THE PLANK JULY 7, 2008
To follow up on Isaac's sharp take below on Bill Voegeli's very good Claremont Review of Books piece, I have a slightly different objection to Voegeli's claim that "liberals find [the notion of states' rights] laughable, fantastic, and bizarre." First of all, many of us do not, and there's a compelling liberal case to be made for states' rights--not to mention that, from Bush v. Gore onward, the current presidency has in many respects been an appalling attack on states' rights. More importantly, had Buckley, Goldwater, et al. made legally sound arguments for why federal civil-rights legislation was unconstitutional, their position would have been a respectable one. The problem is not that conservatives were unprincipled racists; it's that the principled arguments were, and are, wholly unconvincing. The Fourteenth Amendment means what it says, the Commerce Clause means what it says, and when even right-wing commentators today conclude that the interpretation pushed by conservatives had no basis in either the text or the history of the Constitution, it's a damning indictment. To hold facially mistaken constitutional views is bad enough on its own; to use those views in an effort to prevent the elected branches of the federal government from correcting a manifest injustice is an exceptionally grave political sin.
Beyond that, though, I heartily concur with Voegeli's basic claim that the reality that most conservatives were wrong about civil rights doesn't invalidate conservative arguments about crime, affirmative action, or the welfare state. (Though I always find it odd when Jonah Goldberg makes that point, given that arguments from guilt-by-intellectual-association have earned him a hefty pile of cash.) Every party and ideology has its past errors to answer for; my view is that those of conservatism are greater than those of liberalism, but reasonable people can differ and in any case it's a largely pointless argument best suited to late-night conversations in freshman dorm rooms. When contemporary liberals and conservatives, in attempting to discredit the legitimate policy positions of the other side, demand more historical self-flagellation for civil rights, or eugenics, or busing, or McCarthyism, or whatever--well, one quickly begins to see the wisdom in Barack Obama's remark that it feels like "watching the psychodrama of the Baby
Boom generation--a tale rooted in old grudges and revenge plots
hatched on a handful of college campuses long ago--played out on the