Conservatism and Civil Rights

By Daniel Oliver

Claremont Review of Books

Fall 2008 issue

As I read William Voegeli’s piece on William F. Buckley, Jr., and the civil rights movement, I thought, “Come on, Voegeli, make up your mind. Was Buckley right or wrong?” I concluded that Voegeli’s answer would be, “Yes.” Then I decided that, given the record, Buckley and the conservatives probably got a more balanced treatment from Voegeli than they would, and perhaps will, get from a lot of people.

No responsible person can regret the progress made by blacks since the civil rights acts. But even suggesting that there might have been a better-or perhaps just a different-way risks obloquy. Nevertheless, I think it useful to examine what I take to be Buckley’s real position because it reminds us of the limits of government, and remembering the limits of government is always useful.

In his essay, Voegeli quotes Buckley as saying in 2001 that he would vote for the civil rights acts if they were “out there today,” and saying in 2004 that “federal intervention was necessary.” But Voegeli overlooks the fact that only a few years earlier, in 1998, Buckley held that “the civil rights programs were a formulaic response to a real need and not by any means one that has proved as successful as an alternative means might have been.” I think that statement is a better reflection of the position Buckley held through the years. Not much happened or was discovered between 1998 and 2001 that would have required a change in his opinion except, perhaps, just a little mellowing. He certainly mellowed in his opposition to state prohibition of tobacco: only last November, a few months before his death, he wrote that he would, if he had the authority, forbid smoking in America, notwithstanding that he would be violating his secular commitment to the free marketplace. He was dying of emphysema at the time.

Is it possible there was another way? We’ll never know, of course, and Voegeli admits as much: “There is no way of knowing whether that train [Buckley’s “organic” progress], running on those tracks, would have ever come into the station.”

But what we do know is what the prodigious growth in government has produced. It is not too early to tell how blacks have fared since the onslaught of the Great Society programs, animated by the same government philosophy that produced the civil rights laws. The statistics on black illegitimacy and crime paint a grim picture. In 1960, the illegitimacy rate among blacks was 22%. Today, it’s about 70%.

Voegeli quotes Jonah Goldberg, offering, in 2002, a “blunt” judgment on conservatives during the civil rights era: “Conservatives…were often at best MIA on the issue of civil rights in the 1960s. Liberals were on the right side of history on the issue of race.”

Maybe so. But look at what Goldberg has to say today (in his book Liberal Fascism) about the Great Society programs:

The Great Society’s racial meddling…yielded one setback after another…. In the decade after the Great Society…[b]lack-on-black crime soared in particular…. Economically, as Thomas Sowell has catalogued, the biggest drop in black poverty took place during the two decades before the Great Society. In the 1970s, when the impact of Great Society programs was fully realized, the trend of black economic improvement stopped almost entirely.

So: blacks seem to be doing badly and are angry. And whites are angry too, at least those who were victims of affirmative action or had to endure busing. Perhaps we should take another look at what “alternative means” there might have been. Is it conceivable that the “legitimate, organic progress” Buckley hoped for in 1960 could have produced a better result than the federal laws we got, “artificially deduced from the Commerce Clause or from the 14th Amendment”?

Even if the pathologies in the black community are the results of racism, isn’t that a stronger argument for the position that you cannot change-because in 40 years we have not changed-society by fiat, even constitutional fiat, but only by an organic process? There may be a finite amount of social adjustment government can get out of the people by running them through the federal wringer, their resistance in this case having been heightened by the manifest willingness of the liberals themselves to institutionalize racial discrimination.

In an address to the Conservative Party of New York in 1964 Buckley said the U.S. was “still reluctant to accept the state as a sacramental agent for transubstantiating private interest into public good. Have you reflected on the course of postwar American history?” he asked. “[W]ith all its power, the Establishment has failed in its efforts to ease over to the federal government the primary responsibility for education, or health, or even housing.”

There’s been a lot of easing over since 1964. George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act has inserted the federal government into education as never before. And we are now so close-oh, so close-to federalized health care you can smell the formaldehyde. In addition, of course, we’ve had a hailstorm of federal subsidies and programs-various community redevelopment programs, Urban Renewal (nicknamed by no less than James Baldwin “Negro Removal”), Aid to Families with Dependent Children, food stamps, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, and on and on and on. That is the price we have all paid for altering the constitutional architecture Buckley sought to preserve-which should make us appreciate, at least somewhat, his hope in 1961 that “when Negroes have finally realized their long dream of attaining to the status of the white man, the white man will still be free.”

If slavery was worse than Jim Crow (which it was) but Abraham Lincoln could countenance slavery to preserve the Union and still be regarded as our country’s second-greatest president (or by some as our greatest president) why can’t the early Buckley and his conservative colleagues, who were willing to countenance Jim Crow a little longer for the sake of not destroying the constitutional architecture, be regarded, not just as principled, as Voegeli regards them, but even just a bit…Lincolnesque?

Buckley’s initial opposition to the civil rights acts made the liberals unhappy. His 2001 and 2004 positions supporting the acts made many conservatives unhappy. Perhaps a 2009 Buckley position might have made them both happy:

I should have favored the civil rights acts given the real needs of 1964 and notwithstanding my contemporaneous misgivings concerning the possible damage to the constitutional arrangements. But in the light of what transpired I think rejecting constitutional decorum in the hope of progress not built on the good nature of the community would have been, unwisely, utopian.

That’s the fusionist position.