden). It's hard to find a more ill-fitting ideological pair than Bastiat and Calhoun, yet somehow the modern Right attempts to fuse their legacies. That intellectual dissonance may very well work itself out in the next generation.


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