The conscience of Barry Goldwater

Barry Goldwater, 1909-1998

On November 4th 1964 Barry Goldwater woke up to disaster. As Republican candidate in the previous day’s presidential election he had won just 36% of the vote, the lowest share a major party candidate had won since the four way election of 1824. His only success was in winning the states of Mississippi and Alabama, which hadn’t voted Republican since the 1870s, and Georgia, which had never voted Republican at all. That Goldwater managed to win even these was because some of his supporters, like many of his opponents, misunderstood him completely.

Mr Conservative

In June that year Senator Goldwater cast the vote that defined him for supporters and opponents alike, voting nay to the Civil Rights Act. For this he was branded a racist which was utterly unfair. As an individual he was a founder member of both the Tucson and Phoenix chapters of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. As a businessman he opened the doors of his family department store in Phoenix to all races when few other shops did. As a city councillor he voted to desegregate the restaurants at Sky Harbor Airport. As Senator he voted for the Civil Rights Acts of 1957 and 1960.

Goldwater’s opposition to the Bill was not based on the simple, stupid racism of Southern Democrats like Strom Thurmond and George Wallace. Rather, he believed that the Act was ineffective and unconstitutional. Goldwater believed that racism dwelt in the heart so while legislation might push these feelings out of sight it would do nothing to eradicate racism itself. As he put it “No law can make one person like another if he doesn’t want to”.

Further, to Goldwater the titles of the Act which made it illegal for private businesses and landlords to discriminate on grounds of race threatened “the loss of our God-given liberties”. In Goldwater’s eyes “the freedom to associate means the same thing as freedom not to associate. It is wrong to erect legal barriers against either side of this freedom” “I am unalterably opposed to discrimination of any sort” he said in the Senate debate, “I believe that, though the problem is fundamentally one of the heart, some law can help; but not law that embodies features like these, provisions which fly in the face of the Constitution”

When he wasn’t being accused of pandering to racism he was being criticised for dodging the race issue. But if, as Goldwater believed, prejudice is a problem of attitudes then it was those who think that they can simply be legislated away who are dodging the real soul changing solution that is the only end of it.

His ideology had been elegantly laid out in The Conscience of a Conservative in 1960. There, in a slim volume of barely 120 pages ghost-written by Brent Bozell, the case was made for smaller government at home and stronger opposition to communism abroad. Coming out at a time when New Deal liberalism was the dominant ideology in US politics and communism held a third of the world under its heel the book was an iconoclastic bombshell. It became a publishing sensation selling 85,000 copies in its first month, mainly to the young.

Pennsylvania Senator Joseph Clark, a liberal himself, described liberalism as “meeting the material needs of the masses through the full power of centralized government”. Goldwater disagreed, Conscience arguing that “The Conservative knows that to regard man as part of an undifferentiated mass is to consign him to ultimate slavery”.

Instead, adopting a sort of ‘methodological individualism’, government should conceive of its citizens as individuals. As Bozell put it in Conscience, “man’s development, in both its spiritual and material aspects, is not something that can be directed by outside forces.  Every man, for his individual good and for the good of his society, is responsible for his own development.  The choices that govern his life are choices that he must make; they cannot be made by any other human being, or by a collectivity of human beings” It was precisely to allow the maximum scope for these individual choices that Goldwater supported the limited government of the Constitution.

Of course, liberals claimed to support freedom themselves but Goldwater argued that these claims were bogus. He held that personal freedom was intertwined with economic freedom; the freedom to choose where to work or what to do with your wages were, ultimately, personal decisions, and government intrusion into economic life was as corrosive of liberty as its intrusion into any other sphere. As Conscience put it “the economic and spiritual aspects of man’s nature are inextricably intertwined.  He cannot be economically free, or even economically efficient, if he is enslaved politically; conversely, man’s political freedom is illusory if he is dependent for his economic needs on the state”.

Barry Goldwater’s left turn?

Goldwater was proved right over the following years. The costs of expanding war and welfare broke the US economy and the world financial system with it. With the west mired in Stagflation the Soviet Union moved to the front foot in the Cold War. In 1980, with Americans anxious to escape the malaise, Ronald Reagan, who had got his big political break speaking in support of Barry Goldwater in 1964, was elected president, largely on Goldwater’s platform. Paul Gigot commented that “(Goldwater) won–in a way the votes in the 1964 election really weren’t finally counted until the 1980 election”.

But Goldwater, back in a Senate seat for Arizona, was not a happy man. Reacting to the social liberalism of the 1960’s and early 1970’s, exemplified by the 1973 Roe vs. Wade Supreme Court decision legalising abortion, Christians in the US began to get politically organised setting up groups like the Moral Majority under Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition. With memberships in the millions these groups sought to push the Republican Party down a socially conservative route.

‘Mr Conservative’ Barry Goldwater had no time for this. In 1981 Sandra Day O’Connor became Regan’s first Supreme Court nominee. Regarding her stance on abortion Falwell said “Every good Christian should be concerned”. Goldwater replied “I think every good Christian ought to kick Falwell right in the ass”.

In the Senate, shortly afterwards, Goldwater said

“I’m frankly sick and tired of the political preachers across this country telling me as a citizen that if I want to be a moral person, I must believe in “A,” “B,” “C” and “D.” Just who do they think they are? And from where do they presume to claim the right to dictate their moral beliefs to me? And I am even more angry as a legislator who must endure the threats of every religious group who thinks it has some God-granted right to control my vote on every roll call in the Senate. I am warning them today: I will fight them every step of the way if they try to dictate their moral convictions to all Americans in the name of ‘conservatism’”

He made good on his promise even after retiring from the Senate in 1987. When Bill Clinton moved to allow gays to serve openly in the military, Goldwater, who had spent 37 years as a military reservist, said “You don’t have to be straight to be in the military; you just have to be able to shoot straight”. “The big thing is to make this country, along with every other country in the world with a few exceptions, quit discriminating against people just because they’re gay”, Goldwater told the Washington Post in 1994. “You don’t have to agree with it” Goldwater said, echoing his stance against the 1964 Civil Rights Act, “but they have a constitutional right to be gay. And that’s what brings me into it”

The liberal conservative

His savage denunciations of Falwell, Robertson, and their followers, surprised and puzzled many. The Washington Post described it as ‘Barry Goldwater’s Left Turn’. It was nothing of the kind. Goldwater was simply defending the social freedom of the individual as he had been the economic freedom of the individual since The Conscience of a Conservative.

Both liberals and conservatives in America claim to love freedom. Often they love a little bit of it only. Liberals have to square the circle of giving the individual freedom over what to do with his or her body while placing ever greater government claims over the individual’s payslip. Conservatives, on the other hand, want freedom for the individual to do what he or she wants economically but seek government limits on the social freedoms of others. Liberals want a woman’s right to choose and big government. Conservatives want a Constitutional ban on gay marriage and small government.

Neither side seems to realise the inherent contradictions of their position. This was not a situation Barry Goldwater found himself in. He didn’t want government to interfere in how you disposed of your payslip or your bodily fluids. His politics were consistent. He managed, at the same time, to be a consistent advocate of both liberalism and small government. He could be both liberal and conservative at the same time because the Constitution he sought to conserve was a truly liberal document.

Barry Goldwater died in 1998 and with it ended his second political life as grizzled champion of liberal social causes. By then the liberals had come to regard the man who said “I do not undertake to promote welfare, for I propose to extend freedom” as their favourite conservative. Conservatives, meanwhile, had adopted the man who said “I believe a woman has a right to an abortion” as the godfather of their movement. To the very end both supporters and opponents misunderstood him.

But its no surprise that Goldwater didn’t fit exactly into either camp, he was always an outsider. Born in 1909 the grandson of Jewish immigrants he was an outsider in his native Arizona. As a westerner in a party still dominated by easterners, he was an outsider in the GOP. As a small government constitutionalist he was an outsider in an age of big government liberalism. In the last two decades of his life he was an outsider in a Republican Party becoming more socially conservative.

In 1994 Goldwater wrote “The conservative movement is founded on the simple tenet that people have the right to live life as they please as long as they don’t hurt anyone else in the process”. That few were willing to apply this in both the social and economic sphere of life doomed Barry Goldwater to be an outsider. But if that was the price of consistency, the conscience of Barry Goldwater will be clear.