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Thinking Like a Conservative (Part Two): Biding Time on Voting Rights | The Nation

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Rick Perlstein

Rick Perlstein

Where the past isn’t even past.

Thinking Like a Conservative (Part Two): Biding Time on Voting Rights


A supporter of the North Carolina NAACP holds stickers protesting the passage of new voter identification legislation. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

When the Supreme Court decided the case of Shelby County v. Holder last November, severely limiting the sweep of the Voting Rights Act in Southern states with a history of racial discrimination, here’s what you heard from all the reasonable folks: soon, very soon, Congress would draft legislation restoring said sweep, in ways that honored the new guidelines written into the new Supreme Court decision. They would surely do so in rare bipartisan fashion. After all, the last time the VRA was renewed was for a twenty-five-year extension signed by President Bush in 2006, passed in the House by a vote of 390-33, with the Senate passing the House bill unanimously and without amendment. The “Fannie Lou Hamer, Rosa Parks, and Coretta Scott King Voting Rights Act Reauthorization and Amendments Act of 2006” had been introduced by James Sensenbrenner, one of the most conservative of House veterans. Which means Republicans, and conservatives, must like the Voting Rights Act—Remember that whole “nothing to fear” rap?

Well, that redrafting hasn’t happened yet. Instead, it’s been what Josh Marshall has called “Open Season On Non-White Voting.” Said the AP, “Across the South, Republicans are working to take advantage of a new political landscape after a divided U.S. Supreme Court freed all or part of 15 states, many of them in the old Confederacy, from having to ask Washington’s permission before changing election procedures in jurisdictions with histories of discrimination.” Polling restrictions began passing Republican-controlled legislatures with breakneck speed, like mighty waters once held back by now-crumbling dams. Texas, Mississippi, and South Carolina passed strict voter ID laws. North Carolina passed not just a voter ID law but redrew its political maps and reduced early voting. Georgia redrew its county commission districts to dilute minority power.

But what about that 98-0 Senate tally, and Fannie Lou Hamer and Rosa Parks and Coretta Scott King and moonbeams and unicorns and sunshine in 2006? Were conservatives crossing their fingers when they cast that vote?

Look. Conservatives are time-biders. And they understand, as Corey Robin explains in his indispensable book The Reactionary Mind, that the direction of human history is not on their side—that is why they are reactionaries—because, other things equal, civilization does tend towards more inclusion, more emancipation, more liberalism. They could not survive as a political tendency unless they clothed reaction in liberal raiment. You’ve seen that happen over and over again—like when people like Grover Norquist, whose aim is to roll back the entire welfare state, including Social Security, says what he’s really trying to do is save Social Security.

But they also can be quite plain about what they ultimately want and how to get there, in documents meant to be read by other conservatives—documents shot through with language about biding time, preparing the ground, going to the mattresses: of tactical patience in the service of strategic ends. “Hell,” as National Review publisher William Rusher put it in 1960, “the catacombs were good enough for the Christians.”

Consider, for example, the 1983 paper from Cato Journal “Achieving a Leninist Strategy.” The subject was Social Security, and it proposed “what one might crudely call guerrilla warfare against both the current Social Security system and the coalition that supports it,” to “cast doubt on the picture of reality” promoted by that coalition. (These cats adore imagery of guerrilla warfare, a concept that precisely privileges patience, sedulousness, stealth, misdirection.)

When conservatives talk to one another, pay attention: they say what they want to do, and mean it. And will do just about anything to get there—even, or especially, claiming that they don’t want to do the thing they want to do, until the time is ripe, and they can do it. (See also: here). I’ll never forget the time I was on the radio with Grover Norquist, and pointed out that he hated Social Security and wanted to get rid of it. He shrieked like a stuck pig that he loved Social Security and that he had never wanted and would never want to get rid of it. He freaked out even further when I pointed out that he admired Lenin as one of history’s great time-biders—he kept a portrait of the Soviet strategist on his wall; and don’t forget that he liked Stalin too, precisely because he was a sedulous burrower from within: Stalin “was running the personnel department while Trotsky was fighting the White Army. When push came to shove for control of the Soviet Union, Stalin won. Trotsky got a pick a through his skull, while Stalin became head of the Soviet Union. He understood that personnel is policy.”

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Now, on voting rights, the personnel are in place. The time has been bided. The Fannie Lou Hamer, Rosa Parks and Coretta Scott King masks fall away off, and reveal Theodore Bilbo, Lester Maddox and Leander Perez underneath. The catacombs were good enough for them.

In part one of this series, Perlstein discusses the static position of conservatives on gun control legislation.

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