25 October 2012

Discovering Strom Thurmond's America

About a decade ago, Sen. Trent Lott had to resign his leadership position in the Republican caucus because he had been too fulsome in his praise of the finally-retiring centenarian Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina. Thurmond had run for President back in 1948, and Lott said 54 years later that "if the rest of the country had followed [his] lead we wouldn't have had all these problems over the years." As Joseph Crespino notes in his new biography, Strom Thurmond's America, Lott had said pretty much the same thing back in 1980, when both men were stumping for Ronald Reagan. Since Thurmond had been the States' Rights or "Dixiecrat" candidate for President, it was assumed that Lott could only have meant to endorse the old man's past views in favor of racial segregation. While Crespino's biography is not at all sympathetic to Thurmond, it seems designed to suggest that Lott could well have meant something else by his praise.

Crespino wants to complicate the currently prevailing view of the evolution of the modern Republican conservative movement. In most accounts, the reactionary social conservatism of erstwhile southern Democrats like Thurmond is a separate strain from the pro-business, small-government conservatism that emerged with Barry Goldwater from the west. The strains merged during a courtship that extended through Goldwater's siding with the South against civil rights legislation in 1964 through Richard Nixon's adoption in 1968 of a "Southern strategy" widely seen as a betrayal of the heritage of the "Party of Lincoln." In the long view, this version of history sees Thurmond's 1948 conservatism as something significantly different from the conservatism that supposedly started with Goldwater, triumphed with Reagan, and largely prevails today. This version of events makes the Goldwater/Nixon Republicans seem more cynical, since it sees them sharing very little with the likes of Thurmond who had been New Deal Democrats. Crespino offers an alternate reading of history by emphasizing the extent to which Thurmond and the Dixiecrats anticipated Goldwaterism and actually shared many of its ideas before Goldwater himself gained prominence.

According to Crespino, the key to Thurmond's conservative turn after years of conventional Democratic loyalty to FDR was not race, but labor. In Strom Thurmond's America, what China is now, South Carolina was then. The Palmetto state aggressively strove to lure businesses away from other parts of the country, and one of South Carolina's competitive advantages was the region's low rate of unionization. Working to promote his state, Thurmond increasingly opposed government efforts to regulate labor markets and promote unionization and collective bargaining. Government regulation of labor struck two nerves at once, since Washington also sought to stop racial discrimination through the Fair Employment Practices Commission. Anything the government tried to do on the labor front threatened South Carolina's competitive advantages. Thurmond thus became an enemy of intrusive centralized government, and was willing from the start to defend his stand in ideological terms. While many fellow Dixiecrats of 1948 merely meant to spoil the Presidential election by taking Southern states from Harry Truman and forcing the election to the House of Representatives, when they planned to cut a favorable deal with Truman, Thurmond seems to have honestly seen himself as a national figure offering an alternative vision of politics. Because he increasingly saw things from an entrepreneurial point of view, he came to many of the same conclusions Goldwater supporters would. While he still felt the New Deal had been helpful by providing aid in an economic emergency, the government had no business under normal circumstances telling employers who to hire or how to run their businesses. By 1948, Crespino claims, Thurmond was virtually what we recognize as a Republican conservative now.

Crespino's account isn't meant to downplay or minimize Thurmond's racism. Race-baiting remained an important element in South Carolina politics at least until the 1970s, when Thurmond realized that the easiest way to keep blacks from voting, once you couldn't force them not to, was to be as inoffensive as possible. Crespino's main point is that the "conservative" ideas identified with Goldwater and Reagan were not alien to the Dixiecrats like Thurmond who eventually became Goldwater and Reagan Republicans -- that the southerners didn't bring only racism to the party.  If anything, racism only made them the front-line troops in the resistance to intrusively regulatory "big" government, while Republicans who didn't share the southerners' racism could believe, as Goldwater apparently did, that forcing integration was a threatening assertion of government power over vast areas of life long deemed private and immune to political interference. Crespino makes a distinction between Goldwater's position on civil rights and Thurmond's, noting that Goldwater didn't oppose voting rights measures but balked, as some libertarian-minded people still do today, at anti-discrimination measures that appeared to impinge on private, individual prerogatives. The point of convergence for Goldwater and Thurmond was opposition to government telling employers whom to hire and on what terms. Modern American conservatism takes its stand there: whether from cranky individualism or a superstitious reverence for markets, they resist the idea that the relations of employers and employees are subject to laws made by the people and their representatives.

Strom Thurmond's America is a persuasive portrait and consistently critical of its subject. The illegitimate daughter Thurmond fathered with a black woman back in the 1920s is a constant thread in the narrative, a reminder of Thurmond's hypocrisy in his defense of racial purity as well as some vestigial decency in the monetary support he provided the still-living daughter throughout his career. I appreciated the in-depth account of politics within a Southern state and its reminder that segregationists didn't spend all their time thinking about race. The other topics aren't exactly pleasant, but they helpfully round out our view of some often cartoonish-seeming villains of modern history. Republicans themselves might embrace Crespino's book to the extent that it allows them to whitewash, so to speak, the "Southern Strategy" by emphasizing the ideological affinities between Thurmondism and Goldwaterism, but they shouldn't expect to make much of an impression upon those, including Crespino himself, who find both Goldwaterism and Thurmondism wrong.

No comments: