Carl and Peter are right to focus on the combination of statism, lawlessness and raw injustice that characterized Jim Crow. The consciousness of Jim Crow influences how people hear contemporary debate. Lots of well meaning Tea Party folks talk about taking the country back, worry about losing freedom, and want to restore liberty. Fair enough, but a lot of equally well meaning people hear that rhetoric and they don’t hear politics-as-usual or even hyperbole. They hear hysterical racism. I’m not talking about a media cynic like Chris Matthews who tries to turn liberal self-congratulation into ratings or Jimmy Carter in one of his pharisaical moods. I’m just talking about people who, even if they only have a rough knowledge of Jim Crow, also know that people have suffered far more comprehensive restrictions on their freedom than the federal health insurance purchase mandate. And I’m not even talking primarily about African-Americans here. There is a certain way to talk about the past sounds exclusionary, like you think that America was all about freedom until Obama, or the liberals, or whatever. But some listeners can’t forget that America wasn’t always all about freedom for some people and talking about the past in a way that ignores those experiences comes across like cluelessness at best or nostalgia for the political marginalization of nonwhites at worst.
There are also ways to talk about the past and present inclusively. Marco Rubio does it (though he lays it on a little thick for my liking.) Obama’s Second Inaugural wrapped all of American history from the founders onward into the unfolding Progressive narrative. There is no reason why the story of “founderism” (though I don’t think founderism is sufficient) can’t also be a story of progress that we can all believe in. It can be a story that sees the civil rights movement and the pro-life movement through the lens of the founding’s natural rights ideology. There is also a smaller scale view way of talking about the past and that is the personal past. One of the friends of this blog is Ken Masugi. I remember reading a biography of Clarence Thomas and that (if I remember correctly) one of the reasons Thomas converted to political conservatism was that Ken helped Thomas make the connection between the politics of conservatism and the example of Thomas’s grandfather. It is amazing what can happen when people don’t talk past each other.