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September 22, 2006

Goldwater Nostalgia

From a tactical standpoint, I'm all for liberals recapturing Goldwater's legacy (as they have Nixon's) and using it to dramatize the sharp rightward drift of the country. As Dana writes, Goldwater's "significance over three decades in national politics as a yard stick against which changes in the conservative movement could be measured." And yardsticks are useful. But if Goldwater's radicalism now looks tame, that's not proof he wasn't really a radical, but a sad signifier that the political center has veered towards crazy in the period since. I fear that some folks, however, are mistaking the two, and assuming Goldwater a somehow more honest or constructive opposition than we currently have:

There’s little time left to debate the challenges of globalization, environmental degradation, or economic and social inequality. I doubt I would have agreed with Barry Goldwater on these issues, but at least, unlike present-day conservatives, he would have wanted to talk about them.

I highly doubt it. Goldwater was as fervently nostalgic for the Gilded Age as anyone to ever stride the American political landscape. Given his penchant for occupying the outermost edge of rightwing thought, Goldwater today probably wouldn't be a principled libertarian (as he often wasn't then), but an aggressive demagogue. It's a fairly good question whether radicalism is always the honest endpoint of an independent thought process, or just as often a personality trait. My read with Goldwater was that it was a worrying mix of the two, and efforts to reclassify him spend too little time weighing the context of his moment.

You have to think: Here's a guy who basically running against the New Deal, not to mention in opposition to Johnson's plans for Medicare, Medicaid, Welfare, and all the rest. He was running in a time where poverty, urban despair, and senior decline were much more serious than they are today, and he was specifically arguing against programs that would provide the elderly and the poor with health care and income. He occupied a perch on the right that was far more dangerous and effective than anything we see today, where even the most conservative of politicians feel obligated to support the massively popular elements of the entitlement state. And while Goldwater is currently lionized for occasionally opposing the religious right, truth is they and their politicians are much more interested in aiding the poor than the orthodox free marketeers who preceded them. Indeed, judging from Rick Warren and Sam Brownback and First Things, it's this new breed of religious Republican who may actually be willing to discuss social and economic inequality, not Goldwater.

On a related note, folks have read this, right?

September 22, 2006 | Permalink

Comments

Depends on your value system. In mine, I prioritize a Randroid unafraid to (and positively itching to) stick it to the religious right more than I prioritize fascistic authoritarians like Brownback who might concede the neccessity of some portion of the donations plate going towards the hard fallen.

Also, you're a bit off on what Goldwater would be like today. It isn't like his political career ended in 1964. He was in Government (& politics more broadly) a long time. Long enough to see, to his own astonishment, himself being relegated to the liberal wing of his party & bemoaning it frequently.

Posted by: DRR | Sep 22, 2006 12:38:19 PM

But the point isn't where Barry Goldwater, who forged his opinions in the 1930s, would be today, but where he'd be if he came of age in the 1980s. My guess is on the radical fringe, as he was then, too.

Posted by: Ezra | Sep 22, 2006 12:40:41 PM

I agree with most of what Ezra is saying in this piece, but I think the Goldwater nostalgia is in no small part tied to a perception of his intellectual honesty, which is lacking among today's conservative leaders.

Posted by: Petey | Sep 22, 2006 1:05:53 PM

I agree with most of what Ezra is saying in this piece, but I think the Goldwater nostalgia is in no small part tied to a perception of his intellectual honesty, which is lacking among today's conservative leaders.

This is true, but I think it's a case of valuing style over substance. Intellectual honesty in defense of apartheid is no virtue. If your value system, which you hold to openly and consistently, calls for the continuing of apartheid, the denial of health care to poor children and the like, then you shouldn't be praised particularly for your honesty in advancing these "values."

I've got a similar problem with the embrace of John Dean and "Conservatives without Conscience." Not only is it terrible social science, as best as I can tell, but it's also a book by a crazed Goldwaterite. He's tactically useful, like Andrew Sullivan on torture of WF Buckley on Iraq, but I fear that people are looking at these apostate Republicans as paragons of anything but a fundamentally dangerous, un-American ideology.

Posted by: DivGuy | Sep 22, 2006 1:20:01 PM

I don't really follow you. Goldwater was around long enough to see 80's republicanism up close and embrace it's new boundaries if he so choosed. Instead he just remarked that the party had been taken over by "a bunch of kooks." He also commented on the absurdity of banning gays from the military.

Keep in mind that this is a two way street. A guy who came of political age in the 30's also had license to embrace many extreme & repulsive things, things many of Barry's supporters embraced at the time, that would be frowned upon today & which Barry did not embrace. The most obvious contrast to this would be his foreign policy views which were indeed wacko & nutty, but overlooking Goldwater, I see a guy more committed to libertarianism then just a guy who was just the extreme of the possible, and would have been even more extreme if society only permitted.

Posted by: DRR | Sep 22, 2006 1:21:16 PM

I see a guy more committed to libertarianism then just a guy who was just the extreme of the possible, and would have been even more extreme if society only permitted.

Libertarianism is a psychotically extreme philosophy. Have you ever actually read these people? They're against, like, the postal service. Against the civil rights act. Against the income tax. They are loonies of the same extent as Dominionists, if not worse for the way "polite" society accepts them.

Posted by: DivGuy | Sep 22, 2006 1:25:53 PM

Intellectual honesty in defense of apartheid is no virtue.

Nice. I like it.

Ezra is absolutely right. Anyone nostalgic for Goldwater should read Hofstadter, especially Goldwater and the Pseudo-Conservative Revolt. He was a whacko extremist (by the standards of his own day) who, let's not forget, embraced the most virulently racist elements of his party. And yeah, Republicans today are worse than Goldwater...but let's not forget just how bad he was.

(The same admonition applies to Reagan nostalgia, by the way.)

Posted by: Tom Hilton | Sep 22, 2006 1:42:43 PM

One quibble with Ezra's post...

1)But if Goldwater's radicalism now looks tame, that's not proof he wasn't really a radical, but a sad signifier that the political center has veered towards crazy in the period since.

2)Here's a guy who basically running against the New Deal, not to mention in opposition to Johnson's plans for Medicare, Medicaid, Welfare, and all the rest. He was running in a time where poverty, urban despair, and senior decline were much more serious than they are today, and he was specifically arguing against programs that would provide the elderly and the poor with health care and income.

No one who ran on the platform of (2) would look tame today. The center has moved solidly to the left in the years following hte Great Society, and Goldwaterism is an indefensibly extreme philosophy today, as it should be.

What's changed is the acceptance of religion in political discourse, and guys like Goldwater don't like that change.

Activist rightist social policy has become acceptable that wasn't before. But, of course, Goldwater was against Roe - he's probably against Griswold. He has no problem with letting other people oppress women and blacks - it's far more important to him that he doensn't sully his hands with the federal legislation to prevent said oppression.

Posted by: DivGuy | Sep 22, 2006 1:46:21 PM

DivGuy -- you're right on that. The center on social problems is operationally left, rhetorically right now -- big government is a naughty term, but you can't actually touch anything that makes government big.

Posted by: Ezra | Sep 22, 2006 2:28:19 PM

Perhaps people are nostalgic for Goldwater's relative honesty about his beliefs. He openly campaigned for an end to Social Security, for instance, rather than beating around the bush (no pun intended) like most Republicans. And there is something refreshing about a candidate who is willing to do that, even if it does ensure a ridiculous defeat. (Of course, I say this as someone who wasn't even close to being alive then, so perhaps if I had lived then, I'd have a different opinion.)

Posted by: Brian | Sep 22, 2006 2:37:28 PM

What passes for identity in America is a series of myths about one's heroic ancestors. --James Baldwin

Oh screw Goldwater. Does every dead American politician have to end up a friggin' hero in order to satisfy the U.S.'s love for itself?

Get over all that. As Spiro Agnew said, despite all its faults the U.S. is still the best country in the nation.

Posted by: The Dancing Kid | Sep 22, 2006 6:08:03 PM

One thing Goldwater had that many on the right seem to lack today was a measure of personal integrity. His refusal to exploit the Walter Jenkins scandal during the 1964 election is one example. You can read about it in the piece I wrote about it here:
http://home.nyc.rr.com/alweisel/outwalterjenkins.htm

Posted by: Al Weisel | Sep 22, 2006 6:22:41 PM

One thing Goldwater had that many on the right seem to lack today was a measure of personal integrity.

He supported APARTHEID!!

Can I say this any more strongly? As far as I know, he has never recanted his affiliation with racists or with the institutional apartheid of the south.

Integrity in following a completely unjust code is worthless, worse than worthless.

Posted by: DivGuy | Sep 22, 2006 6:35:37 PM

I really don't want to be in a position to defend Goldwater, DivGuy, since I vehemently disagree with him on many issues, especially his vote against the Civil Rights Act of 1964. When I say he had personal integrity I mean on an interpersonal level he treated people with civility and respect and had a sense of honor. The article I wrote about his conduct in the Walter Jenkins case illustrates one example of this.

If people on either side of the political divide want to win people over rather than scream shrilly, they will have to recognize that people are often complex and contradictory. Goldwater says that he voted against the Civil Rights Act because he believed the Federal Government should not have the power to compel states to enforce racial equality. He said he believed it was unconstitutional and relied on faulty advice about that from Rehnquist and Bork. It's a position I profoundly disagree with but it's going to far to imply he was a racist or "problem with letting other people oppress women and blacks." He also fought to end segregation in Phoenix schools and was a member of the NAACP. He voted for the Civil Rights Acts of 1957 and 1960. It is possible for people to be deeply wrong on an issue and not be evil.

Posted by: Al Weisel | Sep 22, 2006 9:29:06 PM

"He supported APARTHEID!!"

He supported apartheid? where?

Posted by: DRR | Sep 22, 2006 11:53:40 PM

He supported apartheid? where?

Here, in America.

Posted by: DivGuy | Sep 23, 2006 9:40:56 AM

As an Arizona resident in the '80s, I considered Barry's moderation a symptom of old age -- welcome, to be sure, but not in character.

Posted by: Bill | Sep 27, 2006 10:25:56 PM

"He supported apartheid? where?

Here, in America."

DivGuy,

This, like many of your other arguments is intellectually dishonest. It's a false syllogism to say that he's a racist apartheid baron just because he supported states rights over bloated federal government.

Your apartheid crack kind of reminded me of another horrible syllogism: "If you're not with us, you're with the terrorists."

Granted, I disagree with Goldwater's take on the Civil Rights Act, but I understand and respect how he came to oppose it.


Posted by: Elliott Owen | Oct 2, 2006 9:10:36 PM

Oh yeah, being against a publically monopolized Postal Service is "psychotically extreme." There's just *no way* UPS and FedEx could pick up the slack!

Besides, as Kramer showed us all, if you try and quit the Postal Service, they'll send over Wilford Brimley to give you a talkin'-to.

Posted by: Graphite | Oct 2, 2006 9:47:50 PM

Why is it intellectually dishonest to point out that the social and political order Goldwater supported is a form of apartheid? How is it not? Please be specific.

Posted by: djw | Oct 3, 2006 4:45:03 AM

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