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Why liberals aren't hypocrites when they criticize Rand Paul and Barry Goldwater

Kentucky U.S. Senate candidate Rand Paul's decision to eschew national media -- which went, in 24 hours, from covering him like a rock star to covering him like Lindsay Lohan -- will probably simmer down the controversy over his rhetorical re-litigation of the Civil Rights Act. But I'm just starting in on the commentary spawned by the blow-up. Matthew Yglesias, who often makes this argument, used the Paul controversy to ask why conservatives lionize 1964 GOP presidential candidate Barry Goldwater.

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.

Conor Friedersdorf took issue with this in an extremely unconvincing way, quoting racist statements from FDR, Lyndon Johnson and Jimmy Carter and arguing that, hey, both major American political movements have flawed heroes.

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.

Why is this so unconvincing?

For starters, Friedersdorf skips past the argument that Yglesias was making: Even if Goldwater lacked "the character flaw of racism," he stood with racists to oppose Brown vs. Board of Education and the Civil Rights Act, arguing that a defense of de jure discrimination was necessary if such discrimination was constitutional. By lionizing him and crediting him with the creation of the modern, activist-driven Republican Party, conservatives imply that a "strict constructionist" defense of institutional racism is an important part of their history.

There is really no comparison between the stances Goldwater took and the statements from Democrats that Friedersdorf rounds up. Why? Because even if they harbored racist sentiments, these Democrats acted to break down de jure racial discrimination. In Johnson's case, he did this knowing, as the apocryphal quote goes, that it would "lose the South for the Democratic Party for a generation." And this is the problem with conservatives and race that I attempted to suss out on Friday -- there is a wild over-emphasis on symbolism and a habit of dodging or de-emphasizing the tough and politically unpopular decisions that attack discrimination or inequality between whites and blacks.

Yes, Friedersdorf provides two examples of objectionable policy by Democrats. One is FDR's internment of Japanese Americans during WWII; one is Robert F. Kennedy "authoriz[ing] tapping the phones of Martin Luther King, Jr." Leaving aside the backstory of why Kennedy did that, the comparison between these actions and Goldwater's votes are specious. Goldwater's votes were essential components of his 1964 presidential campaign, not something you can say about the decisions and subsequent campaigns from FDR and RFK. And there is no debate among liberals about whether FDR and RFK were wrong -- liberals agree that they were. Conservatives and libertarians, however, still debate whether Goldwater was really wrong to oppose the Civil Rights Act, all things considered. Hence, Rand Paul.

Friedersdorf argues that conservatives and liberals should both get a pass for some of their forefathers' racist beliefs -- America, he points out, has "become radically less racist just in the last several decades." But how did that happen? Was it an inevitable process, rooted in the essential goodness of America and Americans? If so, why was it even necessary to Congress to have passed a Civil Rights Act? If America was going to "become radically less racist," couldn't they have waited for whites to start letting blacks come up to the lunch counter without forcing them to? Was that why Goldwater could comfortably vote against the Civil Rights Act in 1964?

Well, no. In 1964, liberals (liberal Democrats and liberal Republicans), recognizing that vast swaths of the country refused to treat blacks and whites equally, passed the first in a series of laws empowering the state to break down racial discrimination. The laws following the Civil Rights Act, which dealt with housing, schools and other issues thornier and more invasive than whether or not blacks could use the same drinking fountains as whites, were massively unpopular, criticized by conservatives -- one of whom was our chief justice until 2005 -- for being allegedly extra-constitutional. They sparked riots in the Northeast (against busing in Boston) and Midwest (against open housing in Chicago) and inspired whites to move to the suburbs. After 45 years of liberal policy aimed at eliminating discrimination and making schools and business more racially diverse, sure, this is a "radically less racist country." But you have to ask why that happened, and what political risks were taken to make it happen.

You can argue, as Paul does, that we're now so bereft of racism that we don't need to the government to mandate non-discrimination policies -- the way a child who's learned to ride a bike no longer has to use his training wheels. Or you can argue, as liberals do, that government still must play a role prosecuting and preventing discrimination. Any other position is a cop-out.

By David Weigel  |  May 24, 2010; 1:09 PM ET
Categories:  Libertarians , Race  
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