"For a man who proudly described himself as "simple," Barry Goldwater remains a historical puzzle."
Barry Goldwater IS the conscience of a conservative.
His thoughts later became political gospel for conservative activists and a measuring stick against which politicians were held to see if they were truly conservative. One such prominent conservative activist, Phyllis Schlafly, stated: "It is hard to overestimate the importance of Barry Goldwater to the conservative movement. If there hadn't been a Barry Goldwater, there wouldn't have been a Ronald Reagan."
A closer look at what Mr. Goldwater wrote in 1960 convinces one that he would still have plenty to say today. His barbs would target both Democrats and Republicans. Perhaps it's discovering the barbs he would have tossed at today's Republicans that makes reading this book full of surprises.
States' rights formed a cornerstone to Barry Goldwater's conservative thought. Although the States' rights to permit slavery were ended by war and constitutional amendment, Goldwater saw no such restrictions on a state's right to keep racially segregated schools. Simply put: "no powers regarding education were given the federal government" and "it has never been seriously argued ... that the authors of the Fourteenth Amendment intended to alter the Constitutional scheme with regard to education. ... I therefore support all efforts by the States ... to preserve their rightful powers over education." (p.35) The Bush Administration supports a court challenge to the University of Michigan's policy of giving African Americans racial preferences in admissions. Mr. Goldwater would shout "NO" to this interference. You can't have it both ways: supporting States' rights when they result in segregated schools, and opposing them when they result in greater African American enrolments.
Goldwater further proclaimed: "federal intervention in education is unconstitutional" and "the alleged need for federal funds (for education) has never been convincingly demonstrated." (p. 79) It's doubtful if Barry Goldwater would have supported the Bush Administration's much touted educational initiative, the "No Child Left Behind Act," which involves the federal government in policy-making and funding.
Forty years ago Barry Goldwater led the conservative attack on federal tax and related spending policies. Faced with the Bush Administration's tax cuts and its disregard for ensuing deficits, Barry would be fuming. He wrote: "While there is something to be said for the proposition that spending will never be reduced so long as there is money in the federal treasury, I believe that as a practical matter spending cuts must come before tax cuts. If we reduce taxes before firm, principled decisions are made about expenditures, we will court deficit spending and the inflationary effects that invariably follow." (p. 65)
Finally, Goldwater called for "prompt and final termination of the farm subsidy program." (p. 43) He considered it unconstitutional. Last May President Bush boosted U.S. crop and dairy subsidies by 67 percent by signing a $51.7 billion farm law.
Mr. Goldwater's analysis of the Soviet menace also makes fascinating reading in our post-Soviet world.
First, he opposed the U.S. halt to nuclear testing. Tests were "needed to develop tactical nuclear weapons for possible use in limited wars" (p. 112). Barry Goldwater believed that limited nuclear wars were almost inevitable, for they provided our only answer to superior Communist conventional military power. Moreover, the U.S. government was tricked into halting tests. "Our government was originally pushed into suspending tests by Communist-induced hysteria on the subject of radio-active fallout." (p.113). I'm sure Mr. Goldwater would be among the first to rejoice that his worst fears were wrong.
Second, Barry Goldwater opposed our official exchange programs with the Soviet Union, even though they received major support in some Republican circles (Eisenhower, Nixon and Kissenger). Exchanges would lull Americans into accepting Communism and reduce our willingness to make sacrifices to halt Communist expansion. (p.108) I think, however, it can now be argued that these exchange programs played a major role in undermining the Soviet Union by creating a core of internal opposition. Many Soviet citizens who saw the West first hand on official exchanges later risked the "knock on the door" in opposing Communism. They are the unsung individuals who "won" the Cold War. Ironically, Mr. Goldwater's vocal opposition to these exchange programs probably made it easier to gain support for them within the Soviet bureaucracy.
Upon finishing Mr. Goldwater's book, it appears to me that Conservatives are still being challenged to "demonstrate the bearing of a proven philosophy" today, especially to many Republicans. On turning the last page, I was left wondering, if the Bush Administration fails so many of Goldwater's litmus tests for Conservatism, who are the Conservatives today?
If, as Oscar Wilde opined, homosexuality is "the love that dare not speak its name," then we might say that Conservatism is "the political philosophy that dare not speak the truth." Liberals are wont to bathe the masses in comforting but demonstrably false platitudes, because at the root of their political philosophy they maintain a series of fictions, like: (1) we're all essentially equal--all differences in intelligence, ability, etc. are a function of external factors and these external factors can be corrected by government; or, (2) all problems, both international and domestic, are soluble by government action because basically we all really have each others best interests at heart, we just sometimes need a push from Big Brother to realize it; and so on. Conservatism meanwhile is based on a set of somewhat ugly truths, derived from hard experience: (1) the natural state of man, like that of other animals, is one of competition, not cooperation; (2) it is because this competition was so brutal, often fatal, that men reluctantly gave up some measure of freedom, in order to establish a government to protect them from one another; (3) government, foreign and domestic, is now the greatest threat to man, because those governments will seek ever increasing levels of control over human behavior; and so on. Obviously, conservatives are left with a harder sell here.
Therefore, while conservative academics express themselves openly, you very seldom hear conservative politicians present their ideas in simple unvarnished fashion; for the most part it gets dressed up in warm fuzzy language. Every once in a while though, especially in times of great crisis, someone will step forward and actually enunciated conservative values in blunt terms--modern instances include: Herbert Hoover in his post presidency phase; Charles Lindbergh and the America First movement; George S. Patton during WWII; Robert Taft after the War; Barry Goldwater in the early '60s; Ronald Reagan from 1962 to 1988; and Alan Keyes today. Significantly, most of these men were either destroyed personally or were denied the opportunity to exercise real power, either by voters or by party power brokers. For all the noble cant about how voters wish that politicians were more truthful, their actions at the voting booth tend to indicate the opposite. They would much rather be comforted than confronted.
It is against this backdrop that we must consider Barry Goldwater's seminal treatise The Conscience of a Conservative. And it is only once we understand these circumstances that we can appreciate how significant a book it was; in fact, it may be the single most important written work of ideology ever produced by a practicing American politician of any real stature. Considered first merely in terms of the audience it reached, only Tom Paine's pamphlets can be said to provide it any competition for popularity. Adjusted for population size, it is probably true that Paine's Common Sense is the best selling political treatise in the nation's history, but it is also true that Paine, though obviously political, was not truly a politician, at least not an office seeker. It is also the case that Presidents and presidential contenders have written bestselling books dealing with politics, but they tend not to be ideological. Instead they are wifty things like JFK's ghost written bit of self serving puffery, Profiles in Courage, or Nixon's eminently forgettable, Six Crises. Of course, ex-President Ulysses S. Grant wrote one of the great memoirs of all time, but he did not even deal with his presidency therein. The GOP did issue its Contract with America prior to the 1994 Congressional elections (a document which borrowed from Goldwater's book and philosophy), but there was no single national candidate behind that text (and its elements had been tested in opinion polls prior to inclusion in the final draft). No, there has really only been one great political treatise promulgated by a single man and then used as a campaign platform. For that reason alone, you would think this book would still be in print and be a subject of academic study.
Even more remarkable is the fact that almost all of the book is still topical today. On the very first page, Goldwater talks about his annoyance at Republican leaders who feel compelled to call themselves "progressive Conservatives" or, as he quotes then Vice President Nixon: "Republican candidates should be economic conservatives, but conservatives with a heart." This discussion so closely parallels current Conservative angst over George W. Bush's use of the term "compassionate Conservative" that it's almost spooky. In his discussion of taxes, he comes out in favor of a flat tax in terms that presage Steve Forbes:
I believe that the requirements of justice here are perfectly clear: government has a right to claim an equal percentage of each man's wealth, and no more.
Pessimism is a sort of occupational hazard for conservatives. There's a tendency to say that things are always in decline from an imagined ideal point in the past. But men like Goldwater and Reagan recast conservatism in a much more forward looking mold and made it a philosophy of human progress and their vision has largely prevailed. We won the Cold War, cut and flattened taxes, reformed Welfare, started returning power to the states, etc., etc., etc... But as you read this book and realize that we're still fighting all of the same fights, you realize how little has actually been accomplished. I still believe that Goldwater is largely right--the future of America will be basically fiscally conservative and socially libertarian--but it will always be a struggle, one we're often losing. This slender impassioned polemic remains an important statement of the principles which should guide our public policy and its very immediacy and relevance amply demonstrate Goldwater's continuing political significance. He is without a doubt the most influential losing candidate in the history of presidential politics, one of the seminal figures in American political thought in the second half of the 20th Century, and his influence may well extend far into the 21st Century.