Cliven Bundy isn't the first conservative to defend slavery, but he may be one of the first condemned by fellow conservatives for doing so. Does this mean conservatives are ready to stop defending slavery, if only for the sake of their political future?
Conservatives have a peculiar relationship with America's "peculiar institution." On one hand, right-wingers appropriate slavery to describe everything they dislike. On the other hand, conservatives consistently claim that slavery wasn't so bad. Cliven Bundy is only the latest:
- March 2006: Adele Fergusen wrote in the Kitsap Peninsula Business Journal, that the “pony in the manure pile” of slavery is “that it was the ticket to America for black people,” and that blacks should “consider their presence here as the work of God, who wanted to bring them to this new, raw country and used slavery to achieve it.”
- October 2006:“Reparative Therapy” specialist Gerald Schoenewolf, wrote in an essay published on the website of the National Association for Research & Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH), “Africa at the time of slavery was still primarily a jungle … Life there was savage … and those brought to America, and other countries, were in many ways better off.”
- January 2007: Virginia Delegate Frank Hargrove told the Daily Progress of Charlottesville that blacks should “get over” slavery.
- January 2007: Conservative blogger Mark Graber argued that Dred Scott v. Sanford was rightly decided.
- September 2007: Conservative columnist Michael Medved wrote a 6 point defense of slavery, consisting of “six inconvenient truths.”
- March 2008: Pat Buchanan wrote that blacks should be “grateful” for slavery.
- February 2010: Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) said that, “Far more of the African American community is being devastated by the policies of today than were being devastated by the policies of slavery.”
- June 2010: Glenn Beck launched into a bizarre defense and declared that race relations in colonial America were good until the Civil War: “The things that have happened in this country where it really starts to wrong was the lead up to the Civil War, and it became politicized and it was all about slavery, before then we were moving on the right track.”
- September 2011: South Carolina Senate President, Republican Glenn McDonnell came under fire after pictures surface of him at a Republican event, dressed in a Confederate army uniform, with two African Americans dressed as slaves. McDonnell, a Civil War re-enactor who has been photographed in Confederate garb before, defended the event and the photos.
- November 2010: Rep. Steve King (R, Iowa) said the USDA’s settlement with black farmers is “slavery reparations” cooked up by a “very, very urban” President Barack Obama.
- January 2011: Glenn Beck defended the "three-fifths clause" of the U.S. constitution on his Fox News show.
- October 2012: Arkansas state Rep. John Hubbard wrote in his self-published book, “Letters To The Editor: Confessions Of A Frustrated Conservative,” that slavery "may have actually been a blessing in disguise" for African-Americans.
- October 2012: Arkansas state Rep. Loy Mauch wrote to a local newspaper asking, "If slavery were so God-awful, why didn’t Jesus or Paul condemn it, why was it in the Constitution and why wasn’t there a war before 1861?"
- March 2013: An audience member, during a panel on minority outreach at the Conservative Political Action Committee conference, asked why Frederick Douglass forgave his former master for, "Feeding him and housing him."
- June 2013: Virginia candidate for lieutenant governor E. W. Jackson said government programs had done more harm to black families than slavery.
- October 2013: Nevada Republican Assemblyman Jim Wheeler said that he would vote to reinstate slavery, if that's what his constituents wanted.
- March 2014: Film critic James Bowman complained in the American Spectator that the movie "12 Years A Slave" did not portray any, "kind masters or contented slaves."
But unlike the conservatives above, Bundy's statements were met with — albeit qualified, lukewarm, and reluctant — condemnation from some of the very same conservatives who were his enthusiastic supporters days earlier.
Defending slavery is likely to be a hard habit for conservatives to break. It has deep roots in modern conservatism, going all the way back to John Rushdoony, father of the Christian Reconstructionist movement that fueled American fundamentalism, and spawned organizations like Focus on the family and the American Family Association. Rushdoony described Southern slavery as "benevolent" and wrote, "Some people are by nature slaves and will always be so."
Defending slavery is also one way conservatives "play the race card." It worked, because conservative media enabled them, the same way that people enable a chronic gambler by paying his debts while denying there's a problem. Republicans were able to get away with it because of a base willing to support an agenda that harms them, so long as it doesn't help "the wrong people."
But "playing the race card" doesn't work so well for conservatives anymore. The GOP made itself the party of white people. It has grown whiter still by re-drawing district lines around huge chunks of their base, while systematically concentrating Democratic voters — especially African-Americans — into as few districts as possible.
The strategy has created a huge demographic problem for the GOP. While the U.S. population is growing more diverse, and the electorate along with it, Republican districts are isolated from demographic changes. Republicans in Congress still represent mostly white districts.
As a result, Republicans aren't used to talking to — or listening to — non-white voters, because for so long they haven't had to do so to win. And maybe they won't have to for a long time, if Republicans limit themselves to just holding the House and maybe retaking the Senate. But Republicans want to win national elections in the future, they're going to have to learn. Not defending slavery anymore is a good place to start.