Thomas Sugrue: Reflections on Barry Goldwater's Conscience of a Conservative

Roundup: Talking About History

[Thomas Sugrue, Kahn Professor of History and Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, is the author of a history of civil rights in 20th-century America, due in 2008.]

... Among historians and pundits, it is a cliché that the American New Right emerged in reaction to the excesses of 1960s leftists and the liberal politicians who enabled them. Liberalism unravelled when student protesters rallied for Ho Chi Minh, Black Power radicals put whitey ‘up against the wall, motherfucker!’, counterculturalists bared their bodies, gyrated to psychedelic music and dropped acid, and man-hating feminists undermined the traditional family, while out of control federal spending subsidised unemployment and rewarded ungrateful blacks for rioting. Conservatives of all stripes looked back wistfully to the 1950s as the zenith of American greatness (leftists offered a mirror image of the story, renouncing post-World War Two America as conformist, conservative and corporate). Not Goldwater. ‘Conservatives,’ he wrote at a moment when only utopian leftists could even imagine hippies, welfare rights, ‘Negroes with Guns’ and abortion on demand, ‘are deeply persuaded that our society is ailing.’ He held no brief for the ‘happy days’ of the 1950s. To him – and his followers – postwar America was rotten to the core, its citizens in thrall to the blandishments of the welfare state. Communism prevailed because of America’s effeminacy. Americans had lost the self-sufficiency and entrepreneurial energy that had made their country great. Politics and society were in need of wholesale renewal. Americans were morally and spiritually bankrupt.

Although Goldwater – unlike many of his followers on the right – was not a particularly religious man (he was a member of the Episcopal Church, the blandly mainstream sect once nicknamed ‘the Republican Party at prayer’). But even if he lacked the zeal of the evangelical Christians who would become the New Right’s stalwart warriors, Goldwater’s vision of American society was deeply religious. (Here, perhaps, is the imprint of his ghostwriter Bozell: like his mentor Buckley, a devout Catholic of the ultramontane variety.) For Goldwater, conservatism was not merely a political position, it was an expression of divine truth: ‘Conservatism, we are told, is out of date. The charge is preposterous and we ought boldly to say so. The laws of God, and of nature, have no dateline.’ The Conscience of a Conservative had as its sombre purpose the redemption of the individual and the salvation of an entire nation.

From the ‘nature of man, and the truths that God has revealed about his creation,’ Goldwater derived several basic principles that may have rested uneasily with Bozell’s Catholicism. Goldwater was a radical individualist. ‘Every man, for his individual good and for the good of his society, is responsible for his own development.’ He railed against the welfare state because he saw it as a soul-destroying institution. Welfare, he argued, ‘transforms the individual from a dignified, industrious, self-reliant spiritual being into a dependent animal creature without his knowing it.’ The greatest hindrance to the fulfilment of human potential was government itself. ‘Throughout history, government has proved to be the chief instrument for thwarting man’s liberty.’

For Goldwater, next to Holy Writ was the inspired text of the US constitution, a document that rested on ‘ancient and tested truths’. No mainstream Protestant could sanction a literal reading of the Bible, but like many of his rightist compatriots, Goldwater transferred his suppressed biblical literalism onto America’s founding documents. ‘The constitution,’ he proclaimed with the solemnity of a fundamentalist, ‘is what its authors intended it to be and said it was.’ The Founders intended a limited government, not a state with regulatory powers over business, not a system of government-subsidised props for the indolent, not a vast, faceless bureaucracy. Any act of constitutional interpretation – at least, any that led to conclusions which disagreed with Goldwater’s – was an act of intolerable hubris, ‘substituting our own intentions for those of the constitution’s framers’. Perhaps the most surprising element of Goldwater’s political philosophy – at least in the light of the current neoconservative crusade to ‘democratise’ the Middle East – was his deep suspicion of the demos. He reiterated the common right-wing criticism of the post-New Deal federal government as ‘a vast national authority, out of touch with the people, and out of their control’. But unlike the increasingly vocal advocates of participatory democracy, on both the right and the left, Goldwater did not propose giving power to the people. Siding with those Founders who sought to restrain the democratic impulses unleashed in the age of revolution, Goldwater warned against the ‘tyranny of the masses’: ‘many a democratic society . . . has lost its freedom by persuading itself that if “the people” rule, all is well.’

Goldwater’s anti-democratic sentiments were as much an expression of realpolitik as a resuscitation of Aristotle and his 18th-century Anglo-American heirs. When he wrote The Conscience of a Conservative, the right had spent a quarter-century wandering in the desert of the New Deal. Even Goldwater’s fellow Republicans – like Eisenhower, Rockefeller and the Supreme Court chief justice Earl Warren – had fallen to their knees to worship the false idols of economic regulation and social welfare. Goldwater’s suspicion of the demos was explicable: the deluded masses had continued to elect Democrats (and their Republican toadies) who were committed to big government. If Americans were, as Goldwater claimed, naturally conservative, how could this be? ‘Welfarism,’ he wrote in a lengthy italicised passage, ‘is much more compatible with the political processes of a democratic society.’ An excess of democracy allowed those who craved absolute power to ‘swindle’ the people into giving up their freedom in exchange for a little economic security. Liberalism was a collective delusion, a form of false consciousness that kept individuals from achieving their true spiritual fulfilment through self-sufficiency. The social welfare state was the product of too much democracy....

His politics were at once profoundly libertarian and profoundly authoritarian. Most libertarians harbour a naively benign view of the human condition: Goldwater’s view was more jaundiced. Human freedom demanded external control. It necessitated the expansion of police powers to curb the excesses of those who might trammel others’ freedoms. The future that Goldwater saw was a country at once stripped of nearly all of its regulatory powers when it came to business activity but with a strong military ready not just to contain but to trample its Communist enemies, a strong police to put down unrest in the streets, and a defended national border.

It has taken the paradoxical presidency of George W. Bush to bring the paradoxes of Goldwaterism to the surface. Bushism is Goldwaterism on steroids, but also something radically different. More than his Republican predecessors – even Reagan – Bush has reorganised the economy to favour the Republicans’ corporate base. The near abolition of estate taxes and the appointment of judges like Samuel Alito and John Roberts who are committed to dismantling the regulatory state fulfils Goldwater’s dream of strict constructionist judges burying the New Deal....

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