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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

You Don’t Have to Be Racist To Hate the Twentieth Century

Before we move on from the controversy over Rand Paul’s comments on the Civil Rights Act of 1964, it’s important to understand that controversy over his political philosophy is likely to persist. And ironically, that’s especially true if the accusations of active or latent racism on Paul’s part are completely unfair.
If Paul’s original observations on the Civil Rights Act were motivated by indifference to discrimination against minorities, or the conviction some conservatives share that any government action to protect minorities is itself racism, then the controversy is limited to this one topic. In that case, the damage is limited to those voters who care about civil rights, many of whom will not be voting for Rand Paul in Kentucky or Republicans anywhere else.
But if, as his defenders insist (and as the record seems to support), Paul is simply expressing the consistent view that the operations of free markets, not government, are the best guarantor of individual rights in general and the interests of the poor and minorities in particular, and that the U.S. Constitution, rightly interpreted, reflects this conviction, then other, equally controversial issues may come into play, and not just those that involve other types of discrimination.
Most immediately, it’s worth remembering that principled, non-racist opponents of civil rights laws have to accept responsibility for their tacit alliances with racists. Best I can tell, Barry Goldwater did not have a prejudiced bone in his body. But there can be zero doubt that thanks to his “principled” opposition to the Civil Rights Act, his 1964 presidential campaign was totally dominated by segregationists in five of the six states he carried in the General Election, and served as the “bridge” whereby segregationists eventually migrated from the Democratic to the Republican party. At some point, the subjective motivation of civil rights opponents, past, present or future, becomes rather irrelevant.
But more importantly, Rand Paul’s concerns with the constitutionality of the Civil Rights Act suggest a radical outlook with political implications that go far beyond civil rights. After all, the provisions of the Civil Rights Act that limit the right to discriminate by private property owners depend on the same chain of “activist” Supreme Court decisions that made possible the major New Deal and Great Society initiatives, involving interpretations of the General Welfare, Commerce and Spending clauses that today’s (like yesterday’s) “constitutional conservatives” routinely deplore. Rand Paul’s campaign platform reflects the common Tea Party demand that the federal government be restricted to the specific enumerated powers spelled out in the Constitution. This constitutional fundamentalism, which appears to object to every expansion of federal power enacted since 1937, is made more explicit by Rand and Ron Paul’s friends in the Constitution Party, which forthrightly calls Social Security unconstitutional and demands that it be phased out immediately.
So: instead of challenging Rand Paul’s latest backtracking on the Civil Rights Act, or calling him racist, progressives would be better advised to corner him on his attitude towards the constitutionality of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, which, like the Civil Rights Act, reflect functions of the federal government that are not explicitly enumerated in the Constitution.
Add in the fact that Rand Paul has been calling for an immediate balancing of the federal budget without tax cuts, which would require some drastic action on federal spending, and it becomes plain that his honest and principled (at least up until his flip-flop on the Civil Rights Act) efforts to apply “constitutional conservative” doctrines to current affairs imply policies that when spelled out would repel many, many voters–just like Goldwater’s platform in 1964.

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