The Meaning of Conservative Principles

Governor Ross Barnett

“We are about to embark upon a great crusade, a crusade to restore Americanism, and return the control of our government to our people.” Sounds very modern, but this was Senator James Eastland of Mississippi in 1955, leading the fight against the integration of public schools that the Supreme Court had ordered the year before.

We hear a lot of talk from conservatives lately about how the federal government has been trampling on the freedoms of Americans, and the need to “take back America”. It all sounds very familiar.

In the early 1960s white citizens spontaneously formed local organizations to preserve racial discrimination in the South. They soon abandoned explicit claims of white superiority and began to use other language to defend racist practices. When federal marshals prevented white mobs from attacking James Meredith as he entered the University of Mississippi in 1962, a Citizens’ Council editorial claimed, “Ole Miss has not been integrated! It has been invaded and occupied by the United States Army.”

Two years later, Senator Eastland called the 1964 civil rights bill, “a complete blueprint for a totalitarian state . . . the greatest single grasp for power by the Executive Department that the nation has ever known.” Governor Ross Barnett said, “God was the original segregationist,” and he was echoed by many southern ministers. General Edwin Walker, who had been busy indoctrinating his soldiers with right-wing political materials, said, “It’s time to rise. To make a stand beside Governor Ross Barnett at Jackson, Mississippi. Now is the time to be heard. Rally to the cause of freedom.” The newspaper columnist Florence Ogden, founder of the segregationist Women for Constitutional Government, told that group, “Our constitutional rights have been swept away by armed might.”

J. Edgar Hoover, FBI director and enemy of the civil right movement, told the press that “Communist influence does exist in the civil rights movement,” and wiretapped Martin Luther King, Jr.’s phone to try to prove that he was a Communist.

Defenders of white supremacy linked their cause with broader conservative issues: Christian values, fears about communism, and appeals to the Constitution. This allowed racists all over America to maintain discriminatory practices while appearing to be promoting less tainted principles. Although racism occasionally appeared at the fringes of conservative campaigns, these rhetorical tactics put a respectable face on the preservation of white privilege.

Since Obama’s election as President, a similar dynamic has unfolded. Once again, conservatives have deployed their favorite rhetorical strategies to attack policies they do not like. In March, 2009, Glenn Beck said, “We are a country that is headed towards socialism, totalitarianism, beyond your wildest imagination. If you have any kind of fear that we might be headed towards a totalitarian state, look out, buckle up.” Sarah Palin often claims to be defending the Constitution.

On Bill O’Reilly’s TV show in May 2010, she said, “Go back to what our founders and our founding documents meant. They’re quite clear that we would create law based on the God of the Bible and the Ten Commandments.” John Boehner, who will soon be Speaker of the House, said about the health care reform, “This bill is the greatest threat to freedom that I’ve seen in the 19 years I’ve been in Washington.” Right-wing websites are full of talk about protecting the Constitution from those socialists who are currently in power in Washington, and returning America to its Christian principles.

What does all this talk of God, the Constitution, and freedom really mean? What practical policies are being advocated through those high-minded principles?

Of 178 Republicans in the House, 159 voted in 2009 to kill the legislation which forced credit card companies to stop arbitrarily raising interest rates and assessing inflated fees. On November 19 of this year, Republicans in the House voted overwhelmingly against extending federal emergency unemployment insurance through February. This past weekend, every Republican in the Senate voted against a bill which would have extended the Bush era tax cuts for the first $1 million a year in income, but not after that.

Steve HochstadtAs in the 1960s, conservatives are hiding their real politics behind seemingly high-minded principles. The billionaires who fund Tea Party organizations, the bankers and stock traders who support Republican campaigns, and the mining company owners who oppose more safety regulations let their public frontmen cite the Constitution, wave the Bible around, and accuse their opponents of socialism. And it still works.

Steve Hochstadt

Published by the LA Progressive on December 9, 2010
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About Steve Hochstadt

Steve Hochstadt is professor of history at Illinois College in Jacksonville, Illinois, and author of Sources of the Holocaust (2004) and Exodus to Shanghai: Stories of Escape from the Third Reich (2012), both from Palgrave Macmillan. He writes a weekly column for the Jacksonville (IL) Journal-Courier and blogs for the History News Network. "His latest work is presented at www.stevehochstadt.com."