Shifting Sands of Conservatism

This relates to the recent posts on conservatism — Ron Chusid of Liberal Values has a post up about Barry Goldwater called “Mr. Conservative” Became a Liberal Compared to Today’s Conservatives.” Which is pretty wild, considerng that Goldwater was considered a right-wing extremist back in 1964. Ron links to another blogger, Jim Lippard, who writes,

In his later life, he was outspoken in his support for a woman’s right to abortion, for gays to serve in the military, and for the religious right to stop pushing their religious views into politics. The film reveals that he supported his daughter obtaining an abortion before Roe v. Wade, and that he has a gay grandson. Several of the more liberal interviewees say that they thought Goldwater became liberal later in life (and some in the audience seemed to have a similar view), but Goldwater himself is shown making a statement that preempts this claim, back in 1963–that he is a conservative, but that at some time in the future people will call his views liberal.

He was a supporter of individual liberty who wanted the government’s role in private life minimized across the board, on both economic and social issues–it wasn’t he who changed, but the political environment that changed.

I don’t want to over-sanctify Goldwater. In the 1964 presidential campaign Goldwater really did call for the bombing of North Vietnam and the dismantling of Social Security. He also engaged in some race-baiting, as I remember. But by the time he retired from the Senate in 1987, the nation’s hot-button issues had changed, and conservatism had moved much further right than it had been in 1964.

On the surface, contemporary conservatism has seemed a patchwork of unlikely allies. I wrote a couple of years ago,

For all its famous message discipline, contemporary conservatism was always an improbable beast made up of myriad political movements with often conflicting agendas. Somehow, the movement patched together small-government conservatives dedicated to limiting the federal government’s ability to encroach on citizens’ lives with social conservatives dedicated to using government power to enforce morally correct behavior. It married isolationist paleo-conservatives to neocons–quoting Ian Welsh, “trotskyites who decided that their utopian vision required an iron fist and spilling a lot of blood, and that the rest of the left wing didn’t have the stomach for it – but that the right could be convinced by appealing to their militarism and worship of strength.”

But it’s really much muddier than that. One of the most common incongruities on the Right is the guy who sings the virtues of “small government” but supports the Patriot Act, warrantless surveillance, black site detentions and the War in Iraq.

Some people aren’t thinking things through.

I keep thinking of what Susan Sontag said about American religion — it’s “more the idea of religion than religion itself.” I think a lot of self-described “conservatives” are into empty rhetoric — liberty, freedom, rule of law — utterly disconnected from what they actually want government to do.

I well remember back in the 1960s, when the nation was roiling over voting rights, desegregation, and other racial equality issues, some right wingers tried to frame racism as purely a moral issue, and government shouldn’t be in the business of enforcing morals. Really, some said that. Now that they think they’re on the side of morality (I disagree) regarding abortion, stem cell research, and gay marriage, they want government to enforce morals.

Ron Chusid continues — and I’m not sure about this —

There has been a considerable change in definition of liberal versus conservative in recent years. Social issues and views on Iraq have largely replaced economic issues in separating liberals versus conservatives. Goldwater would clearly be on the liberal side on social issues. Without having him around to ask directly we can only speculate where the old cold warrior would stand in Iraq. My bet is that his response to Bush for invading Iraq following 9/11 would be, “You idiot, you attacked the wrong country.”

What do you think? I think economic issues will be huge in the 2010s.

14 thoughts on “Shifting Sands of Conservatism

  1. Thanks for the link. Obviously Goldwater had views in 1964 which would not be very acceptable today. However, unlike many of today’s conservatives, he was not a total reactionary and did change with the times.

    It must be kept in mind that Social Security was new in Goldwater’s time and we can’t be certain as to whether he would support a successful program or back privitization if he was around today.

    “He also engaged in some race-baiting, as I remember.”

    I was pretty young at the time and may be wrong, but I don’t believe that is true. This perception may be there because he opposed the civil rights act. However Goldwater opposed it on libertarian grounds, not out of racism, and changed his view on this in later years.

    We don’t really know for sure where Goldwater would stand on all the issues. Just as we overlook people like Thomas Jefferson owning slaves because of the era when they lived, we also must look at opposition to Social Security and the Civil Rights Act differently in someone who lived in the 1960’s.

    While we don’t know where Goldwater would stand on all the issues, the fact remains that he opposed the religious right and opposed the type of abuses of power we are seeing under Bush–even when committed by a Republican. That presents an important contrast to today’s conservatives.

  2. Goldwater was a mensch. In his latter years the pseudo-conservatives took to calling him senile rather than acknowledge his enlightened position on gay rights (I think he had a gay granddaughter).

    But then I’m biased. In sixth grade I had his picture taped to my desk at school. Then, as now, I was repulsed by Southern racism and because the South was solidly Democratic, I could not fathom joining their party.

    Nixon changed that but my Republican party wasn’t the racist shithole Bush’s Republican party is. Goldwater grew and became more of a statesman. His party devolved into a pack of knuckle-dragging, racist creeps.

  3. Former U.S. Senator Barry Goldwater (R-AZ) explained the absence of public accountability in this way:

    “Senators and representatives, faced incessantly with the need to raise ever more funds to fuel their campaigns, can scarcely avoid weighing every decision against the question, “How will this affect my fundraising prospects?” rather than “How will this affect the national interest?”

    I don’t know if that opinion is liberal or conservative, given the quest for election funds by both parties, but it is the finist expression of the problem at the core of the corruption of governement in the US today.

  4. It must be kept in mind that Social Security was new in Goldwater’s time

    Not really; it began in 1935, which means in 1964 it was 29 years old. I was only a teenager then and not terribly interested in social security, but I don’t think people wanted it eliminated.

  5. “I think economic issues will be huge in the 2010s.”

    I think so too, and I think they will be in the 2008 election. With our massive amount of debt and the Feds cutting interest rates to keep the economy afloat in the very short term, I think the dollar is going to collapse.

  6. When conservatives remain in the minority, they can act like a ‘sea anchor’ on the majority. With their arguments and amendments they can keep the majority from going to excess. And that isn’t all bad.

    Neo-cons(ervative)s are not conservative. A lot of the william bulkeley, george will and barry goldwater ideas sound pretty good when discussed in a theoretical, say classroom, setting. It is when those ideas are put into play, such as tax cuts, smaller government, less regulation of business for a decade or two, that we can see the business community cutting corners, firing workers et al and we can’t see the connection from Reagan to Stickler.

    Take for example, the town of 25,000 where I live. It is in the Ohio 8th CD and John “Suntan Johnny” Boehner, the minority leader is my representative in the people’s house. This town is solidly controlled by Republicans. The primary is the real election. Which ever Republican candidate wins the primary, wins the General election.

    Yet this town, run by supposedly ‘small government’ Republicans, owns a municipal golf course, owns a municipal airport and has unbelievably restrictive laws regarding the parking of semi-trucks, motor homes and recreational vehicles. These folks, and I know the mayor, are all about control. They want to control every aspect of the citizens lives.

    What do I think? We gotta get rid of the conservatives, the neo-cons, the fundies, whatever it is you want to call these whackos and return some sense to public discourse.

    Part of this comment was posted at Mike the Mad Biologist yesterday.

  7. Maha,

    My parents were born in 1913 and suffered through The Great Depression. FDR was a hero to them (after Hoover, I mean) and they were strong believers in Social Security. Born in 1941, I am also firmly behind Social Security AND a firm and solid social safety net for any of those nasty bumps life can deliver to us.

  8. Great comments.I totally agree with Chief, mostly agree with #5.
    A severe dollar slide is in the works, but the central banks will act to ward off a collapse.
    As I’ve stated before, the Republican party is a witches’ brew of religious fanatics, gun-nuts,NASCAR fans,blue collar workers, rascists,social elitists, and country clubbers.With that kind of base and the true Republican agenda, it’s like building a skyscraper on a muckpond in a fault zone…. it’s only a matter of time before the poop hits the fan.
    All (and I mean ALL) of the men I know that voted for Bush and supported his policies up until recently have turned against him.
    They think the war in Iraq is a disaster,and are very afraid for their families financial well being.
    My “prediction” is the sub prime / hedge fund mess will deepen, the fed will bail out the big boys while allowing joe six pack to drown in debt.The barracudas will stream in and buy up all those “distressed” properties for pennies on the dollar. the much touted “rapture” will not occur.As the financial stress deepens at home, the news of the Shanghai Co-operation Organization will make it to the front pages and prompt “the American people” to wake up to the nightmare of the Neocon/Bush foreign policy disaster.At that point, it will be hard to find anyone who cares about gay marriage or abortion. The life boats will be taking on water and the passengers have been tricked into selling their life preservers.The Captain and “officers on the bridge” will be leaving on a hellicopter.
    Everything the Bush administration has touched turned to crap, and it is now obvious.

  9. “Should any political party attempt to abolish social security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history. There is a tiny splinter group, of course, that believes you can do these things. Among them are H. L. Hunt (you possibly know his background), a few other Texas oil millionaires, and an occasional politician or business man from other areas. Their number is negligible and they are stupid.”

    — Dwight D. Eisenhower in a letter to his brother Edgar, November 8, 1954

    Repeat: And they are stupid. How I wish they were negligible. It’s amazing how a small batch of bad apples can ruin the rest.

  10. I just received two unsolicited credit cards,one in my name and one in my wife’s name, they granted us a $7,000 credit line with a 2.29% APR until 12/31/07, then it jumps to 12.3% after the introductory offer. But what is bizarre is that it has a default rate of 32.25%. Which means, if you are late on a payment you’ll be paying 32.25% on the balance.

    Lending practices of the credit industry that allow such egregious terms is a big part of why we are going to face economic difficulties ahead. It’s a steel trap for the unsophisticated borrower and entices people into economic bondage to mega-corporations. Where is the government watchdog to prevent this kind of usury?

  11. Swami,
    someone shot the pup years ago,I believe it was during the term of Saint Ronald of Santa Barbara, peace be upon him.

  12. Yes, the economy will be a huge (the primary) issue very soon now. Which means voting rates will shoot way up (no other issue mobilizes anywhere near as many people). The Republican plan seems to be:
    1) Make hay for as long as possible (17 months)
    2) Let it all come crashing down on a Dem President
    3) Sabotage efforts to fix it
    4) Blame the Dems when they haven’t fixed it.

    It’s debatable if they can work 1 & 2 – it sure looks like it could come crashing down at any time. 3 depends on getting enough loyalists back in Congress and Dems continuing to be weak kneed. Part 4 depends on the first 3, and on being able to revise history to make Bush look decent (or maybe a victim), and in this case, I don’t think that’s possible for at least a generation. And by that time the political landscape will be very different and the quesion moot.

  13. Excellent post, whenever I forgot about Mahablog for a while and comeback I’m reminded why I keep coming back.

    It’s pretty clear that for at least the last 20 years and maybe longer the biggest unifying force in the Republican Party has been their hatred of liberals. That’s something all of their disparate parts can get behind–and since there were huge liberalizing changes in the United States for the middle of the 20th century they’ve had a lot of things to hate.

    As for lefties many I think have accepted a modified Neo-Liberalism that focuses on sensible rules, disclosure and proper enforcement (think Elliot Spitzer) as a way to make the market run better. Is it a shift in the popularly construed libearl rhetoric of “Market Bad”? Maybe–I’d say it’s a clarification of what was there before.

  14. John Dean said that Barry Goldwater would have been his coauthor on his book, Conservatives without Conscience. Dean’s posulate was that the Republican party had become a party of authoritarians and not conservatives and they have betrayed our democratic and constitutional foundations.

    Perlstein’s book also discusses Goldwater as being someone not fully at home with the radical right, but picked up as a champion.

    I think he had definitely changed before he died. He was definitely not happy with the party of George W Bush, but I’m not sure he ever saw how he had been a piece that helped bringing these radicals to power.

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