Conor Friedersdorf argues that Matthew Yglesias is wrong to criticize conservatives for making Barry Goldwater their icon, because liberal heroes have been wrong on race as well, citing Franklin Roosevelt's internment of Japanese Americans, Lyndon Johnson's opposition to anti-lynching legislation, and John F. Kennedy's surveillance of Martin Luther King Jr.:
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.
This is the sort of "I know you are but what am I" false equivalency argument you rarely see Friedersdorf make. To the extent that liberals revere FDR, Johnson, and to a much lesser extent, Kennedy, it is despite their support for illiberal policies, not because of them. FDR is revered for saving capitalism and creating the modern social safety net, not for interning Japanese Americans -- in fact it's actually modern conservatives who have chosen to justify that shameful period in American history. The same is true of the other liberal figures Friedersdorf mentions -- the illiberal policies of his examples are not the reasons they're remembered by liberals as heroes; they're the reasons they're remembered by liberals as flawed.
Goldwater, whatever Friedersdorf's personal feelings, ran on opposition to integration. It was central to his political identity and presidential campaign. Whatever his personal feelings on race, he was on the wrong side of the most important issue of his time, on the opposite side of the issue from Kennedy and Johnson. And he is still revered by some conservatives precisely because of that "principled" stand in opposition to federal intervention on behalf of African Americans (if not for the stand, for the principles that led him to it), a stand supported by the intellectual godfather of the conservative movement not simply because of libertarian principles but because of flat-out racism. There isn't even a comparison here.
Perhaps more important, I care about as much as Kennedy and Johnson being personally racist as much as I care about Goldwater not being racist -- which is to say that I don't -- at least, not very much. I care what they did. It seems really weird to give Goldwater all this credit for not being personally racist while championing a cause supported by racists, and say this is the same thing as Kennedy and Johnson being racist but supporting legislation that advanced the cause of black rights. This is part and parcel of thinking of racism in quasi-religious terms, a stain on the soul rather than a matter of actual behavior, and it's part of why the American conversation on race remains so counterproductive.
Certainly the legacy of the Democratic Party on race is distinct from the liberal one, as much as the Republican legacy is distinct from that of conservatism. When my grandparents left segregated Tampa in the 1950s, they were Republicans. Were I alive at the time, I probably would have been one too. But by the time Johnson was running, they were Democrats. There's a reason for that.
-- A. Serwer
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