In Your Guts You Know He’s Nuts

Thomas Sugrue

  • The Conscience of a Conservative by Barry Goldwater
    Princeton, 144 pp, £8.95, June 2007, ISBN 978 0 691 13117 7

In 2004, with the re-election of George W. Bush, the Republicans seemed invincible. Bush’s consigliere, Karl Rove, interpreted the election as the sign of a realignment and pushed for a hyperconservative politics which would create a ‘permanent Republican majority’. Now, only three years later, in the midst of America’s absurdly long presidential election cycle, the Grand Old Party is in disarray. Two of its leading contenders – Rudolph Giuliani and Mitt Romney – come from states that are among the most liberal in the country. Both have long records of supporting issues anathema to their party’s right-wing base. If either the twice-divorced New Yorker or the Mormon from ‘Taxachusetts’ wins the Republican nomination, fundamentalist Christian leaders have threatened to form a third party. The other frontrunner, Baptist minister and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, is making inroads among his fellow creationists and millennialists, but has deviated from hardline Republican positions on taxes and immigration.

The Republican implosion is long overdue. For more than forty years, the party fused together two seemingly incompatible political ideologies: Christian moral conservatism and economic libertarianism. The combination was inherently unstable. Business elites, many of whom cared little for the cultural and religious politics that fired up the Republican base, were content to forge alliances with pro-lifers and anti-gay activists in exchange for corporate-friendly legislation and judicial appointees who would slowly chip away at the regulatory state. For their part, conservative evangelicals were happy to preach a Jesus who widened the eye of the needle so that every camel and rich man, unburdened from high taxes, could enter his kingdom. Unrestrained capitalism is, however, deeply corrosive of the ‘family values’ that the moral right holds dear (it is hard to hold together families in a low-wage economy without parental help or affordable day care). Economic liberty often unleashes all sorts of other, more carnal liberties (it is no surprise that the rise of market fundamentalism in the US over the last four decades can be correlated with the proliferation of pornography, profane music and drugs). But for the most part the right was content to live with the contradictions. Hawkish national security politics and a shared revulsion against taxes, welfare and minority rights held together the GOP for much of its history. Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and especially George W. Bush talked the culturally conservative talk and walked the big-business walk.

The modern Republican Party was born of revolution. In the early 1960s, right-wing insurgents – self-consciously using the model of Communist cells – took over the GOP, repudiated the moderation of its leaders, among them President Eisenhower and the New York governor Nelson Rockefeller, and built a formidable counter-establishment infrastructure that extended from local school boards to state capitols to think tanks. Leading the rightist rising were the conservative intellectuals in the orbit of William F. Buckley’s National Review and the zealous campus activists of Young Americans for Freedom (a group ultimately larger and far more influential than the much celebrated leftist Students for a Democratic Society), as well as members of the staunchly anti-Communist John Birch Society (named for an American missionary said to have been killed by Maoists in 1945) and Southern whites alienated by the federal government’s role in eliminating Jim Crow. All of them pegged their hopes on the Arizona Republican senator Barry Goldwater.

‘Extremism in the defence of liberty is no vice,’ Goldwater thundered at the 1964 Republican National Convention, as he accepted his party’s nomination for the presidency. ‘Moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.’ Since the 1960s, we have lived in the age of Goldwater. What passed as extremism more than four decades ago soon moved to the mainstream of the Republican Party. By the time of his death in 1998, Goldwater found himself in a most unlikely place among the shrivelled ranks of his own party’s beleaguered moderates, an apostate because of his endorsement of gay service in the military, abortion rights and even the legalisation of marijuana for medical purposes. The New Right had moved way past its founding father.

Goldwater was a man before his time, but barely. He was trounced in the 1964 election, going down to one of the most stunning electoral defeats in American political history. Mainstream pundits denounced him and his supporters as far-right zealots. Social scientists, among them Daniel Bell and Seymour Martin Lipset, saw the Goldwaterites as the embodiment of a pathological ‘authoritarian personality’, wholly out of touch with the liberalism they believed was central to the American public. ‘When, in all our history, has anyone with ideas so bizarre, so archaic, so self-confounding, so remote from the basic American consensus, ever got so far?’ Richard Hofstadter asked. Graffiti artists shared the intelligentsia’s disdain and defaced Goldwater’s campaign billboards, appending the word ‘Wing’ to his slogan ‘In Your Heart You Know He’s Right.’ Others added the coda: ‘In Your Guts You Know He’s Nuts.’ At the historical moment when America’s ‘liberal consensus’ seemed to be at its zenith, it was impossible for commentators to see Goldwater’s conservatism as anything but marginal. They were wrong. Over the next forty years, the Goldwaterites took over the Republican Party, drove moderate Republicans to near extinction, and scared mainstream Democrats into marching rightward in search of angry Reagan voters, evangelical suburbanites and the elusive ‘Nascar dads’ of the working class who thrilled to the manly nationalism of the hard right.

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