Racist Fundamentals on the Right

The Execution - BookFrom the New Deal to the New Right: Race and the Southern Origins of Modern Conservatism

Joseph Lowndes
(Yale University Press, 2008, 224pp, $35 cloth)
Reviewed by Abby Scher

The modern Right was built on the “foundational violence” of racism, argues Joseph Lowndes in this exciting new book. A University of Oregon political science professor, Lowndes takes on the popular “backlash thesis” which suggests the “GOP reclaimed the political field by asserting basic American values of patriotism, family, hard work, fiscal responsibility against the excesses of the 1960s.” (p. 3)

“White voters were pushed too far,” this thesis suggests, but Lowndes in turn asks “why should white voters have seen black equality claims as detrimental to their interests?” He documents the decade by decade shifts that marginalized the moderates in the party of Lincoln who tended to accommodate to the New Deal and avoid racist appeals, even as the Democrats struggled over the racist policies built into the New Deal and the coalition holding their party together.

From the Dixiecrat revolt of the 1940s through President Richard Nixon’s embrace of a coded racist populism designed to win working class Whites to his party, Lowndes tracks the way the Right convinced some White Americans to abandon the New Deal in order to defend their White privilege.“The racial politics that animated the Southern system were translated into a national political idiom,” he argues. “As opposed to the Republican capture of the white South, we may better speak ofthe southern capture of the Republican Party.” (p. 5)

Building on the work of such scholars as Dan T. Carter (From George Wallace to Newt Gingrich: Race in the Conservative Counterrevolution), MaryDudziak (Cold War Civil Rights: Raceandthe Image of American Democracy), and Rick Perlstein (Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking ofan American Consensus), Lowndes’ contribution is to analyze the entire post-war era.

He starts with Charles Wallace Collins, author of the 1947 book Whither Solid South? A Study in Politics and Race Relations. Collins was the spokesman fora small group of elite White Southerners who opposed the New Deal and linked the “struggle for black rights to a tyrannical nation state.” World War II gave power to the fight for black rights, and Collins correctly predicted the political divisions would shake up the parties. Yet his vision bringing together racism, “states rights,” and free market conservatism was not widely popular, even as he guided South Carolina Democrat Strom Thurmond during the Dixiecrat rebellion of the 1948 election.

“Given that American national identity was being recast in the postwar era as racially democratic, white Southerners who sought to hold onto racist practices required a discourse they believed to be about fundamental American principles.” (p. 41) And that was, according to Collins, the power of individual states to stop police state action of the federal government in defense of liberty.

Lowndes moves on to show how President Eisenhower’s support of Black students in Little Rock cramped the rising power of Southern Republicans, and how the new magazine National Review promoted them. William F. Buckley, Jr.’s notorious 1957 editorial “Why the South Must Prevail” supported White supremacy and elitism explicitly against democracy: “because for the time being it is the advanced race... The claims of civilization supersede those of universal suffrage.” (p. 52)

Barry Goldwater’s presidential campaign in 1964 became the institutional expression of the new alliance between free market conservatives and the White anti-civil rights movement. Goldwater had condemned federal troops in Oxford, Mississippi in 1962 in the name of state’s rights. While sidestepping explicit racism, he spoke a language that southerners (White and Black) understood.

His landslide loss did not defeat the new White Southern Republicans, as people’s partisan commitments were shaking up nationwide. The presidential campaign of Alabama governor George Wallace contributed the vital piece of anti-elite populism to the new configuration that Richard Nixon later embraced and which defines the modern Right. “Squeezed between ghetto and elites, the Right no longer was the defender of privilege but rather as representative of the whole American people (p. 79). His law and order campaign derided the parasitic Blacks and welfare recipients, and decadent liberals and hippie protestors. Wallace presented the south as the most “American” region of the country, marginalizing everyone but racist Whites as un-American. And his view took hold beyond the White south.

Lowndes ends his book with an interesting analysis ofthis new rightwing populist configuration in the Clint Eastwood film The Outlaw Josey Wales. The film was based on a book written by Asa Carter, the Klansman and ex-Wallace speechwriter, under a new identity. It is a bit odd reading a pop cultural analysis in a work of political science, but it reflects Lowndes’ awareness that mass media was a vital place for working out and popularizing the new racial codes and anti-government sentiment playing on New Left and right-wing politics alike. His love of discourse and reading the elite conservative players overlooks, however, the role of the era’s social movements in creating these new configurations. But no one can argue with his conclusion that “The political Right came to dominate the political center by defining common sense—the very horizon of credible politics.” (p. 155)

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