Conservatism’s false origin story


Avik Roy used to be a frequent guest on Chris Hayes’ Saturday show. A smart fellow, he had the expression of a man who dwells in the shadows of permanent embarrassment. We got our answer last week when VOX interviewed him about conservatism’s “foundational” errors, the biggest of which, of course, is that St. Ronnie hoisted the flag for the movement at the 1964 convention for Barry Goldwater that Reagan would plant on January 1981.

Has anyone watched “A Time For Choosing”? Delivered not long before the November elections, it shows a different Reagan from the dotty grandpa whom even some Democrats have gotten soft about. He delivered a seething speech, filled with resentment, with a snarl and through clenched teeth. There is no left or right, he lied: “There is only an up or down. Up to man’s age-old dream – the maximum of individual freedom consistent with law and order – or down to the ant heap of totalitarianism.” Opposition to civil rights was a blow against totalitarianism. Back to VOX:

Goldwater opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. He himself was not especially racist — he believed it was wrong, on free market grounds, for the federal government to force private businesses to desegregate. But this “principled” stance identified the GOP with the pro-segregation camp in everyone’s eyes, while the Democrats under Lyndon Johnson became the champions of anti-racism.

This had a double effect, Roy says. First, it forced black voters out of the GOP. Second, it invited in white racists who had previously been Democrats. Even though many Republicans voted for the Civil Rights Act in Congress, the post-Goldwater party became the party of aggrieved whites.

“The fact is, today, the Republican coalition has inherited the people who opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 — the Southern Democrats who are now Republicans,” Roy says. “Conservatives and Republicans have not come to terms with that problem.”

Among many of us liberals this has been obvious since, oh, 1968 when Richard Nixon and Strom Thurmond arranged for the Solid South to join the GOP and even 1964 when LBJ, apocryphally, mourned the lost of the South to the Republicans; but LBJ was an expert vote counter, and he knew what was going to happen. As VOX points out, many so-called conservative luminaries publish drivel that would be more sinister if anyone read the perpetually cash-starved National Review outside National Review headquarters.

Last week I wondered whether Trump represents a new threat or a culmination. The level of imbecility shown this week shows he’s a unique incompetent, but the politics have formed part of the Grand Old Party for generations.

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