I recently picked up a copy of Barry Goldwater’s 1960 classic, The Conscience of a Conservative, at the Trinity Book Sale. A short text, it succinctly outlines his small government stance. On basic principles, I would have a fair amount in common with his viewpoint, though I would start the conversation with the question of individual liberty. On constitutional questions, for example, I do believe that there is scope for changing interpretations of an original text, in line with agreed principles.
Corporations, unions and politics
I found his section on unions interesting from a contemporary perspective, in his criticism of their involvement in politics.
In order to achieve the widest possible distribution of political power, financial contributions to political campaigns should be made by individuals and individuals alone. I see no reason for labor unions – or corporations – to participate in politics. Both were created for economic purposes and their activities should be restricted accordingly.
Interesting that an old conservative icon took for granted the case against participation by corporations, half a century before the United States Supreme Court ruled the contrary stance this year in the Citizens United v. FEC case.
Freedom of association
I think there was a certain inconsistency in Goldwater’s stance on freedom of association. He argues for right-to-work laws which forbid contracts that make union membership a condition of employment. But he also voted against the Civil Rights Act on the grounds that anti-discrimination laws in employment impeded on freedom of association. I don’t doubt Goldwater’s personal integrity on the matter of race, but on grounds should an employer be allowed to require their employees to be white but not be allowed to require them to be union members. Milton Friedman took a more consistent stance in his 1962 work Capitalism and Freedom, opposing both right-to-work laws and anti-discrimination laws. Not, of course, that consistency in such matters is always a virtue.
Republicans since Goldwater
I do admire Goldwater, and I wonder how the Republican Party would have fared had he been elected President. When he won the 1964 nomination, his two issues were small government and the Cold War. He was always going to face a difficult fight that year, against President Lyndon B. Johnson just over a year after the assassination of President Kennedy. But it was after Goldwater’s overwhelming electoral college defeat that Republican candidates such as Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan determined to capture the votes of those termed the silent majority, by becoming a party of increasingly fundamentalist religious viewpoints.
Such was the alteration in what was seen as most fundamental to the Republican Party that Goldwater, who had been considered on the right relative to the supporters of Nelson Rockefeller, was very much on the liberal wing. He opposed the adoption of anti-abortion as a policy stance, and in the 1990s, called for the removal of restrictions on gay soldiers serving openly in the military, saying that “Everyone knows that gays have served honorably in the military since at least the time of Julius Caesar” and encouraged gay activism. In response to the evangelical preacher Jerry Falwell’s concerns about the appointment about Sandra Day O’Connor, Goldwater said that “Every good Christian should kick Jerry Falwell up the ass”.
He publicly dissociated himself from the right of the party, “Do not associate my name with anything you do. You are extremists, and you’ve hurt the Republican party much more than the Democrats have.”
A recent National Journal article by Jonathan Rauch, considering the leverage of the populist Tea Party movement, opens by writing “The history of the modern Republican Party in one sentence: Barry Goldwater and Nelson Rockefeller got into an argument and George Wallace won.” Mickey Edwards, Republican Congressman 1977–93 and a former chair of the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), said that he wouldn’t attend this year, given that he could no longer identify with those now calling themselves conservative, and that he wouldn’t feel welcome, because they wouldn’t think Goldwater was a conservative. I would even wonder if Barry Goldwater would pass the purity tests to get through a Republican primary today. A few years ago in a debate in the Hist on genetically-modified food, Prof. David McConnell, President of the Society and professor of genetics, said, “I would like to support the Green Party, but I can’t”. Such is as I feel about the modern-day Republican Party. Except for California Senate primary candidate, Tom Campbell.