Conservatives on the Wrong Side of History on Mandela, Most Other Things

The American right hated Nelson Mandela when it mattered. But when have they ever been correct on a historic issue? From segregation to Iran, it’s a record of tragedy and moral nullity.

12.10.13 10:45 AM ET

The Beast’s estimable Peter Beinart already laid bare the rancid hypocrisy of today’s Republicans honoring Nelson Mandela. Joan Walsh delivered a similarly biting critique of the “right-washing” of Mandela going on right now. American conservatives loathed the man when it mattered. This leads us to a broader question that Beinart and Walsh didn’t have the space to get into, so I’ll pick it up from here: When has the American right ever—ever—been on the right side of history?

The answer is almost never. Indeed, history is an unfolding, and more or less constant, vindication of the people who were thinking ahead, who weren’t happy with things the way they were and saw they had to change, and who have been on the side of personal liberation and de-concentration of political power. Those people are virtually by definition liberals and reformers and radicals.

Consider the great political earthquakes throughout history and imagine the contemporaneous—not retrospective, as we are seeing in these phony paeans to Mandela, but in-the-moment—conservative posture. The conservative position was wrong nearly every time—not just wrong, but often morally shocking from our later perspective.

Do you support the American Revolution? I should hope so. You would not have, however, had you been a conservative in 1785. American Loyalists, perhaps 20 percent of the white population of the day, were devoted to king and crown for mostly the usual reasons: They were older, better established, had more money, were scared of change.

How about the abolition of slavery? I reckon you’re on board with that. Well, Lord knows you wouldn’t have been if you’d been among the 1860 conservatives who started a war over it (and whose apologists today insist the Civil War was not about slavery).

In terms of domestic politics, few polemical tasks are easier than demonstrating how wrong conservatism has been about pretty much everything in all of American history. Eradication of child labor? Why, an imposition on business owners to run their factories as they saw fit, you socialist! Giving women the right to vote? Women?! They simply don’t possess the logical faculties to be entrusted with such a responsibility, and anyway where will it end—I suppose you’ll be suggesting that black people get the franchise next? Segregation. Miscegenation laws. Immigration. Civil rights. The environmental movement. Conservatism’s record: wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, and wrong.

It’s amazing how one hears the same hideous arguments, always swaddled in alleged morality and always—always—totally immoral. A hundred years ago, biblical thunderers screamed that their pact between their conscience and their God couldn’t possibly allow them to consider the marriage of a white person to a “colored” one to be valid. Today, our thunderers say exactly the same thing about gay people. We should no more tolerate a “religious exemption” for those who oppose same-sex marriage than on race. It is bigotry, period and end of story. History one day will determine as much, and our anti-gay thunderers will look every bit as hateful as the racial ones of yesteryear do now.

There were a couple of matters on which liberalism was getting too carried away in the 1970s; taxation was too high, some policies for racial redress exacerbated antagonisms (bussing). So a conservative corrective was understandable. But 30 years later, that “corrective” has given us a country in which wages for working people have been stagnant, the rich have pulled far away from the rest, and those in between the workers and the rich also have lost ground but have been given access to just enough whiz-bang technology and white truffles on their pasta to let them feel as if things are great. These are the quasi-defensible conservative policies, and they’ve been utterly disastrous.

All right. That was almost too easy. So let’s turn to foreign policy. Here, I admit things get a little more complicated, but only a little. There have been two great questions on foreign policy in the last century, the questions of fascism and communism. On the former, the American right’s record is one of deep shame. Most of American conservatism actively attacked Roosevelt for getting us into war. If America First had had its way, in Amsterdam, Oslo, and Paris they’d be speaking German today, or at least would have for a long time.

Communism is the one question on which American conservatives were not espousing a position that was on its face either immoral or laughable. But at the same time, the true historical record is not nearly so simple as “conservatives opposed communism” and “liberals coddled communism.” Mainstream liberals—Harry Truman, Arthur Schlesinger, Eleanor Roosevelt, loads of others—were deeply and insistently anti-communist, as were many socialists, such as George Orwell. Indeed, the socialists, who had tried to make common cause with the communists, knew better than anyone what a bunch of liars and connivers they were.

Others on the left were, without doubt, more accommodationist. I’m not in the business of making retroactive excuses for anybody: To have failed to have recognized communism for what it was is to have made a grave historical error, and some people I otherwise admire made it.

Having said that, I also stipulate that right-wing anti-communism has led this country down some appalling moral dead ends, ones we could have avoided if we’d pursued a more liberal anti-communism. Here’s a specific case in point that illustrates the difference. There was much debate in U.S. foreign-policy circles in 1952 on what to do about Mohammed Mossadegh in Iran as he nationalized the oil supply. Mossadegh was, indeed, a socialist.

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Two schools of thought emerged. The liberal view was that we should try to ally with Mossadegh and the socialists against the communists in the Iranian Majlis (parliament), as that would isolate the communists and put us, the United States, on the side of the Iranian people, who clearly backed Mossadegh. On that basis, Truman and Dean Acheson, firm anti-communists though (or perhaps that) they were, refused to green-light a CIA coup against Mossadegh. But when Eisenhower and John Foster Dulles took over, any such subtlety went out the window. They approved the catastrophic overthrow for which we are still paying a high and clear price every day.

By and large, liberal anti-communism is the path not taken, or all too rarely taken, by our country. Mandela is another case in point. There is no question that some, maybe many, in the African National Congress were communists. But does anyone think for a second that the ANC would have said no to American help had it been forthcoming? Similarly, Ho Chi Minh wrote to Acheson in 1947 seeking American support for his people’s aspiration to nationhood. I’m an Acheson admirer, but he blew this one. He never replied to two entreaties from Ho. Eisenhower stepped up U.S. support for the French, and in due course, paranoid anti-communism led us into war—yes, started by a Democrat who feared that if he didn’t go to war, he would be impeached by the rabid anti-communists in Congress.

Conservatives will be saying here, “Well, buddy, Reagan won the Cold War, what do you say to that?” I say no, he did not. A man named Gyula Horn won the Cold War. I’ve written about it many times. But in truth, it wasn’t even Horn, more central than Reagan though he was. It was the hundreds, thousands, of humanists from Russia and the Eastern bloc who fought totalitarianism. As the great historian John Patrick Diggins once wrote: “The Eastern European forces of freedom that courageously took to the streets to overthrow communism… represented the three great antagonists of conservatism: the youth culture, the intellectuals of the ’60s generation, and the laboring classes that still favored Solidarity over individualism.”

The conservative record is one of tragedy and moral nullity. Even so I would say we do need a conservative tendency in ours or any society as a check against reformist over-zeal. So conservatives should certainly be involved in our arguments. It’s just that they should also lose most of them, as history shows they’ve done a good job of doing.