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?