Conservatives Re-Write Declaration of Independence

05/11/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Civil Rights Movement created "unrealistic expectations of equal outcomes" among minorities, according to Texas conservatives trying to rewrite American history textbooks. They want students to learn that bit of undemocratic, phony history.

Imagine Thomas Jefferson opening the Declaration of Independence with, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, no one should have unrealistic expectations of human equality..."

The Texas State Board of Education, dominated by anti-evolution, authoritarian ideologues, has made news around the world for trying to rewrite history. They want Confederate President Jefferson Davis' words given equal treatment with President Abraham Lincoln's. Now there's an example of an unrealistic expectation of equality.

This is all taking place in the Texas textbook adoption process, a process that influences books studied by students around the country. Texas is big, and its schools order a lot of books. To keep costs down, textbook publishers push those books in other states.

I'm outraged, of course, and I'm sure you are, too. But really, this is no surprise. The Right lives in a hierarchical universe. Authoritarian ideology comes with a rigid caste system. Some are higher on the ladder. Others -- usually non-whites -- are lower. God created us unequal. In their world, it's immoral to "get above your raisin" or your genetic inferiority.

The Civil Rights Movement was all about an America that lived up to its ideals and founding documents. There is perhaps so single phrase that better captures those ideals than Jefferson's "all men are created equal." The phrase bedevils conservatives because it doesn't fit the way they see the world. To dodge its egalitarian call, they rewrite history.

I grew up in Texas. In the '60s conservatives were fond of teaching the dangers of Soviet communism. At the top of their list of abuses was the Soviet Union's rewriting of history and its ideological abuse of science. I happen to agree about these totalitarian excesses. But doesn't it sound familiar? There's no climate crisis, and Jefferson didn't mean it about the equality stuff. I guess it depends on who, exactly, is twisting science and history. That is just what conservatives once condemned as "situation ethics." Hypocrisy is a slippery slope.

Conservatives are often at pains to hide their authoritarian, hierarchical worldview. Republicans used the Civil Rights Act to scare whites, especially Southern whites, out of the Democratic Party. Lee Atwater, Pat Buchanan and other conservatives termed it their "Southern Strategy." But, as Atwater later admitted, they used "abstract" terms or symbolic stand-ins like forced busing or welfare queens in place of overt racist terminology.

Not everyone on the Right is racist. Some are just tactical exploiters of invented racial hierarchies. Others are offended by the cynical use of race, but they've been content with the political victories gained by the exploitation of racial resentment. These more broad-minded (and, sadly, weak) conservatives are being driven from party power as old-style bigots take over.

In the recent Texas primary elections, Republican Hispanic candidates won only three of 30 GOP primary contests (four others are in runoffs). Incumbent Republican Railroad Commissioner Victor Carrillo was beaten by an unknown, un-funded candidate named David Porter. The GOP ballots must have been printed on race cards.

Democrats should take a lesson from Eastern European dissidents who successfully brought down totalitarian regimes by insisting that they live up to their stated ideals of human rights and equality. Vaclav Havel and others called this "living in truth." Equality and freedom go hand in hand. Individual liberty depends upon the assumption of human equality.

It is wrong to take the election of Barack Obama as a sign that the politics of hatred and hierarchy are behind us. Obama's victory is being used by the Right the same way they used the Civil Rights Act. The natural hierarchy has been disrupted. They want to "take back America." It is a dangerous game they play.

Democrats were reluctant to take on these polarizing forces in the '70s, '80s and '90s as they tried to hang on to racially-motivated white voters in the wake of civil rights. It is hard for conservatives to call the Declaration of Independence un-American. We have to "live in truth" and loudly insist that the nation live up to the ideals of that document. And certainly opposed efforts to erase those ideals from our children's schoolbooks.