Andrew E. Busch: The Goldwater Myth

Roundup: Talking About History

"During the campaign of 1964, [he] was our incorruptible standard-bearer," recalled William F. Buckley, Jr., in his 1998 obituary of Barry Goldwater, the career senator from Arizona, 34 years after the watershed. Goldwater, of course, was defeated resoundingly on Election Day, winning only six states. "It was the judgment of the establishment that Goldwater's critique of American liberalism had been given its final exposure on the national political scene," Buckley continued. "But then of course 16 years later the world was made to stand on its head when Ronald Reagan was swept into office on a platform indistinguishable from what Barry had been preaching."

Strange, then, that these days many commentators believe that Goldwater's conservatism was a different species from Reagan's and, especially, from George W. Bush's. Though admittedly an economic conservative, Goldwater has become an icon of opposition to social conservatism. When the 2004 Republican national convention showcased social liberals like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Rudy Giuliani, George F. Will proclaimed, "[Goldwater's] kind of conservatism made a comeback." By "Goldwater conservatism" Will meant "muscular foreign policy backing unapologetic nationalism; economic policies of low taxation and light regulation; a libertarian inclination regarding cultural questions."

Will was merely restating the consensus view. Darcy Olsen, president of the Phoenix-based Goldwater Institute, argued on the fifth anniversary of Goldwater's death that "Goldwater conservative" had "a different meaning than just saying, 'I am a Republican,' because when you say 'I am a Republican,' people assume that you're involved in the Moral Majority. It's its own brand…very libertarian." Senator John McCain said that Goldwater "disliked the religious right, because he felt they were intolerant, because Barry was not only conservative, but he was also to a degree libertarian."

What does the notion that Goldwater was a libertarian mean? First, it suggests that the cultural Right has abandoned true conservatism. It implies that presidents like Reagan and Bush, who have relied heavily on socially conservative voters, deviate from Goldwater's rugged and pure frontier conservatism. And then there is the implication, appearing frequently in the mainstream media, that Republicans must move back in Goldwater's direction if they are to reclaim their intellectual credibility.

But this interpretation happens to be wrong: it overlooks the role of social issues in the origins of the conservative movement. William F. Buckley, Jr.'s, God and Man at Yale (1951) complained not only about economic collectivism but also about rampant agnosticism and atheism among Yale's faculty. Ever since, the conservative movement has been as concerned with religious and moral issues as with economic and libertarian ones. Goldwater's 1964 campaign actually shaped the social conservatism of the modern Republican Party in at least three crucial respects: his view of human nature and the American republic; his concern over the moral deterioration of American society; and his stand on several key policy questions....

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