In late 1955, the Eisenhower administration began drafting a civil rights bill, with voting rights at its core. Its passage through Congress took almost two years, with intense debate on a provision authorizing federal judges to enforce voter rights from the bench, instead of leaving each case up to local (often all-white) juries. It was killed by Southern Democrats, who formed an alliance that included Senator John F. Kennedy, an avowed liberal eager to appease the Dixie senators who denied him the vice presidential nomination in 1956 and might thwart his presidential plans for 1960. The weakened bill that passed, in September 1957, established the federal Civil Rights Commission and added a Civil Rights Division to the Justice Department—far short of what many hoped for, yet "incomparably the most significant domestic action of any Congress in this century," according to The New York Timeseditorial page. Not one Republican senator voted against it. All 18 No's came from Democrats. "White southerners viewed the bill as Republican legislation," Joseph Crespino writes in his recent book, Strom Thurmond's America.He goes on to argue that movement conservatism drew on the political philosophy of John C. Calhoun, the antebellum arch-conservative of South Carolina who articulated a view of the constitution that put state rights, not individual rights, at the center. Why is this important? It is what Barry Goldwater turned to in 1964 to oppose the civil rights act. Whatever else could be said about it, the act clearly placed the rights of individual minorities ahead of state minorities, and as such was seen as unconstitutional.
Then, within weeks, an authentic crisis arose. Arkansas's governor, Orval Faubus, defied a federal court order to desegregate Little Rock's Central High School, bringing in the National Guard to surround the school and block a group of black pupils from entering, while a shrieking mob threatened violence. Unable to compromise with Faubus, Eisenhower federalized the Guardsmen and also sent in 1,000 paratroopers from the 101st Airborne Division. For the first time since Reconstruction, U.S. government troops, armed with bayonets, "occupied" a state in the old Confederacy.
A Republican president and his party now stood at the forefront of civil rights in America. Yet within a few years, this advantage would be lost and the party would be defined thereafter by its resistance to civil rights. Why did this happen? The reason was a historical coincidence: Just as the civil rights movement became a national concern, movement conservatism was being born.
Because Goldwater's opposition to the civil rights act was rooted in an established intellectual tradition he and his supporters could argue that it was not racist. The problem is that the intellectual tradition to which they held, whatever its theoretical virtues, had always been deployed in conjunction with the defense of white supremacy.
We know that millions of Democratic segregationists in the deep south suddenly switched and voted for Goldwater. Their votes were self-evidently racist. But for Goldwater and his conservative descendents the problem is more complicated and intractable than the racist label would imply. Even if they harbor no prejudice at all, they cling to a political philosophy that has no practical way to prioritize racial justice without betraying its central tenets. This is a huge problem!