So here’s a fascinating moment of right-wing self-revelation.
Last month, Sam Tanenhaus wrote a piece in The New Republic saying that American conservatives since the Fifties have been in thrall to John C. Calhoun. According to Tanenhaus, the southern slaveholder and inspiration of the Confederate cause is the founding theoretician of the postwar conservative movement.
When the intellectual authors of the modern right created its doctrines in the 1950s, they drew on nineteenth-century political thought, borrowing explicitly from the great apologists for slavery, above all, the intellectually fierce South Carolinian John C. Calhoun.
Progress, if you ask me: Tanenhaus never even mentioned Calhoun in his last book on American conservatism, which came out in 2009—though I do know of another book on conservatism that came out since then that makes a great deal of Calhoun’s ideas and their structuring presence on the right. That book, just out in paperback, got panned by the New York Times Book Review, of which Tanenhaus is the editor. Thus advanceth the dialectic. But I digress.
Writing in the National Review, Jonah Goldberg and Ramesh Ponnuru naturally take great umbrage at being tarred with the Calhoun brush. No one wants to be connected, by however many degrees of separation (Tanenhaus counts two, maybe three, I couldn’t quite tell), with a slaveholder and a racist.
But notice how they take umbrage:
Now Tanenhaus doesn’t want you to think he is saying that today’s conservatives are just a bunch of racists. Certainly not. He is up to something much more subtle than that. “This is not to say conservatives today share Calhoun’s ideas about race. It is to say instead that the Calhoun revival, based on his complex theories of constitutional democracy, became the justification for conservative politicians to resist, ignore, or even overturn the will of the electoral majority.” With that to-be-sure throat-clearing out of the way, Tanenhaus continues with an essay that makes sense only as an attempt to identify racism as the core of conservatism.
In the worldview of the contemporary American right it is a grievous charge—or at least bad PR—to be called a racist. But the accusation that you wish “to resist, ignore, or even overturn the will of the electoral majority”—that is, that you are resolutely opposed, if not downright hostile, to the basic norms of democracy—can be passed over as if it were a grocery store circular. Hating democracy, apparently, is so anodyne a passion that it hardly needs to be addressed, much less explained. Indeed, Goldberg and Ponnuru think the charge is Tanenhaus’s way of covering his ass, a form of exculpatory “throat-clearing” designed to make it seem as if he’s not making the truly heinous accusation of racism that he is indeed making.
So, that’s where we are. It’s 2013, and the American right thinks racism is bad, and contempt for democracy is…what? Okay, not worthy of remark, perhaps mitigating?
Update (March 14, 9 am)
Since this point has come up a lot in the comments thread, I thought I’d address it here in order to dispel further confusion. Various people have said some version of the following: Countermajoritarianism is part of virtually every theoretical tradition, across the political spectrum. The left has its own problem with democracy and is willing to supersede the decisions of the majority whenever it suits its purposes. So of course Goldberg and Ponnuru would not think that charge would be worth commenting on.
First, if you read Tanenhaus’s article, you’ll see he’s not merely claiming that the right has an episodic or contingent issue with electoral majorities; he’s saying that opposition to the will of the majority is constitutive of their worldview. Again, that is what Goldberg and Ponnuru are passing over without comment.
Second, and more important, Calhoun’s countermajoritarianism is very different from the species of liberal and left countermajoritarianism people are talking about. Unlike many, Calhoun was willing to go out on a limb and say that the the principles of the Declaration of Independence were flat-out wrong. All men (his usage, of course) are not created equal and thus all men do not possess inalienable rights. In other words, his countermajoritarianism flowed from a position that could in no way be characterized as either liberal (at least not by twentieth-century standards) or left. Nor can it be described as democratic: it was based on a resolute hostility to the basic principles of liberal democracy.
This is not just an issue of antiquarian accuracy; it also applies to the modern right. When William F. Buckley came out in 1957 against the Civil Rights Movement—in an infamous National Review editorial entitled “Why the South Must Prevail”—it was full-square within this tradition. Have a read, and again, no need to focus on the racism; look at how he construes his countermajoritarian position:
The central question that emerges—and it is not a parliamentary question or a question that is answered by merely consulting a catalogue of the rights of American citizens, born Equal—is whether the White community in the South is entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas in which it does not predominate numerically? The sobering answer is Yes—the White community is so entitled because, for the time being, it is the advanced race….The question, as far as the White community is concerned, is whether the claims of civilization supersede those of universal suffrage. The British believe they do, and acted accordingly, in Kenya, where the choice was dramatically one between civilization and barbarism; and elsewhere; the South, where the conflict is by no means dramatic, as in Kenya, nevertheless perceives important qualitative differences between its culture and the Negroes’, and intends to assert its own.
National Review believes that the South’s premises are correct. If the majority wills what is socially atavistic, then to thwart the majority may be, though undemocratic, enlightened. It is more important for any community, anywhere in the world, to affirm and live by civilized standards, than to bow down to the demands of the numerical majority. Sometimes it becomes impossible to assert the will of a minority, in which case it must give way, and the society will regress; sometimes the numerical minority cannot prevail except by violence:then it must determine whether the prevalence of its will is worth the terrible price of violence.
The axiom on which many of the arguments supporting the original version of the Civil Rights bill were based was Universal Suffrage. Everyone in America is entitled to the vote, period. No right is prior to that, no obligation subordinate to it; from this premise all else proceeds.
That of course, is demagogy….Millions who have the vote do not care to exercise it; millions who have it do not know how to exercise and do not care to learn. The great majority of the Negroes of the South who do not vote do not care to vote, and would not know for what to vote if they could.
That, needless to say, is not your garden variety countermajoritarianism. Indeed, it actually rejects a critical premise of countermajoritarianism, which is that that the universe of possible voters has spoken.
It’s true that Buckley later repudiated these views. In the Sixties, he dropped the racist dimensions of his anti-democratic position and universalized his critique. Drawing from Ortega y Gasset, he argued that anyone who was unfit, regardless of race, should be disfranchised. Everyone likes to quote Buckley’s famous comment that he would “sooner be governed by the first two thousand people in the Boston telephone directory, than by the two thousand members of the faculty of Harvard University.” Yet Buckley himself proposed that any American who didn’t know what the United Nations was should be purged from the rolls. In this regard, his thinking was closer to that of George Fitzhugh, who argued that all lesser beings, white and black, should be enslaved, than it was to Calhoun’s.