The Conservative Backlash to Progress – The Atlantic
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Each time political minorities advocate for and achieve greater equality, conservatives rebel, trying to force a reinstatement of the status quo.
About the authors: John S. Huntington is a history professor at Houston Community College. He is the author of Far-Right Vanguard: The Radical Roots of Modern Conservatism. Lawrence B. Glickman is a history professor at Cornell University. He is the author, most recently, of Free Enterprise: An American History.
Although the United States was born of a revolution, one common view maintains that the Constitution tamed our rebellious impulse and launched a distinctly nonrevolutionary political experiment. But throughout American history, an important strand of conservatism has repeatedly championed rebellions—or what are better understood as counterrevolutions.
They emerge like clockwork: Each time political minorities advocate for and achieve greater equality, conservatives rebel, trying to force a reinstatement of the status quo.
The term counterrevolution is significant not only because conservatives have regularly employed it, but also because it highlights their own agency, something they often seek to conceal. In order to portray their actions as defensive rather than aggressive, conservatives tend to depict themselves as acted upon and besieged. As William F. Buckley wrote in the National Review’s mission statement in 1955, conservatism “stands athwart history, yelling Stop.” Here the agent is history; conservatives are merely making a reply. But such rhetorical gestures discount what any close look at these movements makes clear: Conservatives have done much more than yell. They have fought against equality vigorously, often violently.
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Three historical moments—the revolt against post–Civil War Reconstruction, the mid-century fight against civil rights, and the modern Tea Party and Trump movements—stand out as perfect examples of the counterrevolutionary dynamic. They share certain broad themes: a hostility to racial equality, the invocation of apocalyptic rhetoric—that America is “under siege,” as President Donald Trump told the crowd on January 6 prior to the Capitol insurrection—and a deep distrust of democracy.
During Reconstruction, conservatives denounced its proponents as dangerous revolutionaries, often comparing them to notorious figures from the French Revolution. “We do not know of two men who have come up prominently before the world in revolutionary times more alike than Marat and Thaddeus Stevens,” The New York Herald said in 1866. One Nashville newspaper contended in 1868 that the Radical Republicans in Congress “aim to abolish the constitution, to destroy public liberty, and to concentrate the power of the country in the hands of usurpers … embodying the very essence of despotism … that shocked the world and subjected France to the ‘reign of terror’ under Jacobin rule.”
The “reign of terror” that the Nashville newspaper decried was in fact the emergence of multiracial democracy. Many conservatives were entirely frank about this, such as the one featured in Mississippi’s The Meriden Daily Republican who wrote, “The two races cannot and will not rule jointly and coequally … One or the other must become subordinate. This is the history of all such experiments everywhere.”
Outlawing racial discrimination, in this view, was grounds for regime change, even violence. Take, for example, an editorial statement of Missouri’s aptly named The Lexington Weekly Caucasian from 1872. It began with two demands, “State Sovereignty! White Supremacy!” and threatened “ANOTHER REBELLION” if they were not acceded to. “Revolution must be met by CounterRevolution—Force by Force—Violence by Violence—and Usurpation should be Overthrown, if needs be, by the Bayonet!” Calling white supremacy a counterrevolution could justify nearly anything, bloodshed included.
The counterrevolutionary politics of this era proved to be extremely effective, as much of the racial progress achieved during Reconstruction was wiped out or even reversed in subsequent decades. By the mid-20th century, the conservative backlash had reinforced white supremacy through Jim Crow laws and intense voter suppression. W. E. B. Du Bois famously called this the “counter-revolution of property.” Black citizens in Indianola, Mississippi, for example, constituted a majority of the local county’s population but only 0.03 percent of its registered voters. Du Bois reflected on this state of affairs, writing, “The slave went free; stood a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again toward slavery.”
When the civil-rights movement mobilized against this oppression and inequality, conservatives began to fear that what some were calling the “Second Reconstruction” might be as dangerous for them as the first. Barry Goldwater, in many ways the prototypical modern conservative, was among them. In a letter he wrote while running for president in 1963, Goldwater called the civil-rights movement a “revolution” and said that he was “very apprehensive about how far it will go.”
So conservatives responded with yet another counterrevolution, one intended to maintain carefully constructed racial, economic, and social hierarchies. As the Black historian Lerone Bennett Jr. wrote in Ebony magazine in 1966, the “counter-revolutionary campaign of terror” against Reconstruction was merely “the first white backlash”; the United States was living through the second.
The guiding principles of this backlash had been laid out 10 years earlier in the Southern Manifesto of 1956. Signed by more than 100 congressmen, the manifesto responded to the Brown v. Board decision mandating school desegregation by issuing a bold defense of the Jim Crow status quo and pledging to fight the “revolutionary changes in our public school systems.” As schools became battlegrounds, conservatives, especially those in the South, dug in their heels.
From the October 2020 issue: The new Reconstruction
For many right-wingers, the historical memory of Reconstruction-era radicalism combined with Cold War anxieties. To them, civil-rights activism was the work not only of revolutionaries but of communists. As the Oklahoma minister Billy James Hargis warned in one newspaper column, “The communists have been urging their followers to bring pressure upon the federal government, to force Reconstruction days upon the Southern states again.” In a 1965 essay titled “Two Revolutions at Once,” Robert Welch, the leader of the far-right John Birch Society, derided the push for civil rights as a “Negro Revolutionary Movement” driven by communist saboteurs rather than oppressed Black citizens.
As was the case during Reconstruction, this counterrevolutionary rhetoric enabled violence—violence against leaders like Martin Luther King Jr., violence against activists like the Freedom Riders, violence on college campuses, violence at the hands of the Ku Klux Klan, violence at the hands of the police. But conservatives frequently accused activists of inciting it. Following the Selma march, a piece in American Opinion, the Birch Society’s flagship magazine, claimed, “The violence in Selma doesn’t have to do with voting rights at all … it has to do with Communist Revolution, with Communists intentionally setting the stage for race war.” A menacing enemy within justified a violent illiberalism.
As politicians debated the proposed Civil Rights Act, the fury of white southerners increased. “If dictatorial planners insist upon ignoring and trampling majority rights in efforts to favor minority groups, they may in time provoke a White Revolution,” Tom Ethridge wrote in The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Mississippi. This so-called white revolution was, in fact, a counterrevolution designed to shore up the racial caste system.
When that caste system showed signs of decay some four decades later, a similar backlash came about. Shortly after the election of America’s first Black president, the Tea Party exploded into the public consciousness. Its members adopted the iconography and language of the American Revolution, styling themselves “patriots” and attending rallies clad in knee breeches and tricornered hats. Despite this getup, the Tea Party was not a revolution but a counterrevolution—a defense of privilege and hierarchy rather than a call for egalitarianism.
Racial resentment played a crucial role in Tea Party ideology. “Birther” conspiracies flourished within the movement, whose adherents viewed President Barack Obama more as a fifth-column threat than a legitimate political opponent. Tea Partiers claimed that some people were getting too many handouts or weren’t working hard enough to earn their keep; typically those people were “illegal immigrants” or other minority groups that were referred to using coded language. As recounted by Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson in The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism, one Virginia Tea Partier asserted that a “plantation mentality” prevented “some people” from getting off the dole, a racist argument that reflected the counterrevolution’s Reconstruction-era origins. The solution, according to the movement, was to dramatically reduce the government—at least the parts of it that benefited the wrong people. This had the added advantage of divesting power from leaders who couldn’t be trusted. As one Tea Partier put it to Skocpol and Williamson, “The people I was looking for back when I was a cop are now running the government.”
Despite the fact that the Tea Party received heavy funding from right-wing plutocrats, the movement had a populist panache. The counterrevolution had gone mainstream, and all of the aggrievement, mistrust, and racial resentments that had festered within conservatism for generations laid the foundation for the rise of Donald Trump.
Although Trump is often described as “unprecedented” or “norm-breaking,” his rhetoric has deep roots in the conservative movement’s counterrevolutionary tradition. He warned us that America was beset by enemies, an often-racialized group of “others” who were amassing power too quickly and using it to threaten the American way of life. Obama was a Kenyan-born Muslim imposing radical views on the United States. Immigrants were “invading” and taking our jobs. The media were the “enemy of the people,” and Democrats were “treasonous” and “un-American.” Washington, the home of illegitimate majorities, was a swamp that needed draining.
Beyond adopting the rhetoric of counterrevolution, Trump also embraced its most dangerous element: a call for political violence. On January 6, he stood before thousands of supporters and proclaimed, “We fight like hell. And if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.” Just a few beats later, Trump declared, “We’re going to walk down Pennsylvania Avenue … And we’re going to the Capitol, and we’re going to try and give—.” He stopped short of issuing a direct instruction, but his assembled supporters understood the assignment, storming the U.S. Capitol in an effort to overturn the election. That the Capitol siege failed—as did subsequent efforts to overturn the election through courts and audits—does not diminish the dangers presented by the counterrevolutionary impulse in today’s conservatism.
Adam Serwer: The Capitol riot was an attack on multiracial democracy
It was not long before the GOP followed Trump’s lead. Dan Patrick, the lieutenant governor of Texas, promoted the white supremacist “great replacement” theory on Laura Ingraham’s show. “The revolution has begun,” Patrick said, arguing that, by allowing more migrants into the U.S., the Democrats were “trying to take over our country without firing a shot.” And now, at Trump’s behest, the state of Texas is auditing the 2020 votes in the state’s four largest counties, all of which are Democratic strongholds. The audit ploy may have failed in Arizona, but the counterrevolution continues.
“If conservatives become convinced that they cannot win democratically, they will not abandon conservatism,” David Frum, a Never Trump conservative, wrote in The Atlantic. “They will reject democracy.” But Frum’s warning about the “dead end” of Trumpism ignored the illiberalism and minoritarian inclinations baked into the conservative pie. The reality is that the counterrevolutionary mindset is a feature, not a glitch, of modern conservatism, one that offers authoritarian solutions to democracy’s right-wing discontents.