Editor's note: Julian E. Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author of "Jimmy Carter," published by Times Books, and editor of a book assessing former President George W. Bush's administration, published by Princeton University Press.
Princeton, New Jersey (CNN) -- Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, a possible Republican presidential candidate, recently caused a major stir. In an interview with the Weekly Standard, he referred to race relations while growing up in Mississippi this way: "I just don't remember it as being that bad."
Of course, his state was one of the most racially explosive sections of the country in the days of segregation and the start of the civil rights movement.
In the same interview, Barbour also tried to distinguish the citizens councils of his hometown from the Ku Klux Klan, even though historians have amply documented how citizens councils spent much of their energy using economic, and sometimes physical, intimidation to prevent racial integration. Although Barbour sought to clarify his remarks when they triggered a political firestorm, the fallout is likely to continue given the long and complicated history of conservatism.
With these statements, Barbour tapped directly into one of the most problematic aspects of the modern conservative tradition: the interest among some on the right to resist racial and ethnic pluralism. The comments come at an inopportune time.
In recent months, there have been questions about the degree to which racial politics has influenced Tea Party activists and some Republican politicians. The heated debates about illegal immigration and the proposed construction of an Islamic cultural center near ground zero brought out some of the uglier elements of the conservative movement. At some of the early Tea Party events, there were placards that drew on explicitly racial imagery of the nation's president.
The conservative political tradition has revolved around many issues other than race.
National security, for instance, has been a staple issue for the right ever since Republicans attacked President Truman for having allowed China to fall to communism in 1949. Tax cuts and limited welfare programs have been another important concern for right-wing activists who believed that in most areas, free markets were best. Ronald Reagan attacked the welfare system as causing dependency and worsening the problems that programs were meant to solve.
There has also been a libertarian strand of conservatism, which has most recently surfaced in parts of the Tea Party Movement that rail against all forms of government intervention. Finally social and cultural conservatives have waxed nostalgic for earlier eras when, they argue, national values were stronger and more stable than today.
But it is impossible, and also dangerous, to ignore that racial politics have been an element of modern conservatism. The high point came during the 1960s, the moment that Barbour was recalling. During the early-1960s, the Radical Right warned of communist forces that they claimed were behind the drive for civil rights.
After Lyndon Johnson signed the 1964 civil rights bill, he told aides Bill Moyers and Jack Valenti that he had just delivered the South to the Republican Party for a generation. Some politicians immediately played into the racial fears. During the 1966 midterms, Republicans called for law and order as they focused on the rioting taking place in many inner cities.
Historian Rick Perlstein recounted how in Iowa, first-term House Democrat John Schmidhauser went to his district to discuss agricultural problems, and instead encountered a crowd that wanted to talk about rumors of armed civil rights activists who were allegedly riding over on motorcycles from Chicago to Iowa with the intention of causing trouble.
Richard Nixon's Southern strategy depended on winning over Southern voters and working-class ethnic whites in the North by attacking school busing for racial integration and connecting urban disarray to liberal welfare policies.
The place of racial backlash greatly diminished during the next few decades. Yet there were moments when politicians played into these fears. In 1980, Reagan advocated "state's rights" in a speech at the Neshoba County Fair, just a few miles from where three civil rights activists had been murdered in 1964.
Although there is no evidence that Reagan was a racist, his campaign staffers were not above using racially loaded language at a time that many Republican operatives were targeting Southern whites in these formerly Democratic areas.
Reagan targeted "welfare queens" during the 1980s, with obvious imagery about African-American women. An infamous Republican ad in 1988 revolved around an African-American, Willie Horton, who had been furloughed in Massachusetts and raped a white woman.
In 2002, Republican Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi said at the 100th birthday of Strom Thurmond, "I want to say this about my state: When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we voted for him. We're proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years, either." Of course, Lott was referring to the election of 1948 when Thurmond bolted from his party to run as an independent in opposition to the fact that some Democrats were supporting civil rights.
Critics who characterize all of conservatism as revolving around racial issues overstate the role of racial backlash and downplay the many other ideas that have driven a majority of conservatives.
But the race issue has lurked within the movement since the beginning. When Republicans try to deny this or make statements such as those of Barbour -- which are grossly insensitive to the history of the nation -- they play into the worst characterizations of their critics.
If Republicans want to rebound from 2008 and to create a broad coalition for victory, they will need to attract Latino voters, suburban moderates and other parts of the electorate who want little to do with any kind of racial or ethnic backlash.
Conservatives should think long and hard about nominating a Republican who cannot demonstrate, once and for all, without any question, that he or she fully understands the history of racial inequality in this country and appreciates the centrality of a pluralistic America.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Julian E. Zelizer