The Icons of Ideological Movements
As I noted in my last post, Rand Paul is egregiously wrong in opposing the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as has been capably argued all over the blogosphere. In the ensuing discussion, Matthew Yglesias writes:
I always find it shocking that conservatives in 2010 openly say that the political founder of their movement and an icon to be admired is Barry Goldwater, and that Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign was an admirable thing that constitutes a key foundation stone of the modern conservative movement. After all, on the most important issue of the early 1960s Goldwater was totally wrong.
He goes on to lay out Barry Goldwater’s egregiously wrongheaded position on the Civil Rights Act, and writes:
Obviously liberals have been wrong about things in the past as well, but according to conservatives this was a foundational moment in their movement! Whenever I bring this up, people quickly rush to assure me that Goldwater didn’t stand shoulder-to-shoulder with white supremacists on the most important political issue of his time out of racism, instead at the decisive moment in his career he stood shoulder-to-shoulder with white supremacists out of principled constitutional reasoning that made it impossible for him to do otherwise. But this is actually more damning. You could imagine the founder of a movement being afflicted by an unfortunate character flaw that his followers lack. But the argument is that Goldwater didn’t suffer from a character flaw. Instead, having acquired a major party presidential nomination he stood shoulder-to-shoulder with white supremacists on the most important issue of the day because his sincere political ideology led to horribly wrongheaded conclusions.
Well. It seems no more odd to me than thinking of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, or Abraham Lincoln as foundational heroes despite the fact that they held abhorrent views on matters of great importance, nor do we need to go back that far to find people lauded as founding heroes of ideological movements despite being wrong about matters of grave importance.
As Bruce Bartlett points out in his book “Wrong on Race: The Democratic Party’s Buried Past,” leaders that today’s progressives cite as political founders of their movement thought some terribly racist things that had significant policy impacts.
Via Bruce Bartlett, here is Franklin Roosevelt, who later oversaw the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII, quoted in 1925:
Anyone who has traveled to the Far East knows that the mingling of Asiatic blood with European or American blood produces, in nine cases out of ten, the most unfortunate results. . . . The argument works both ways. I know a great many cultivated, highly educated and delightful Japanese. They have all told me that they would feel the same repugnance and objection to have thousands of Americans settle in Japan and intermarry with the Japanese as I would feel in having large numbers of Japanese coming over here and intermarry with the American population. In this question, then, of Japanese exclusion from the United States it is necessary only to advance the true reason–the undesirability of mixing the blood of the two peoples. . . . The Japanese people and the American people are both opposed to intermarriage of the two races–there can be no quarrel there.
Here is Lyndon Johnson:
President Truman’s civil rights program “is a farce and a sham–an effort to set up a police state in the guise of liberty. I am opposed to that program. I have voted against the so-called poll tax repeal bill. . .. I have voted against the so-called anti-lynching bill.
And another Lyndon Johnson quote, this one from 1957:
These Negroes, they’re getting pretty uppity these days and that’s a problem for us since they’ve got something now they never had before, the political pull to back up their uppityness. Now we’ve got to do something about this, we’ve got to give them a little something, just enough to quiet them down, not enough to make a difference. For if we don’t move at all, then their allies will line up against us and there’ll be no way of stopping them, we’ll lose the filibuster and there’ll be no way of putting a brake on all sorts of wild legislation. It’ll be Reconstruction all over again.
Of course, Lyndon Johnson moved in the right direction on this issue later in life, but so did Barry Goldwater, who repudiated his earlier views on civil rights before he died.
It was Robert F. Kennedy who authorized tapping the phones of Martin Luther King.
And here’s Jimmy Carter, hardly a founding father for modern progressives, but a past president in good standing:
I’m not going to use the federal government’s authority deliberately to circumvent the natural inclination of people to live in ethnically homogeneous neighborhoods. . . . I have nothing against a community that’s made up of people who are Polish or Czechoslovakian or French-Canadian or blacks who are trying to maintain the ethnic purity of their neighborhoods.
My point here isn’t that progressives are wrong to see FDR, President Johnson, and RFK as icons in their ideological movement — it’s that America was an egregiously racist country for a very long time, it’s become radically less racist just in the last several decades, and it’s basically unavoidable to have very racist people as icons of your ideological movement if it began at a time when the vast majority of the country’s leaders were unapologetic racists. Though I rue the fact that Barry Goldwater opposed the Civil Rights Act, and would’ve voted against him solely because he was wrong on Civil Rights, the fact that he didn’t suffer from the character flaw of racism seems to me a mark in his favor.
In any case, he is no more odd a hero than a great many American icons.
(Thanks to Bruce Bartlett for rounding up those quotations.)