The Origin of ‘Values’-based Conservatism

Philosophically, in the 1950’s the conservatism of the Republican Party was of a traditional kind. It was essentially the conservatism of Edmund Burke, the original conservative, who was an English MP in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s. That conservatism preached caution. It accepted the inevitability of change, but urged much deliberation in deciding what should be retained and what could be profitably discarded.

The Republican Party started to change with President Nixon’s “Southern strategy:” pandering to people who were leaving the Democratic Party because it was ‘too liberal’. For decades that Party paid lip service to such ‘conservatives’ to get their votes to help the Party pursue its traditional agenda: looking out for the interests of rich people and Big Business.

To their eternal credit, the newer kind of Republicans by God got out and voted, in any election that came along. They and people of a like mind were so blindly loyal to the Republican Party that they became known as the ‘Republican base’, people who would vote and vote Republican, come hell or higher temperatures.

Eventually, however, the ‘base’ captured the Party. The bulk of those who now control that Party call themselves “values” conservatives.

Unfortunately, as a practical matter conservatism in this country in the 1950’s was intertwined with race-based segregation. That is not an interpretation of history. That is simply a fact.

Especially in the South, but not only there, “conservative” meant supporting ‘Jim Crow’. So-called Jim Crow laws made it illegal for Americans of African heritage to comingle with Americans of European heritage in public, except to provide labor and other services as wanted. Seriously. (The Ku Klux Klan and other such groups, the members of which have always insisted that those are “Christian’ organizations, successfully discouraged any other comingling.)

In the South those conservatives were in the Democratic Party. Why? In the South back then the Republican Party was known as ‘the party of Lincoln’, the man who as President had successfully waged war against the South in the Civil War. For that reason, in the South at that time Republicans were as rare as teats on a bull, as the saying goes. Put it this way: there were many, many more Southern liberals than there were Southern Republicans.

So in those days there were liberals and conservatives in both parties. Outside the South, the Democratic Party was generally more liberal, but there were liberals, mostly but not exclusively from the northeast, among Republicans.

It must be said that there were conservatives who were not segregationists. Even so, as Civil Rights became more and more of an issue, conservatism became more and more associated with race-based segregation.

Eventually, Jim Crow was defeated. State-enforced segregation based on race was ended. As a practical matter, the two places in society where the end of segregation could be actually achieved were businesses and schools.

The Supreme Court cited, again and again, the Commerce Clause in the Constitution to rule that segregation for businesses was unconstitutional. That might have been something of a stretch, but it was the only Constitutional remedy available. (‘Small government’ conservatives need to understand that ‘big government’ came into existence for two reasons: the collapse of the capitalist economy in the Great Depression and the refusal of state and local government to end racial segregation.)

[Realistically, everyone accepts that public conduct is subject to being regulated by laws. There is no shortage of laws regulating public conduct that would be hard to justify constitutionally. Constitutionally, how can it be illegal for women — but only women — to walk around with nothing on from the waist up? (‘Tops’ are the American equivalent of burqas: something women are required to wear for the sake of spiritually and emotionally weak men — encompassing, of course, almost all of us.) To be in business is to engage in public conduct. Ergo, to be in business is to accept that the business will be subject to laws regulating how the business is conducted.]

That left schools. Conservatives argued that race-based segregation did not mean inequality. Seriously. So racially segregated schools, they said, could be equal: ‘separate but equal’ was the mantra.

In 1954 the Supreme Court ruled, in a case that happened to involve schools (in Topeka, Kansas — which happened to be the home state of President Eisenhower), that race-based segregation and inequality are inseparable. So, racial integration of schools should proceed, said the Court, “with all due haste.” In the event, it was close twenty years before it even got started on any scale.

One of the greatest myths that still exists in this country is that the racial segregation of schools resulted from residential segregation by race. Practically, there was no way to end residential segregation of that kind. Therefore, busing was to be used to achieve racial integration of the schools.

I know better. I saw it with my own eyes. Morning after morning, standing outside Capitol View Elementary School in Atlanta, GA (which I attended from 1957 to 1965), waiting for the doors to be opened so we could go inside, I saw busload after busload of ‘colored’ children being taken past Capitol View to ‘their’ school. Something tells me that was not the only place that happened. So busing was used to achieve race-based segregation.

The response of many Americans of European heritage to de-segregation of the public schools, especially in the South, was to want to get their children out of those schools. But what could they do? Private schools were too expensive. Besides, there weren’t enough of them. Besides that, as for-profit entities private schools were businesses: the dreaded Commerce Clause loomed there.

Back then, especially in the South, almost everybody went to church regularly. In most of the country that’s all there was to do because businesses were closed, by law, on Sundays.

Churches were segregated by custom. Even if everyone were free to attend any church anyone wanted, they would remain almost 100% segregated.

So churches offered a place where people who opposed de-segregation of the public schools could establish private schools that would continue to be racially segregated. Moreover, being non-profits rather than businesses, they would not be subject to the Commerce Clause.

Yet, the Civil Rights movement was such a powerful force that public expressions of racist attitudes had become taboo by the time de-segregation of the public schools — and the establishment of private schools in churches — got underway. People did not want to say that they were establishing church-based schools because they opposed de-segregation of the public schools.

They were very quickly able to convince themselves that they were retreating from public — secular — schools because, being “Christians,” they had different — higher — ‘values’. Their first step in that process was to insist that they were not against racial comingling in the public schools, but only against using busing to achieve it.

That was the beginning of ‘values’-based conservatism. There is no reason to suppose that it is any more honest today than it was then.

Photo by Andrew McQuaid on Unsplash




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Stephen Yearwood

Stephen Yearwood

unaffiliated, non-ideological, unpaid, academically trained in economics and philosophy

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