The Icons of Ideological Movements

Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected to four term...

Image via Wikipedia

As I noted in my last post, Rand Paul is egregiously wrong in opposing the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as has been capably argued all over the blogosphere. In the ensuing discussion, Matthew Yglesias writes:

I always find it shocking that conservatives in 2010 openly say that the political founder of their movement and an icon to be admired is Barry Goldwater, and that Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign was an admirable thing that constitutes a key foundation stone of the modern conservative movement. After all, on the most important issue of the early 1960s Goldwater was totally wrong.

He goes on to lay out Barry Goldwater’s egregiously wrongheaded position on the Civil Rights Act, and writes:

Obviously liberals have been wrong about things in the past as well, but according to conservatives this was a foundational moment in their movement! Whenever I bring this up, people quickly rush to assure me that Goldwater didn’t stand shoulder-to-shoulder with white supremacists on the most important political issue of his time out of racism, instead at the decisive moment in his career he stood shoulder-to-shoulder with white supremacists out of principled constitutional reasoning that made it impossible for him to do otherwise. But this is actually more damning. You could imagine the founder of a movement being afflicted by an unfortunate character flaw that his followers lack. But the argument is that Goldwater didn’t suffer from a character flaw. Instead, having acquired a major party presidential nomination he stood shoulder-to-shoulder with white supremacists on the most important issue of the day because his sincere political ideology led to horribly wrongheaded conclusions.

Odd hero.

Well. It seems no more odd to me than thinking of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, or Abraham Lincoln as foundational heroes despite the fact that they held abhorrent views on matters of great importance, nor do we need to go back that far to find people lauded as founding heroes of ideological movements despite being wrong about matters of grave importance.

As Bruce Bartlett points out in his book “Wrong on Race: The Democratic Party’s Buried Past,” leaders that today’s progressives cite as political founders of their movement thought some terribly racist things that had significant policy impacts.

Via Bruce Bartlett, here is Franklin Roosevelt, who later oversaw the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII, quoted in 1925:

Anyone who has traveled to the Far East knows that the mingling of Asiatic blood with European or American blood produces, in nine cases out of ten, the most unfortunate results. . . . The argument works both ways. I know a great many cultivated, highly educated and delightful Japanese. They have all told me that they would feel the same repugnance and objection to have thousands of Americans settle in Japan and intermarry with the Japanese as I would feel in having large numbers of Japanese coming over here and intermarry with the American population. In this question, then, of Japanese exclusion from the United States it is necessary only to advance the true reason–the undesirability of mixing the blood of the two peoples. . . . The Japanese people and the American people are both opposed to intermarriage of the two races–there can be no quarrel there.

Here is Lyndon Johnson:

President Truman’s civil rights program “is a farce and a sham–an effort to set up a police state in the guise of liberty. I am opposed to that program. I have voted against the so-called poll tax repeal bill. . .. I have voted against the so-called anti-lynching bill.

And another Lyndon Johnson quote, this one from 1957:

These Negroes, they’re getting pretty uppity these days and that’s a problem for us since they’ve got something now they never had before, the political pull to back up their uppityness. Now we’ve got to do something about this, we’ve got to give them a little something, just enough to quiet them down, not enough to make a difference. For if we don’t move at all, then their allies will line up against us and there’ll be no way of stopping them, we’ll lose the filibuster and there’ll be no way of putting a brake on all sorts of wild legislation. It’ll be Reconstruction all over again.

Of course, Lyndon Johnson moved in the right direction on this issue later in life, but so did Barry Goldwater, who repudiated his earlier views on civil rights before he died.

It was Robert F. Kennedy who authorized tapping the phones of Martin Luther King.

And here’s Jimmy Carter, hardly a founding father for modern progressives, but a past president in good standing:

I’m not going to use the federal government’s authority deliberately to circumvent the natural inclination of people to live in ethnically homogeneous neighborhoods. . . . I have nothing against a community that’s made up of people who are Polish or Czechoslovakian or French-Canadian or blacks who are trying to maintain the ethnic purity of their neighborhoods.

My point here isn’t that progressives are wrong to see FDR, President Johnson, and RFK as icons in their ideological movement — it’s that America was an egregiously racist country for a very long time, it’s become radically less racist just in the last several decades, and it’s basically unavoidable to have very racist people as icons of your ideological movement if it began at a time when the vast majority of the country’s leaders were unapologetic racists. Though I rue the fact that Barry Goldwater opposed the Civil Rights Act, and would’ve voted against him solely because he was wrong on Civil Rights, the fact that he didn’t suffer from the character flaw of racism seems to me a mark in his favor.

In any case, he is no more odd a hero than a great many American icons.

(Thanks to Bruce Bartlett for rounding up those quotations.)

Tags: , , , , , , ,

15 Responses to “The Icons of Ideological Movements”

  1. trdonoghue Says:

    Except of course we don’t laud Washington, Jefferson or Lincoln BECAUSE of those unnamed abhorrent views. We admire them for many other reasons.

    Whereas in the case of Goldwater those abhorrent views (or passive acquiescence to such views) lay at the very heart of his identity as a modern conservative hero.

  2. sailingaway Says:

    He never opposed the civil rights act, he said he had questions about some of the provisions, but hadn’t read the actual bill, yet Maddow wouldn’t let him change the subject. How could he say how he would have voted without reviewing the bill? It passed when he was 2.

    Once he reviewed it, he said he would have voted for it.

  3. davidlosangeles Says:

    Mr. Friedersdorf,

    The stumbling block so many people have in regards to race and racism is that they see “racism” as bad thoughts in the heads of white people. It then follows that if a white person has no bad thoughts of non-White people, then no matter what they actually do, they are not “racists”. Rather it is the other way around, racism is what white people do to non-white people, irrespective of whether their will was good or ill. Barry Goldwater by all accounts was a good and decent man as a person but in order for him to lay the foundation for the Neo-Republican Party he had to win the racist vote. Since he was not himself a racist and felt that had to at least leave himself some opening to win some non-racist voters, he did not engage in the race-baiting that the more naked and unapologetic racist politicians of the day did. The position he crafted was that “I am not in favor of discrimination but I am not in favor of the federal government stepping in and interfering with what is a state’s rights and individual issue.” Translated into everyday English “I don’t want to see Negroes lynched but I don’t want the Federal Government to take any steps to stop it.”

    This is analogous to a candidate saying “I am against arson but I am against the police department preventing or investigating cases of arson or the fire department from putting our fires started by arsonists”. It is the classic “have your cake and eat it too” position. The Republican’s “Southern Strategy” (which actually goes all the way back to Woodrow Wilson but really came into its own with Barry Goldwater) was to bring southern racist conservatives together into the same party with wealthy northern conservatives and to stake-out the role of the “Defender of White Supremacy” (although not in those words of course). This is the root of the Neo-Republican’s disdain for the Federal Government, it was the prime force which ended legal discrimination through such vehicles as the Voting Rights Act of 1965. When Ronald Reagan said that Government was the problem and not the solution, it was the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that most people understood that to mean. When Mr. Paul of Kentucky says he is against this act, it is exactly this racist ideological framework that allows his followers to translate his words.

    Mr. Goldwater set the basis for a reactionary, racist coalition that is the Republican / Tea Party, a set of politics and ideology that is ultimately at odds with the US constitution and the basic concept of “all men being created equal”.

    In contrast, Mr.’s Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Roosevelt, within the political and cultural limitations of their time, overall advanced the basic concepts of that we now hold to be so important. Were their efforts uneven, even self-contradictory. Sure. Mr. Jefferson, the chief theoretician of the Revolution was the author of racist ideology. Before Jefferson no one believed that Black people were in any way inferior to white people. It was just mighty convenient and profitable to have some people as slaves, well, too bad for the Black people, they drew the short straw. It was Thomas Jefferson who first advanced the notion that somehow Black were naturally inferior to white people and thus naturally fit to be the slaves of white people. A contradiction noted while he was alive. A British wit marveled at how slave-holders could cry so loud for liberty.

    Nonetheless, Jefferson’s theories ultimately, and ironically, laid the basis for the liberation of Black people from racism. People like Frederick Douglass and Thurgood Marshall could cite Jefferson’s words, and some of his deeds, for their cause. He stood for the cause of liberation almost in spite of himself. The same could be said of George Washing, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt. They were leaders for freedom and equality, albeit imperfectly and imcompletely. They were at the forefront the struggle for liberty, not a bulwark against it, as Mr. Goldwater was.

  4. Greg Sanders Says:

    Ultimately the government rightly apologized for put Japanese Americans in camps, and rightfully so. There hasn’t been a similar official apology for Roosevelt’s abhorant personal statement nor to my knowledge was one ever demanded. The reason is straightforward, political leaders are primarily judged based on their actions on the key issues they engage with. Goldwater’s campaign was a key step in building an alliance between the Republican party and southern racists in ways that changed the electoral map in ways that lasted to this day.

    It isn’t as if he led a nationwide boycott of racist firms, providing aa libertarian alternative to the civil rights act of 1964. It;s ultimately not a dispute over means, it’s a dispute between continuing to pursue justice that was not achieved by his earlier procivil rights votes and doing worse than nothing. Apparently neither his personla virtues nor his ideology compelled him towards the first path either during hus presidential campaign or in the immediate aftermath of his defeat. Coming around late in life is great, but makes little impact politically.

  5. fourthbranch Says:


    Many are (understandably) writing on Rand Paul’s extremist civil rights views, but lost in the shuffle were his views on 2nd Amendment rights which he also expressed in the Maddow interview.

    While most of America won’t be bothered by (and may actually agree with) Paul’s gun statements, many in Kentucky will not (particularly those on the right who he needs to vote if he is going to win).

    On Maddow’s program, Paul said, “Well what it gets into then is if you decide that restaurants are publicly owned and not privately owned, then do you say that you should have the right to bring your gun into a restaurant even though the owner of the restaurant says ‘well no, we don’t want to have guns in here’ the bar says ‘we don’t want to have guns in here because people might drink and start fighting and shoot each-other.’ Does the owner of the restaurant own his restaurant? Or does the government own his restaurant?”

    Note the suggestion that the government right now DOES have the ability to regulate gun possession on private property (which I agree with by the way). He then notes that a significant reason why is that people bringing guns onto private property may “start fighting and shoot each other.” The idea that the presence of guns increases the likelihood of violence is something libertarians, and most conservatives, emphatically reject. Rand Paul himself, on his very own website, speaks out strongly in FAVOR of unimpaired gun rights! The views are not compatible internally.

    Full thoughts are here (gun comments begin half way down in the article):

  6. gman2010 Says:

    Conor, you’re missing what I understand to be Matt’s point (I could be wrong since I only read the excerpt you posted.) What he finds expressly shocking is they claim as the foundational moment. It’s like having liberals claim that context of the egregious quotes from their icons are the “foundational moments” of their movement. I get the part about the “odd hero”, but I don’t know of liberals thinking their heroes covered themselves in glory in those moments.

  7. Amin Khad Says:

    You are absolutely wrong. Laws against racism don’t stop racism, and don’t help those afflicted by it. It is better to know who racists are, rather than driving it under ground.

  8. neild Says:

    Hey Conor – does it help that I will never forgive Bill Clinton for his Monica scandal?

    I’m not old enough to know much about Goldwater, but the problem with ideological heroes is that they are always cranks.

    If you want to idolize someone from the past, you have to deal with their embrace of the conventional wisdom of the times – most of which has been discredited or otherwise rendered moot.

    The real question is why we would consider the ideology of 50+ years ago relevant in 2010. It’s best not to put too much stock in their views. Too much has changed to make their ideas relevant today.

  9. Jason Williams Says:

    How is it that self-righteous white elitist can always label constitutional advocates like Barry Goldwater, and Rand Paul as racists and people like Robert Byrd who was actually a former klan member, and Woodrow Wilson the father of the progressive movement who was unapoligetic of his racism, get off scot-free. Leftist always think the government can endow liberty, but the only true liberties are endowed by our creator, when government gets involved it make’s people dependant so the policians can keep their power, so therefore the only way to truly combat segregation is by education and transparency, when we the people speakout private business’s satisfy the costumers so they can keep their business. I do congragulate the writer for citing the racists comments that FDR and LBJ had made over the years, but to say that LBJ changed his policies because he knew it was morally correct is pure fallacy, the reason LBJ changed his policies, was because he realised the best way to keep the black man from gaining true equality was to give them just enough to keep them quiet, and would always keep his party in power, and if any black man disagreed he would be labeled an Uncle Tom. I give the example of what happened just a few years later, LBJ sacrificed the black man in the jungles of Vietnam.

    • neild Says:

      Ok then. I officially call Senator Byrd a grumpy old man who should retire from the Senate.

      I don’t idolize Wilson, Byrd, or any of those cited by CF. I don’t really care for FDR. His internment of the Japanese was appalling.

      But America was a racist country back then and still is to a lesser degree today. That’s my point. These flawed men have nothing to teach us today. Times have changed.

    • davidlosangeles Says:

      Hello Jason Williams,

      Your argument seems to be that Mr. Goldwater was no more racist than various liberal politicians. That still leaves Mr. Goldwater as a racist, just a less lonely one.

      However, I would note that LBJ, and Robert Byrd acknowledged their racist past and took positive actions in the opposite direction. LBJ was responsible for a number of key bills, including the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, that broke the grip of legal forms of racism. Mr. Byrd has similarly taken a consistent stand in favor of the expansion of liberty. Their actions in power speak louder than their words before they were in power. The opposite can be said of Mr. Goldwater. While he never uttered an overtly racist word, his actions were consistently against Black liberation and for White supremacy.

      Using Japanese-American Internment as a good example, who opposed it? That champion of conservative values the ACLU did. Where there any conservatives who stood up against internment during WW II? Political conservatives championed interment.

      Who opposed reparations to the victims of this interment. In 1988 when the Civil Liberties Act (SB 1009) was being introduced, Mr. Goldwater was not able to be a sponsor unlike even other Republicans like Senators D’Amato, Spector, Wicker, and Wilson. There were three attempts to kill the bill in the Senate, all lead by conservative Republicans, one by Chic Hecht (R-Nev) and two by Jesse Helms (R-NC). Where were conservatives in general and Mr. Goldwater in particular on this? Opposed.

      So you have answered your own question.

  10. Matthew Yglesias » Racial Resentment and the Conservative Movement (a continuing series) Says:

    […] Matthew Yglesias criticized conservatives for making him their icon, and Conor Friedersdorf responded by arguing that liberal icons have also been wrong on race. Adam Serwer and Dave Weigel both have […]

  11. Racial Resentment and the Conservative Movement (a continuing series) - Jamelle Bouie - United States of Jamerica - True/Slant Says:

    […] Matthew Yglesias criticized conservatives for making him their icon, and Conor Friedersdorf responded by arguing that liberal icons have also been wrong on race. Adam Serwer and Dave Weigel both have […]

  12. Thoughts on Goldwater, Cont’d - Conor Friedersdorf - Metablog - True/Slant Says:

    […] reply, I wrote that conservatives aren’t alone in making icons out of leaders who were on the wrong side of […]

  13. DENNIS SANDERS OP-ED: Did Libertarianism Cause Jim Crow? - Hip Hop Republican Says:

    […] of American society. No institution, no ideology was left unscathed. (Conor Friedersdorf has an excellent post -using material from Barlett, no less, about how some heroes of the left thought about minorities […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: