I am not a racist. I just hate democracy.

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?


  1. Elizabeth Donahue March 14, 2013 at 12:21 am | #

    Again, with the word ” racist”

  2. Joanna Bujes March 14, 2013 at 12:23 am | #

    I think the thinking goes that they’re not against democracy, they’re against mob rule.

    Even Hugo in some early scenes from Les Miserables, clearly shudders at the thought, and must sugar coat or infantilize his working class characters to make them acceptable.

    Barbara Erenreich has an unfairly ignored book called “Dancing in the Streets” that examines the social=mob meme starting ….hmmmm…..with the puritans? I forget. But it’s relatively new. Good stuff. And we’re all prey to that idea to some extent.

    • Corey Robin March 14, 2013 at 12:33 am | #

      But the explicit phrase we’re talking about here is this: “to resist, ignore, or even overturn the will of the electoral majority.” That’s not mob rule, riots in the street. That’s strictly procedural constitutional democracy.

    • Sam Holloway March 15, 2013 at 2:15 pm | #

      But isn’t it always ‘mob rule’ when undesirables get to vote? That’s why conservatives don’t attempt to abolish the franchise so much as limit it to the deserving.

  3. Administrator March 14, 2013 at 12:25 am | #

    Reblogged this on The Point Loma Democratic Club.

  4. Jeet Heer March 14, 2013 at 1:07 am | #

    Very interesting post. As I mentioned on twitter, I think the anti-democratic thrust of right-wing thought has generally been downplayed (although your work is a happy exception), especially with regards to the movement conservatism. It’s easy enough to catalog the racism of the early National Review circle but what needs to be done is to place it within the wider framework of anti-democratic thought. I think James Burnham is a pivotal figure here — his 1943 The Machivellians was a very early example of an explicitly anti-democratic politics growing out of disillusionment with both liberalism and the left (Burnham wrote it in the wake of his great break with Trotsky). Equally revealing is Burnham’s Suicide of the West, which makes it clear that what separates him from Cold War liberals is the question of democracy. Cold War liberals think, foolishly Burnham argues, that it’s in America’s interest to promote democracy but conservatives know that a democratic world would be an anti-American one. Burnham helped formulate the totalitarian/authoritarian distinction that Jeanne Kirkpatrick would later popularize (a major ideological rationale for supporting various right wing dictators in the 1970s and 1980s).

  5. Ernest Ambrus March 14, 2013 at 4:00 am | #

    I think the standard reply to this point would be to refashion what democracy means to the likes of Jonah Goldberg, i.e. “overturning the will of the electoral majority to prevent the majority from tyrannizing the minority”. It’s the facetious rephrasing that, for most people, will let them off the hook, as no, they really don’t hate democracy, just unruly one without “checks, and balances”. Democracy to them means whatever they like it to mean; appointed senators, or elected, ballot initiatives when it suits them, against when it’s a progressive cause, et al.

    • Brian Hurt (@bhurt42) March 14, 2013 at 9:19 pm | #

      I wish to note, however, that only certain minorities are worthy of protection from the “tyranny of the majority”. To pick one example not at random, rural whites are a minority that is accorded large, even institutional, protections from the tyranny of the majority. Urban blacks, not so much. At which point, the cry that conservatives are defending us from the excesses of democracy falls more than a little flat, and the truth- that their fundamental goal is to replace the so-called “tyranny of the majority” with an explicit tyranny of a *specific* minority, stands revealed.

    • neffer March 15, 2013 at 4:46 pm | #

      This seems to be a pretty trivial article. Both liberals and conservatives have argued that the will of the majority does not fly when it runs into conflict with cherished notions – sometimes newly created notions. However, Goldberg/Ponnuru , from the moderate right, have done no such thing.

      And, the far left and far right have both been less than thrilled over the years with the idea of democracy. The far left, as in the communist movement, has, in power, acted as if the will of the majority was irrelevant – and, in fact, has claimed to work for the majority where it was obvious that was not the case. The far Left has advanced racism and Antisemitism to advance its agenda. So has the far Right. They are equal opportunity offenders.

      We have people at this time on the far left who think highly and view as a source for their ideas that great pillar of democracy – oops, actually enemy of democracy and Nazi party member and enthusiast – Carl Schmidt. But, does that mean that the entire left is anti-Democratic? Of course not. Some are.

      So, it is difficult to take what you write as being serious. Is this really an example of your scholarship?

      Moreover, the Goldberg/Ponnuru article does not suggest opposition to democracy. Nothing of the sort is asserted. But, the one place where the will of the majority comes into play – and this points back to those on the Right who opposed civil rights -, it is noted that many on the Right took the wrong side, opposing democracy as being understood to include people of all races. They write:

      That slander does not consist of reminding us that many conservatives, including William F. Buckley Jr. and National Review, were grievously wrong about the civil-rights movement. That fact is something all conservatives should ponder. Nor does it consist of suggesting, correctly, that certain conservative principles — federalism, traditionalism, economic freedom, judicial restraint — contributed to this moral error (just as certain liberal tendencies led The New Republic and the New York Times to make their apologias for Mussolini, Castro, and Stalin). Instead, Tanenhaus seeks to make, without defending, the dubious claim that any invocation of these principles is necessarily an implicit or explicit appeal to Calhoun’s worldview.

      Which is to say, I think your article is pretty ridiculous, ignoring portions that are contrary to your ideas.

      • Reza Lustig March 23, 2013 at 2:07 pm | #

        Can’t find any reference to “far leftists” admiring Carl Schmidt (who, as the record seems to show, was pretty conservative to say the least), but I do see a lot of names thrown around like “Leo Strauss,” and “John Yoo,” in terms of those who were inspired by him.

  6. Forsetti March 14, 2013 at 9:00 am | #

    Tanenhaus is arguing that today’s conservatives are actively trying to overturn “the will of the electoral majority” and the manner in which they try to accomplish this is through racially charged policies and methods-ala Calhoun. Tying to pit whites against blacks in order to win elections because whites outnumber blacks is part of this legacy. Creating voting laws that make it more difficult for the majority to vote, when the majority in a district are black, is part of this legacy. As an intellectual exercise it might be useful to ask-“Which came first the racism or the anti-democratic mentality?” Did conservatives adopt anti-democratic policies and views because of racist tendencies or did their anti-democratic views give rise to racist views? It seems that both options are not only problematic but indefensible-either way you are tying to argue against democracy and for racism. What order they occur in the argument doesn’t change their ethical justification or validity.

  7. Steve Muhlberger March 14, 2013 at 2:36 pm | #

    Remember Buckley saying the problem was not too few black men voting in MS, but too many white men voting there?

    • Manju March 16, 2013 at 7:41 am | #

      Steve, could you source that for me?

      The reason I ask is that I’m interested in the apologies. Did Buckley really recant? I’d like to know.

  8. Gerry Staack March 14, 2013 at 2:46 pm | #

    Conservatism is the domination of society by an aristocracy.
    It is incompatible with democracy, prosperity, and civilization in general, and
    it is a destructive system of inequality and prejudice. Racism is in the same class.

  9. Arthur Berney March 14, 2013 at 8:40 pm | #

    Long go I shocked my law students, as we were considering Racism and Hate Speech, that “we were are all racists.” At least 16 hands shot up. I listened to denials and outrages for a time, and then I said let me explain myself. My point was that how can anyone who grew up in the U.S. racist environment, and not partake of it to various degrees? I explained that the best we could do was to fight it in ourselves, and disown it publicly.

    Two personal stories: My first child was born while I was in Law School at UVA. We lived in a previously upscale neighborhood that in time became predominantly Black. Two lovely young black girls lived next door and they took turns as my son’s baby sitters. I returned often to Charlottesville in the summers and my son became very close to the younger sister. Later in Ohio where I got my first teaching job my son returned from preschool and said he hated blacks. I was stunned and I said you loved your baby sitter. You can guess what he said: She was not Black! Even though she was quite dark.

    The second story: For about 3 years I worked in a summer program that sought to help African Americans, who hoped to go to law school some day, to prepare themselves to gain admissions. One day while I was grading their exams with the help of my law school assistant, I turned to my son who was in high school and asked him to take the exam, a very dumb thing to do. I then said he did better than the applicants and my assistant blew up. She was black and became very angry. I realized she was right and admitted that to her but understandably she never forgave me.

    Now to respond to the main subject of Professor Robin’s paper. I do agree that the chaotic and riven Republican Party today, has in large measure revealed itself as racist and even more so, an Anti-Democracy Party. I think it is seized by a FEAR that Whites, who dominated and controlled the country and its culture for most of our history, inevitably will begin to lose that status. The grand “Melting Pot” perception will become more colorful and that is not the way it was for a very long time. This is why the Republican Party and its constituency yearn for the Past. A backward looking Party, by definition, has no future. Quo Vadis? I believe history demonstrates that the last hope is to find another, greater power. In the U.S., interestingly, that is not the usual suspect: the Military. It is the Corporate Power Structure. Hence: the Republican Party has embraced Oligarchy. Professor Robin concludes, quite obviously, that is “Anti Democracy”.

    • ed scott March 15, 2013 at 11:09 am | #

      I don’t understand story two,which I admit may illustrate my dumbness
      As a white person contemplating racism over many years, if asked my attitude towards black people, I’d say;
      ” I don’t do anything for Black people ( which is true), except give them an even break( to the best of my ability).
      That, in my experience, has been acceptable to Black people.
      Personally, having been infuriated by a few, slight incidents of patronizing superiority (people who experience it every day could only become dulled of those feelings), I see it demonstrates the insidious, pusillanimous nature of all prejudice.
      So, the response to your remark in story two may be understood. I contend the same remark may not have triggered the reaction, based on all the subtleties of unspoken communication.
      We should trust that other humans, being equal, can distinguish the subtle differences. I find people who experienced prejudice are very adept at this understanding.
      I assume that’s the lesson you wish to impart. It’s about perfecting self

  10. ahmedrteleb March 14, 2013 at 10:13 pm | #

    Scalia did make such “anti-democratic” comments during oral argument over VRA a couple of weeks ago. I wonde if our political discourse would be more civilized if we kept clear the distinction between “republic” and “democracy.” After all 14 mentions of “democracy” in The Federalist papers refer to it as something to be avoided, alas akin to mob rule. It seems it wasn’t till Jacksons’s presidency that the word was redeemed, if somewhat “newspeakified.”

  11. Glenn March 15, 2013 at 11:25 am | #

    Don’t miss ” Taming Democracy” by Terry Bouton, for the founding elite’s efforts to suppress democracy after inciting it in their efforts at replacing the dominant British elite.

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