With conservative commentators dogpiling President Obama for bringing home Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, many are scratching their heads in confusion. After all, didn’t conservatives used to pride themselves on their devotion to making sure that every POW possible was returned home safely? Isn’t the POW/MIA flag a favorite to hang right under the American flag in many red states? Wasn’t it one of the few issues they had where they actually seemed righteous and generous, instead of stingy bordering on malicious?
The sudden rewriting of everything we’ve known the right to stand for may seem odd, but, in fact, rewriting history is standard operating procedure on the right. Here are just some of the stranger examples.
1. The religious right started because of segregation, not abortion.
As Randall Balmer, a Darthmouth professor writing in Politico, explained in a recent article, the organized religious right started as a movement to protect white-only schools from federally mandated desegregation. As Balmer explains, there were many other attempts to rally evangelical Christians to become a conservative movement to support Republicans—“pornography, prayer in schools, the proposed Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution, even abortion”—but none took. Under the guidance of Jerry Falwell, however, it was discovered that evangelical leaders would rally to keep black students out of private schools set up specifically so white kids didn’t have to go to desegregated public schools. Even though it was actually the Nixon administration that kickstarted the process of the IRS stripping tax-exempt status from “whites only” school, Falwell and his buddies blamed Jimmy Carter and used the issue to start rallying support for Ronald Reagan’s challenge. It was only after the evangelical right was organized that they started expanding into other issues, like abortion.
2. NRA used to support gun control.
The NRA is a gun industry lobby that likes to present itself as a “rights” group. With that level of deceit, no wonder many people, especially on the right, assume that the group has always existed to lobby against any restriction on access to firearms, or that gun control is a relatively new phenomenon only invented by pansy liberals in the past few decades. In reality, the government has been controlling access to guns for a long, long time. While there have been limits on gun ownership throughout the country’s history—often for sexist and racist reasons, such as bans on black people owning guns—the first modern federal gun control law passed in 1934, to stop the proliferation of automatic sub-machine guns that were popular with organized criminals. Prior to that, many states passed laws regulating guns, laws conservatives would reject today, such as waiting periods and requiring gun sellers to share information with police. The NRA actually helped write these laws.
And why not? The NRA was started as a marksman and sporting club, so there was no real reason to oppose gun control laws, until recent decades when it morphed into a lobby to protect the profits of gun manufacturers. Even as late as 1963, the NRA supported gun control laws. It was only as the culture wars began to build and the conservative movement developed that the NRA turned into the organization it is now, feeding paranoia and faux-patriotism to gullible conservatives in order to convince them to buy more guns.
3. Conservatives have always been the voting bloc to stop civil rights.
A lot of pundits and other charlatans like to deflect discussion of modern racism by claiming that Democrats were the ones who tried to stop the Civil Rights Act and Republicans were the ones who tried to pass it. Considering that it was a liberal Democrat—Lyndon B. Johnson—who signed the CRA, it’s clear that it was much more complicated than that. Yes, it’s true that some Democrats opposed the CRA and plenty of Republicans supported it. But the party lines were not drawn the same back then. Back then, both parties had a mix of liberals and conservatives, and since then, the parties have realigned, with all the conservatives—who voted against the CRA—stampeding to the Republican party and all the liberals—who voted for the CRA—running to the Democrats.
As Harry Enten, writing for the Guardian, notes, party was a poor predictor of a politician’s vote for the CRA in 1964. A far better predictor was state of origin. In the House, 90 percent of politicians from former Union states voted for it and only 8 percent of politicians from the South did. In the Senate, 92 percent of lawmakers from the Union states voted for the CRA, but only 5 percent—1 out of 22—of Southern senators did so. In other words, the votes against it came primarily from what we now consider the immovable “red” states—a permanent bloc of Republicans. And it was anger over the CRA that switched those previously Democratic states to Republican voters. The only states that voted for Barry Goldwater in 1964, besides Arizona,were Southern states.
Indeed, the best way to understand what happened in 1964 is that the CRA kicked off a process where the Republicans started to gather up all the conservative voters and Democrats expelled the racist vote but picked up all the liberals. Focusing on race instead of ideological leaning is a fundamentally dishonest tactic, when any honest assessment of the situation shows that the real divide was between conservatives and liberals, which remains the divide that governs our country today, even as the parties have rebranded themselves.
4. They were for Common Core before they were against it.
The most recent and possibly silliest about-face of the modern conservative movement has to be the turnaround on Common Core, a program initiated by the National Governors Association to standardize and elevate educational standards across the country. Originally, conservatives were indifferent to outright supportive of the program—many Republican governors considered themselves fans—and pretty much all the criticism came from people on the left, who were concerned that it would be used as cover for attacks on teacher’s unions and would favor “teach the test”-style memorization over actual education.
Then President Obama endorsed it in 2012. Immediately, the right decided that Common Core was a sinister conspiracy to shove liberal ideology down children’s throats (never mind that many educational experts on the left are against it). Liberals make measured criticisms of Common Core, saying it might squelch imagination and writing skills. Conservatives, on the other hand, have taken to accusing the Obama administration of using Common Core to steal children away and teach them to have sex and get divorced so they’ll vote for Democrats. A calm, rational discussion of the program is basically impossible, because the entire debate has been taken over by right-wing nuts who have forgotten that, a mere two years ago, they were cool with a program they now compare to Nazi indoctrination.