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Do Conservatives Know Much About Conservative History?

A historian writing in Politico says liberal historians ignorantly attribute too much racism to conservatives. Yet conservative historians ignore their movement's racism entirely.

William F. Buckley Jr. in 2005. (Getty Images)

Writing in Politico on Sunday, historian Geoffrey Kabaservice argued that liberals, and particularly liberal historians, have done conservatism a profound disservice in recent decades. Under the headline “Liberals Don’t Know Much About Conservative History,” Kabaservice lamented the “veritable tsunami of historical literature on conservatism” in the past 20 years, “virtually all” of which “have been written by liberals.” Kabaservice, author of the fine book Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party, believes that these works “reveal the pitfalls for liberals writing about a movement with which they have no personal experience. If you’re a historian who has not a single conservative colleague—and perhaps not even one conservative friend—chances are you’ll approach conservatism as anthropologists once approached tribes they considered remote, exotic, and quite possibly dangerous.” 

While Kabaservice specifically faults scholars like Corey Robin, Lisa McGirr, Nancy MacLean, Heather Cox Richardson, and Rick Perlstein, the burden of his critique is far broader. At heart, Kabaservice is angry that liberal writers treat conservatism unsympathetically, emphasizing the dark side of the movement. Further, he feels liberals ignore the intellectual achievements of conservatism and focus excessively on the role of popular pundits and political organizers (although, if the point, as Kabaservice says, is to produce historical scholarship that explains the rise of Trump, than a focus on these individuals would seem appropriate).

As an example of liberals painting too negative a picture, he claims that Cox Richardson “contends that racism was the essence of Buckley’s New Right, and further that the Birch Society spread his ideas to ordinary voters.” Kabaservice doesn’t see it that way: “Buckley’s endorsement of Southern segregation,” he writes, “was a moral blot on the conservative movement, and he later acknowledged it as his gravest error. But it’s anti-historical to assume that Buckley was little more than a Klansman with a large vocabulary, or to dismiss the monumental divisions on the right as minor quarrels within a united white supremacist alliance.”

The problem with the straw man Kabaservice has chosen to fight against here—few people would go so far as to call Buckley an erudite Klansman—is not so much that it distorts liberal historians’ position (although it does) as that it ignores the vast array of troubling episodes in conservative history. Buckley did move away from overt racism after it became socially unfashionable, but the entanglement of his magazine to racism is far deeper than Kabaservice’s glib words acknowledge. Nor is Kabaservice alone in this. For the fact is that it’s not invariably liberals who write about conservatism. There have been plenty of conservatives who write about the histories of their own movement. And when conservatives do delve into the history of Buckley and National Review, they almost always (with a few brave exceptions) whitewash the past to ignore or minimize the role played by racism.

Consider the example of Willmoore Kendall, the mentor to the young William F. Buckley at Yale and a founding editor of National Review. In 1960, in the pages of National Review, Kendall cited with approval a book by Nathaniel Weyl arguing that “the Negro” suffers from a blighted “biological inheritance.” Influenced by Weyl’s biological racism, Kendall asked, “Could it be we shall never do justice to the Negroes in our midst, or the Negroes to themselves, save as we all recognize that as a group they may have a lesser capacity than the rest of us for civilizational achievement?” Answering his own query, Kendall wrote, “When we impose upon them equal responsibility for civilizational achievement we may be doing them not justice but injustice.” 

Kendall’s racism wasn’t an incidental or irrelevant aspect of his thought. He was an early advocate of right-wing populism, the position that conservatives should appeal to the masses in defiance of the elites. He theorized the rhetorical appeal to populism that was later developed to great effect by politicians like Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and Donald Trump. So it’s important to realize that the masses Kendall wanted to appeal to were, from the start, white people, not America as a whole.

Kendall is often cited by conservatives as a major figure, yet his blatant racism is never discussed, let alone analyzed. George H. Nash’s The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945 (1976), an encyclopedic work of nearly 500 pages, treats Kendall as a towering figure, the only one who alone gets an entire chapter devoted to him because he wrote with “the penetration, perhaps, of genius.” Yet Nash has nothing to say about the Kendall’s racism—or indeed the racism of any other conservative thinker. This is despite the fact that many of the intellectuals explored in Nash’s book supported Jim Crow segregation or South African apartheid. The only three references to racism in Nash’s book show up when describing conservative arguments that racism is not a problem. 

Kendall’s racism is similarly entirely ignored in the 2002 collection Willmoore Kendall: Maverick of American Conservatives edited by John A. Murley and ‎John E. Alvis, in Lee Edwards’ 2014 biography William F. Buckley Jr.: The Maker of a Movement, and in Jeffrey Hart’s 2014 intellectual history The Making of the American Conservative Mind: National Review and Its Times

What’s true of Kendall applies more broadly to Buckley and National Review. It doesn’t take much digging into the magazine’s history to find examples of racism. Yet that racism is almost always either entirely neglected or dismissed away by conservative historians.

In 1960, a National Review editorial stated that “the whites are entitled, we believe, to preeminence in South Africa.” The magazine would continued to support white minority rule in African countries like Rhodesia and South Africa until the very end of those regimes. 

“The learning ability of Negro children on the average is not as responsive at present as that of white children to the stimulation given by average white schools,” Ernest Van den Haag wrote in National Review in 1964. “We don’t know whether it will ever be. ... Therefore, Negroes and whites should be educated separately.” 

In 1965, National Review writer James Jackson Kilpatrick, speaking at a conference honoring the hundredth anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, suggested there should be an “inquiry into the possibility of some innate inferiority in the Negro race.” That same year, William Buckley himself warned of “chaos” and “mobocratic rule” if “the entire Negro population in the South were suddenly given the vote.”

In 1969, the anthropologist John Greenway asked in National Review, “Did the United States destroy the American Indian?” His answer: “No, but it should have.” Greenway approved of genocide because “without war and raiding and scalping and rape and pillage and slavetaking the Indian was as aimless as a chiropractor without a spine. There was nothing left in life for him but idleness, petty mischief, and booze.”

In 1975, National Review editor Jeffrey Hart praised Jean Raspail’s racist novel The Camp of Saints.  “In this novel Raspail brings his reader to the surprising conclusion that killing a million or so starving refugees from India would be a supreme act of individual sanity and cultural health,” Hart enthused. “Raspail is to genocide what [D.H. Lawrence] was to sex.” He also called the “liberal rote anathema on ‘racism’” nothing more than a “poisonous assault on Western self-preference.”

In 1979, National Review editor Joseph Sobran lamented the fact that if you were to write a history textbook, you would have to include “celebratory little passages on all the vocal pressure groups: women and minorities, or chicks and spics as you’ll wind up wanting to call them.”

Contra Kabaservice, the racism in National Review went beyond a brief support for segregation. Instead, it was part in parcel of a larger theoretical framework that associated whiteness with civilization and saw blacks (and other non-white groups) as innately deficient. This racist framework continued to appear in the magazine well into the 21st century

The role racism has played in the history of American conservatism, as witnessed in the writings of William F. Buckley and many other National Review writers, is a rich and important topic. It’s become all the more urgent in the era where Donald Trump has made obvert racism a cornerstone of Republican politics. But it’s a topic that conservatives have shied away from. Fortunately, others have taken it up: Within the pages of the liberal scholars that Geoffrey Kabaservice unfairly attacks, we can find an honest attempt to grapple with this difficult and painful history. 

Rather than suggesting that we need to have more conservatives write on the history of conservatism, Kabaservice should ask why the existing literature of conservatives writing about their own movement is so poor. He closes by suggesting “liberal historians” subscribe to conservative magazines, that their anger might be “better informed.” Yet it’s not so clear that liberals would be surprised by what they find in the pages of conservative publications. Conservatives, if one is to take their amnesia at face value, might be.