Over at The Bulwark, Jonathan Tait has an excellent piece, “Anti-Democratic Conservatism Isn’t New.” Tait reminds us how divisions about democracy and racial equality were central in the forging of modern conservatism.
Here’s a short excerpt that focuses on William Buckley:
“The central question,” Buckley argued, was not merely one of rights. It was whether “the White community in the South is entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas in which it does not predominate numerically? The sobering answer is Yes.” Through high-minded and principled-sounding language, Buckley insisted that white southerners could suppress the black vote on white-supremacist grounds. “If the majority wills what is socially atavistic,” he wrote, “then to thwart the majority may be, though undemocratic, enlightened.” To be perfectly clear, Buckley added “national review believes that the South’s premises are correct.” For stability and for “civilization,” the conservative argument ran, whites could deny the constitutional right to vote to Black citizens.
Buckley is lionized these days, but we should recall when it came to civil rights—perhaps the most important issue of the day—he was all too happy to align with a southern regime of racial apartheid. And not for refined reasons of constitutional law, but to preserve a southern way of life that just happened to include racial subordination.
Other conservatives from this era held profoundly different views—particularly those who were astute students of the founding and Constitution. Martin Diamond insisted on thinking of America as a “democratic republic” to capture the Constitution’s combination of constitutional rights and complex democracy. Diamond rightly noted that reconciling the “potential conflict of democracy and liberty has always been a prime task of the American political order.” Yet Diamond rejected both minority rule and the denial of rights on the basis of race as inconsistent with America’s democratic republic.
Joining Diamond, at least in this, was Harry Jaffa. Jaffa’s Crisis of the House Divided insisted on the redemptive promise of the Declaration—with its insistence on human equality— as key to American democracy and the struggle for civil rights.
Abraham Lincoln’s definition of popular government remains particularly compelling along these lines: “A majority, held in restraint by constitutional checks, and limitations, and always changing easily, with deliberate changes of popular opinions and sentiments, is the only true sovereign of a free people.”
Conservatives today aren’t having this fight. They are retreating from both democracy and the Declaration’s promise of equality. To exaggerate just a bit, they’ve abandoned the promise of Lincoln for the perfidy of Calhoun.