Conservatism certainly seems alive and well in America. For years polls have consistently shown that more Americans identify as conservative than as liberal. In recent decades both branches of Congress, as well as the White House, have often been controlled by Republicans – who generally regard themselves as conservative. “Conservative” Fox News has for some time been the country’s most widely viewed television news source. Rush Limbaugh, who proudly calls himself a conservative, has for decades been the country’s most popular radio talk show host.
But such influence is deceptive.
Over the past century, conservatives have drastically shifted their views, abandoning their stands on one issue after another, including Medicare, federal spending, Martin Luther King Day, and more. On any given issue, the “conservative” view of today is often the “liberal” view of ten years earlier.
When the Franklin Roosevelt administration and a compliant Congress were establishing Social Security during the 1930s, conservatives opposed it. Denouncing it as “socialist,” they pointed out that it’s basically a compulsory old age insurance program. They likewise resisted Medicare in the years before it was established in 1966, calling this federal program “socialized medicine.”
Today not a single prominent politician who regards himself as conservative dares call for dismantling Social Security or Medicare. To the contrary, conservative politicians assure voters that they will “protect” these programs. Conservatives likewise fought the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. Although there is still some residual talk of repealing and replacing it, it appears that some form of the Act will remain in place. And just as they eventually accepted the once-despised Social Security and Medicare programs, conservatives very likely will come around to accepting some version of Obamacare.
Just what is it that conservatives want to conserve? One answer that’s often given is “freedom” – by which is usually meant “individual freedom.”
Well, if individual freedom is really important, those who call themselves conservative should be very pleased with the trajectory of the past century, because Americans today generally have more freedom and “rights” than those of earlier generations.
Consider life in 1930, for example – when nearly all Americans still regarded the US as a “great” country.
For one thing, employment and job opportunities were generally segregated and restricted by sex and race. Employment notices in newspapers appeared in separate sections, one for Men and another for Women. Women were effectively barred from a wide range of jobs.
There were no “gay rights.” Homosexual behavior was punished as a crime. Any suggestion that a woman might have the “right” to marry another woman, or a man another man, would have been regarded as offensive and absurd.
By law and custom, people of European ancestry could not marry persons of other races. In most states marriage between whites and blacks was a felony.
Abortion was not a “right”; it was a crime.
Americans could not buy groceries, tools or clothes on a Sunday. Stores across the country were closed on Sundays as an expression of respect for the Christian heritage and Christian sensibilities.
No one could legally order a glass of beer or enjoy a bottle of wine with a meal in a restaurant. The sale of alcoholic beverages was prohibited throughout the country.
How many Americans today who call themselves conservative would prefer life in the “great” America of 1930 to life in the “liberal” USA of our era? Is “freedom” really the most important thing that conservatives want to conserve?
For Americans who call themselves conservative, the most admired president of the past century is Ronald Reagan. He made millions of his fellow citizens feel good about themselves and their country. Given his earlier career as an actor, it’s not surprising that he was known as the “great communicator,” and that so many people found his speeches inspiring and uplifting. He was probably the last American president who actually believed what he said when he assured audiences that this country’s greatest days are still ahead.
Reagan was a relentless critic of Big Government. When he was campaigning for the presidency, he pledged to reduce the size and scope of the federal government. He specifically promised to eliminate the Department of Education, along with other allegedly unnecessary and unconstitutional federal agencies. He criticized the federal budget deficit, and promised to balance it. He opposed making Martin Luther King Day a national holiday.
His policies as president were quite different. During the eight years of his administration, the number of federal government employees increased by about 324,000 to almost 5.3 million, the great majority of them in non-military work. Federal government spending under Reagan increased by 60 percent. The Department of Education was not eliminated; in fact, its budget more than doubled. The gross federal debt nearly tripled. It was during his presidency that US shifted from being the world’s foremost creditor nation to being the world’s greatest debtor nation. And in an act with consequences far beyond his lifetime, Reagan signed into law the bill to make Martin Luther King Day a national holiday.
The contrast between Reagan’s conservative rhetoric and his actual policies are perhaps not so surprising, given his record of approval for the overall social-political trajectory of twentieth century America. One noteworthy expression of that was his praise for President Franklin Roosevelt, whose liberal “New Deal” policies vastly expanded the power and scope of the federal government, and whom conservatives of that era understandably despised.
For Ronald Reagan, race was unimportant. Perhaps a better way to put it is that, for Reagan, along with most white Americans of his generation, it was an issue he preferred to ignore. As president, Reagan acknowledged that when he was young “we didn’t even know we had a racial problem.” That’s because non-whites were all but invisible in the country’s cultural, political and social life. Until the 1960s, white America preferred to pretend that non-whites did not exist.
As President, Reagan repeatedly proclaimed his vision of the United States as a universalist society. In his 1982 Thanksgiving Day Proclamation, for example, he said: “I have always believed that this anointed land was set apart in an uncommon way, that a divine plan placed this great continent here between the oceans to be found by people from every corner of the earth who had a special love of faith and freedom.”
In keeping with this outlook, Reagan in 1986 signed into law the “Simpson-Mazzoli” Act, which legalized some three million illegal migrants – or, as they are now fashionably called, “undocumented workers” and “dreamers.” His amnesty of millions of illegal immigrants was entirely consistent with his often-repeated view of America as a color-blind nation that welcomes all those who “love freedom.”
The gap between Reagan’s rhetoric as a politician and his actual policies as president underscores the barrenness of conservatism in modern America.
In keeping with their distaste for confrontation and discord, conservatives have long tolerated the promotion of seemingly noble sentiments that have unpleasant long term consequences.
Emma Lazarus was a New York Jewish-American writer of the nineteenth century who is most famous for her poem “The New Colossus.” In 1903, a few years after her death, a bronze plaque with the poem’s text was attached to the base of the Statue of Liberty.
It concludes with the words:
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
That final stanza was made even more famous when it was set to music for the 1949 musical “Miss Liberty.”
Has any prominent conservative ever voiced an objection to the sentiment of that poem, or protested its place at the Statue of Liberty? More than that, conservatives have supported policies based on the poem’s underlying spirit and ideology, which open the country’s doors to millions of “huddled masses” from other continents. Conservative Americans only seem to get upset when the “wretched refuse” of “teeming shores” arrive in their own towns and neighborhoods. By that time, of course, it’s too late.
This view of America as a land for everyone, regardless of race, ancestry, and so forth, was already vigorously promoted and widely accepted by the 1940s. During World War II, the official “Why We Fight” US government propaganda films proclaimed the ideal of America as a universalist society. In the decades since then, the mainstream media, Hollywood, school teachers and politicians have stressed racial, cultural and religious diversity as an ideal. President Bill Clinton, for example, in his 1997 State of the Union address, said: “We must never, ever believe that our diversity is a weakness – it is our greatest strength.” Not a single prominent conservative politician disputed or protested that view.
Conservatives are generally more willing than liberals or leftists to acknowledge racial realities, at least in private, but they are unwilling to do so openly. In public, conservative leaders applaud and support the same principle of “color blind” equality that liberals promote.
Each January, Americans honor, or are supposed to honor, Martin Luther King, Jr., on the anniversary of his birth. He is the only American who is honored with a federal holiday of his own. At one time, those who called themselves conservative opposed such a national holiday. That was understandable, given that it was liberals and leftists who had provided the backing that proved crucial in enabling King’s campaign to win greater political power, rights, and economic status for African Americans.
These days, conservatives talk very differently about King and his legacy. They now claim that he was actually a “conservative” because he pushed for the supposedly “conservative” principle of equal rights for all, regardless of race. Today no prominent politician, including those who call themselves conservative, would dare denounce him.
Beginning in kindergarten, school teachers across the country tell young Americans that we must all strive to live up to the ideal of racial equality proclaimed by King. That includes support for the range of programs, regulations and policies, which he promoted, that require discrimination against European-Americans. Politicians of both major parties accept or at least tolerate these “affirmative action” policies and programs, which are based on the notion that white Americans are collectively responsible for the legacy of discrimination and racism that, we are told, has kept African-Americans from achieving the goal of equality of income and achievement that even conservatives claim to support.
Educators and political leaders have for decades told us that success in the struggle for racial equality must be measured not merely by equality of opportunity, but by equality of results. As President Lyndon Johnson explained during the 1960s: “This is the next and more profound stage of the battle for civil rights. We seek not just freedom but opportunity … not just equality as a right and a theory, but equality as a fact and as a result.” In accord with that outlook, Republican President Richard Nixon ordered federal contractors to use “goals and timetables” in hiring more non-white workers, even when that meant discriminating against better qualified white workers.
In an effort to win popular support while basically accepting the prevailing egalitarian- universalist worldview, conservatives misrepresent American history. One of the country’s most popular conservative writers and film-makers of recent years has been Dinesh D’Souza. Born and raised in India, he is regarded as an outstanding spokesman for American conservativism.
His latest film is a political documentary, “Death of a Nation,” that favorably compares Donald Trump to Abraham Lincoln, and asks viewers: “Can We Save America a Second Time?” The film draws parallels between Democratic Party opposition to Lincoln in 1860, and Democratic Party opposition to Trump today. It also draws parallels between the program and outlook of Hitler’s National Socialist Party during the 1930s, and the program and outlook of the Democratic Party today. The film accuses the Democratic Party – both then and now – of racism and fascism. It also argues that the political left today unfairly and maliciously portrays conservatives and Republicans as supporters of racism, white supremacy, and fascism.
How accurate is D’Souza’s “conservative” documentary?
In late 1860 and early 1861, the southern slave states left the federal union to form the Confederate States of America, and a short time later the fighting broke out that began the American Civil War. In the years leading up to those events, the key political issue dividing Americans was whether slavery should be prohibited in the new western territories. Democrats in the South generally favored the expansion of slavery into the territories, while Democrats in the North, led by Stephen Douglas, believed that the issue should be decided by the voters in each new territory.
Abraham Lincoln and the Republican Party firmly opposed any expansion of slavery beyond the states where it was already legal. But contrary to what D’Souza and many other conservatives suggest, Lincoln and most Republicans rejected political and social equality for African-Americans. When he was elected President in 1860, Lincoln and nearly all Republicans wanted to keep not only slavery, but all blacks, whether slave or free, out of the new western territories.
In the years before he became President, Lincoln repeatedly made clear that he opposed voting rights for blacks, and supported laws against interracial marriage. Both before and during his presidency, Lincoln made clear, again and again, his wish that one day slavery would be eliminated. But he also repeatedly expressed his hope that people of African ancestry would ultimately be removed from the country altogether. He supported plans and programs for “colonization” or mass resettlement of blacks in Africa or Central America.
“The enterprise is a difficult one,” Lincoln acknowledged in a June 1857 address, “but `where there is a will there is a way,’ and what colonization needs most is a hearty will. Will springs from the two elements of moral sense and self-interest. Let us be brought to believe it is morally right, and, at the same time, favorable to, or, at least, not against, our interest, to transfer the African to his native clime, and we shall find a way to do it, however great the task may be.”
Based on the views he expressed repeatedly, and the policies he supported, Abraham Lincoln should be regarded, by today’s standards, as a white nationalist and a white supremacist.
Dinesh D’Souza, along with many others who call themselves conservative, seem to believe that white racial identity and politics are evil. In this, they agree with most liberals and Democrats. But if it’s morally wrong to hold white identity views, or to support policies based on white community interests, than it’s difficult to look back without shame at the views and policies of Lincoln and nearly all white Americans during most of the country’s history.
For prominent conservatives such as Rush Limbaugh, Dinesh D’Souza and Sean Hannity, the ideal America is a country in which race is as irrelevant as hair color or shoe size. For such people, it simply doesn’t matter if the USA, racially, resembles Brazil, India or Malaysia. But in the real world race does matter. It’s certainly more important than whether tax rates are high or low, or whether gun control laws are strict or lenient.
In which country would American conservatives prefer to live: in liberal “big government” Denmark, which has strict gun control laws, comprehensive state health care, and high taxes, or in Haiti, which has no income tax, no strict gun control laws, no state health care, and a government that interferes very little in the lives of its citizens?
Whether they regard themselves as conservative or liberal, most Americans prefer to live in neighborhoods and communities of people like themselves. And whether they think in racial terms or not, most white Americans prefer life in a society that is culturally Western and racially European.
As recent election campaigns show, conservative voters seem to be motivated more by what they oppose, fear or dislike than by any solidly grounded principles. Because conservatives embrace the same egalitarian-universalist worldview that liberals relentlessly promote, they have a long record of waging predictably hopeless rearguard battles against programs and policies based on that same outlook. But even as they lose the war, conservatives comfort themselves with occasional election and legislative victories – tactical successes that are essentially meaningless.
We hear a lot these days about “identity politics” – that is, political appeals and activism based on race, ethnicity or gender. Conservatives don’t like it. “Why can’t we all just think of ourselves as Americans?,” they lament. But “identity politics” is not a game. It’s serious, play-for-keeps politics.
In the years before 1776, when the 13 colonies along the Atlantic coast broke away from British rule, the great debate was really about identity: Are we British subjects, with loyalties to the British monarch, or are we a separate, American people? Virtually all the great conflicts of our age are really conflicts about identity.
Ordinary politics involves issues of day-to-day concern to most people, such as taxes, jobs, affordable housing and health care, entitlement benefits, and so forth. Appeals for votes in routine politics like that are based on the presumption that we all share the same basic outlook and interests, and that we’re all in this together as Americans.
While white Americans are still trying to play the traditional political game – that is, by pretending that race doesn’t matter – millions of other Americans are playing identity politics. While white conservative Americans keep playing “softball,” insisting that “We’re all Americans,” the serious contenders are playing “hardball,” the only game that matters in the long run.
Even though conservatives sometimes still win battles, it’s no wonder they are losing the war. They’re not even playing the same game.
Based on their track record over the past half century, conservatives are incapable of building or even defending the kind of society that nearly all white Americans really want.
If white America has a future, it won’t be secured by conservatives. It will be secured only by European Americans who reject “business-as-usual” politics and the familiar but ultimately irrelevant “conservative” and “liberal” categories, and who instead embrace a worldview rooted in their heritage, history and identity, and act forthrightly to defend and promote their own group interests.
This item is adapted from a talk given at a meeting on Oct. 20, 2018, in southern California.
Mark Weber – historian, author and lecturer – studied history at the University of Illinois (Chicago), the University of Munich, Portland State University and Indiana University (M.A). He is director of the Institute for Historical Review.