It is the disagreement over which of the two constitutions shall prevail

Monday, February 10th, 2020

Christopher Caldwell’s The Age of Entitlement: America Since the Sixties is an explosive rethinking of history since JFK’s assassination, Steve Sailer says, which “comes to the reactionary conclusion that the only salvation for American conservatism is to repeal the sainted 1964 Civil Rights Act and restore the constitutional right to freedom of association”:

In contrast, I’ve never felt any regard for the long-gone Jim Crow era, which I’ve always found almost Hindu-like in its grotesque caste rules. I’ve always sympathized with the Southern whites of the 1960s who wanted to put Jim Crow in their rearview mirror and get on with joining modern America. As a Californian who grew up around East Asians and Latinos as well as blacks, 21st-century America’s obsession with seeing everything as black and white, instead of from a more informative multiracial perspective, seems to me like some primitive relic from the Southern past.

Instead, I have always pointed to civil rights going wrong later than 1964, in roughly the 1969–1978 era: the Nixon administration introducing race quotas in 1969; the 1971 Griggs Supreme Court case unveiling the concept of disparate impact discrimination; and the 1978 Bakke decision that, out of the blue, sanctified diversity as America’s new highest value.

This is not to imply that Caldwell wants to go back to Jim Crow, just that, much as Burke did a better job in 1790 of forecasting the course of the French Revolution, he finds that the old Southern critics of the new order foresaw the implications of the civil rights revolution more clearly than did its advocates:

Those who opposed the legislation proved wiser about its consequences than those who sponsored it…. A measure that had been intended to normalize American culture and cure the gothic paranoia of the Southern racial imagination has instead wound up nationalizing Southerners’ obsession with race and violence.

Thus, by 2020:

In the prevailing culture, whiteness was a lower spiritual state, associated with moral unfitness and shame, and it was hereditary. Whiteness was a “bloody heirloom,” as [Ta-Nehisi] Coates wrote….

Caldwell summarizes his thesis:

…what had seemed in 1964 to be merely an ambitious reform revealed itself to have been something more. The changes of the 1960s, with civil rights at their core, were not just a major new element in the Constitution. They were a rival constitution, with which the original one was frequently incompatible…. Much of what we have called “polarization” or “incivility” in recent years is something more grave — it is the disagreement over which of the two constitutions shall prevail: the de jure constitution of 1788, with all the traditional forms of jurisprudential legitimacy and centuries of American culture behind it; or the de facto constitution of 1964, which lacks this traditional kind of legitimacy but commands the near-unanimous endorsements of judicial elites and civic educators and the passionate allegiance of those who received it as a liberation.

The author notes that the two parties now consisted of the winners (Democrats) and losers (Republicans) from the new quasi-constitution imposed in the 1960s:

The Democrats were the party of those who benefited: not just racial minorities but sexual minorities, immigrants, women, government employees, lawyers — and all people sophisticated enough to be in a position to design, run, or analyze new systems. This collection of minorities could, with discipline, be bundled into an electoral majority, but that was not, strictly speaking, necessary…. Sympathetic regulators, judges, and attorneys took up the task of transferring as many prerogatives as possible from the majority to various minorities.

In contrast:

Republicans were the party…of yesterday’s entire political spectrum, of New Deal supporters and New Deal foes….

That’s why in November 2000 I recommended that Republicans not bother with Karl Rove’s plan to try to turn Mexicans into Republicans but instead focus on working-class whites in crucial states like Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania — a strategy that proved effective in 2016.

Caldwell continues:

Those who lost the most from the new rights-based politics were white men. The laws of the 1960s may not have been designed explicitly to harm them, but they were gradually altered to help everyone but them, which is the same thing…and because the moral narrative of civil rights required that they be cast as the villains of their country’s history. They fell asleep thinking of themselves as the people who had built this country and woke up to find themselves occupying the bottom rung of an official hierarchy of races.

Caldwell argues that racial preferences and politically correct censorship are not perversions of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as optimists like myself have long argued, but logical concomitants:

…affirmative action and political correctness…had ceased to be temporary expedients. They were essential parts of this new constitutional structure, meant to shore it up where it was impotent or self-contradictory, in the way that Chief Justice John Marshall’s invention of judicial review in Marbury v. Madison (1801) had been a shoring-up of the first constitution.

To Caldwell, privatized censorship, also known as political correctness, was:

…an institutional innovation. It grew directly out of civil rights law. Just as affirmative action in universities and corporations had privatized the enforcement of integration, the fear of litigation privatized the suppression of disagreement, or even of speculation. The government would not need to punish directly the people who dissented from its doctrines. Boards of directors and boards of trustees, fearing lawsuits, would do that.

Caldwell is caustic about Ronald Reagan’s legacy:

“Political correctness” was a name for the cultural effects of the basic enforcement powers of civil rights laws…. Reagan had won conservatives over to the idea that “business” was the innocent opposite of overweening “government.” So what were conservatives supposed to do now that businesses were the hammer of civil rights enforcement, in the forefront of advancing both affirmative action and political correctness?

It’s hard to deny that Caldwell is onto something here as the most absurd progressive causes reliably triumph in the long run:

Once social issues could be cast as battles over civil rights, Republicans would lose 100 percent of the time. The agenda of “diversity” advanced when its proponents won elections and when they lost them.

He notes:

The wildest utopian suggestions of the “radicals” turned out to be only the smallest down payment on the system-overturning change they would eventually get….

All institutions were now under the purview of the civil rights laws. Aggrieved minorities no one had considered in 1964 had a mysterious set of passwords and procedures that would require government and business to drop everything and respond to their demands.

Thus by 2016 the NBA, of all institutions, went to the mat to force the state of North Carolina to allow a handful of mentally ill grown men to shower in women’s locker rooms.

Most terrifyingly, the conventional wisdom from about the time Mexican monopolist Carlos Slim bailed out The New York Times in 2009 has drifted toward the notion that the world’s 7 billion non-Americans deserve the civil right to move to America, and only un-Americans (who are “not who we are” as Obama would taunt) would dare oppose that.

Caldwell offers cold comfort to anti-racist citizenist conservatives like myself:

Republicans and others who may have been uneasy that the constitutional baby had been thrown out with the segregationist bathwater consoled themselves with a myth: The “good” civil rights movement that the martyred Martin Luther King, Jr., had pursued in the 1960s had, they said, been “hijacked” in the 1970s by a “radical” one of affirmative action, with its quotas and diktats…. None of that was true. Affirmative action and political correctness were the twin pillars of the second constitution. They were what civil rights was.


  1. Graham says:

    I read this interesting review on City Journal as well:

    Now having seen Sailer’s comments, I am even less sure what to make of Caldwell’s thesis. It sounds better than the usual unsound pablum like the party switch, and close to what I might consider credible. Yet I can’t quite come around.

    I certainly appreciate Sailer taking the opportunity to argue with it pro and con from his ‘citizenist’ perspective. Worth doing regardless.

  2. Sam J. says:

    ‘citizenist’ perspective


    rationalization of disenfranchisement and failure

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