The Lott affair, however, cast a shadow directly on the doorstep of the Republican Party.
Republicans have finally, after 50 years, gained firm control of the White House, the whole Congress, and enjoys a sympathetic majority on the Supreme Court. Under George W. Bush, the party is entertaining hopes of entrenching itself as the normal governing party of the United States for decades to come.
But doing so requires the Republicans to be more than the party of the Southern and Mountain states, plus certain disaffected voter groups in the rest of the country. They must be able to present themselves credibly as a governing party of the whole nation.
Key to this ambition is the ability to create a story about themselves that is acceptable to the South, Midland America, and Greater New England (the northern tier of states, from Portland, Maine, to Portland, Ore.) alike, and at the same time it must also be a story with which whites, blacks, and other racial-ethnic groups must all be at least comfortable.
This year's election contained interesting indications that the Republicans are beginning to glimpse this goal, even if they cannot yet claim to have achieved it. The deep Republican sweep in Georgia and Alabama demonstrates that the project of bringing naturally conservative Southern whites into the party is moving to completion. At the same time, the surprisingly good showing of Yankee Republicans from New England to Minnesota indicates these areas need not be written off by the GOP.
In its quest for a narrative that can serve the needs of a big-tent, national-majority governing party, Republicans must choose between a narrow and restrictive story, or a broad and inclusive one. The narrow one sees the party as the exclusive property of Southern white reactionaries longing for the days of segregation, religious fundamentalists, and miscellaneous malcontents. Certainly the opponents of the Republicans find it in their interests to promote that narrative.
The broad narrative is that of the modern Right throughout the English-speaking world. Including several types of conservatives and many libertarians, this broad movement seeks to act upon the last century's advances in understanding human society and action. This thought, particularly that based on the work of thinkers such as F.A. Hayek and Karl Popper, is profoundly anti-Utopian.
It understands there are inherent limits to the ability of government or political action to create the perfect human society, or bring happiness to people, beyond very specific actions to remove particular causes of unhappiness. Rather than offering a perfect blueprint for society, as Marxism claimed to do, this thought offers rules of thumb suggested by a better understanding of society.
One of the fundamental insights offered by this analysis is the limits of action by large, centralized bureaucracies, and the need for decentralization in strong civil societies. This in turn leads to a renewed appreciation of the original design of the American Constitution and the federalist framework the Founders chose for it. These brilliant insights had lain under-appreciated during the last century's Marxist domination of social thought.
America faces the specific problem that the doctrine of decentralization of power historically has taken the shape of the doctrine of "States' Rights." The States' Rights doctrine, in turn, has been used several times as a tactic in defense, first of slavery, and later of racial segregation laws.
Yet both uses were contrary to the wider set of principles of civil society and decentralism. Slavery itself is, of course, an offense against the very idea of civil society, which is founded on the idea of the free cooperation of free individuals. Slaveholders depended on substantial state action to retain slaves in bondage. They also did not hesitate to impose Federal law against the will of free states with actions like the Fugitive Slave Act.
Similarly, the segregation laws Strom Thurmond defended in 1948 were not the acts of conservatives, but were imposed by populist demagogues in the South. Populism as a movement was sometimes anti-racist but often populist politicians relied on racism for its appeal. Like many Populist initiatives, segregation laws were a governmental non-solution to a non-problem.
Real conservatives should not defend such laws or lionize those that initiated them. Rather, they should take as their heroes the Southern conservatives like the railroad and transit executives who went to court to try to overturn the laws when they were first passed, and supported the 1896 Plessey v. Ferguson challenge to segregation that unfortunately failed.
The real indictment of Lott is twofold: first, that he foolishly exposed the Republicans to opposition attempts to pin the narrow definition of the Right on the party; and secondly, that in trying to correct the damage, he demonstrated that he was not capable of making a principled defense of decentralism, nor that he had any idea of how to reach out to African Americans except to endorse, unconvincingly, the failed agenda of state centralism.
Genuine decentralism, or in the American context, genuine federalism, is not the defense of petty tyrannies against wider ones. It is the defense of civil society on all levels, of the state against the Federal, the community against the state, the group against the community, and the individual against the group. There are a variety of tools that may be used in this, and sometimes the power of the wider entity must be used to balance a smaller tyranny. Like many useful tools, such power must be used only with great caution, but sometimes it must be used never the less. The Constitution and Bill of Rights were written to provide such uses, and such cautions.
Federalism and decentralism are central to the political problems of the coming decades. One of the strengths of the Anglosphere right is that it is coming to a better understanding of these issues than what is labeled "the right" elsewhere, which is often still enamored of centralism. And everywhere throughout the Anglosphere the right's opponents seek to paint them as narrow racists. The American right, being in power, has an opportunity to lead the way in redefining itself; if successful, British and Canadian conservatives, among others, may find some useful lessons to think about.
If the Republicans are to realize their big-tent vision, they must convey their dedication to and understanding of these principles of decentralization and civil society to the American people. Lott's comments seemed to indicate he understood none of this, and that for him, States' Rights was no more than a ritual formula. He lost the opportunity to take the party forward on this issue. Now perhaps his departure has renewed the party's opportunity to make its case.