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.

Goldwater was an unlikely revolutionary and his home state an unlikely breeding ground for revolution. One of the last states admitted to the Union (in 1912), Arizona was the closest thing to a frontier in the mid 20th-century United States. Its hinterland was both spectacularly beautiful (most famously, the Grand Canyon) and wretchedly impoverished (most infamously, its Mexican-American population were still second-class citizens, and the Navajo Indians were confined to dreary reservations in the state’s most desolate corners). The major city, Phoenix, was an inhospitable place, rising from the hot sand of one of America’s great deserts, home in 1950 to just over 100,000 residents, many of them asthmatics and retirees who benefited from the dry, pollen-free air (until newcomers planted lawns and trees in the hope of turning the desert into a south-western version of semi-tropical Miami). In the postwar years, Goldwater and his cadre of small businessmen saw their city as a major economic centre of the future, unlikely as that may have seemed. In fact, the jump-start came with World War Two and the Cold War. Phoenix housed three military bases and a growing number of enterprises that benefited from what Goldwater’s Republican nemesis, Eisenhower (a man far too ‘liberal’ for the Arizona Republican and his followers), memorably called ‘the military-industrial complex’.

Goldwater cultivated his image as a distinctively American type: the rugged frontier individualist, unafraid to stand alone, his entrepreneurial spirit as large as the desert sky. He flew his own plane, collected guns and, in his spare time, gathered with fellow white members of the elite to dress in Native American regalia in a form of Western-style minstrelsy, quaintly evoking an American imperial past that dared not speak its name. But such atavism masked Goldwater’s forward-looking vision. To a large extent he and his associates succeeded in transforming their desert city into a metropolis but for reasons they were as reluctant to concede as the Arizona territory’s sordid history of Indian extermination.

Goldwater’s peculiar version of conservatism rose from the desert like a cactus blooming in the springtime – irrigated by massive federal spending on public works (especially dams and power plants that provided Phoenix with the water it naturally lacked and the cheap electricity necessary for the air-conditioning that made the stifling summers bearable). Suburban-style housing developments were underwritten by federal mortgage subsidies. The motorways that connected remote Arizona to national markets were part of the interstate highway system, the largest public works programme in American history. And, most important, Arizona’s growing prominence as a centre of defence research and production depended on an infusion of military spending: in effect, a redistribution of national wealth from the tax-rich, populous states of the North-East and Midwest to the then tax-poor, underdeveloped Sun Belt.

Goldwaterism was a robust, prickly political ideology that barely acknowledged the rain that sustained it. Flooded with federal dollars, Arizona kept its state taxes low, and thus created a ‘pro-business’ climate to attract manufacturers and corporate headquarters fleeing high-tax northern states. Those corporate leaders, many of whom bankrolled Goldwater’s political career, railed against the New Deal regulatory regime. Arizona’s growing contingent of engineers and military personnel added a pro-defence tinge to the state’s already conservative politics. Along with many conservative Christians, who mobilised God in the battle against godless Communism, all the ingredients of a new political order were in place. Goldwater’s genius was to combine them into a radical movement. Though he called himself a conservative, there was nothing conservative about Goldwater: he had in mind nothing less than the overthrow of the New Deal order, a bloodless revolution against the excesses of modern liberalism, a new political world in which economic liberty, morality and discipline would prevail against socialism, atheism and disorder.

All revolutions need their manifestos. In 1960, with the assistance of the right-wing writer Brent Bozell (conveniently enough, Buckley’s brother-in-law), Goldwater assembled a little book called The Conscience of a Conservative. Although it was published by a vanity press (a reminder that American conservatism remained confined to the fringes at the beginning of the 1960s), the book was a surprise bestseller. By 1964, it had sold more than three million copies and it became the most influential American political tract of the second half of the 20th century.

Now canonised as a political classic in Princeton’s new James Madison Library (with a fawning foreword by the right-wing pundit and Goldwater acolyte George Will and a cheeky afterword by the liberal Robert Kennedy Jr), Goldwater’s collection of inspirational speeches pays rereading. The Conscience of a Conservative laid the groundwork for the Republican resurgence, and its encomiums to free enterprise, liberty and national might shaped the agenda of the New Right, of Reagan and the Bushes and their many followers. Its aphoristic prose provided lesser orators with an indispensable compendium of catchphrases and slogans. Like Mao’s Little Red Book, Goldwater’s book – complete with iconic photograph of its author on the cover – stirred a revolutionary vanguard into action.

Among historians and pundits, it is a cliché that the American New Right emerged in reaction to the excesses of 1960s leftists and the liberal politicians who enabled them. Liberalism unravelled when student protesters rallied for Ho Chi Minh, Black Power radicals put whitey ‘up against the wall, motherfucker!’, counterculturalists bared their bodies, gyrated to psychedelic music and dropped acid, and man-hating feminists undermined the traditional family, while out of control federal spending subsidised unemployment and rewarded ungrateful blacks for rioting. Conservatives of all stripes looked back wistfully to the 1950s as the zenith of American greatness (leftists offered a mirror image of the story, renouncing post-World War Two America as conformist, conservative and corporate). Not Goldwater. ‘Conservatives,’ he wrote at a moment when only utopian leftists could even imagine hippies, welfare rights, ‘Negroes with Guns’ and abortion on demand, ‘are deeply persuaded that our society is ailing.’ He held no brief for the ‘happy days’ of the 1950s. To him – and his followers – postwar America was rotten to the core, its citizens in thrall to the blandishments of the welfare state. Communism prevailed because of America’s effeminacy. Americans had lost the self-sufficiency and entrepreneurial energy that had made their country great. Politics and society were in need of wholesale renewal. Americans were morally and spiritually bankrupt.

Although Goldwater – unlike many of his followers on the right – was not a particularly religious man (he was a member of the Episcopal Church, the blandly mainstream sect once nicknamed ‘the Republican Party at prayer’). But even if he lacked the zeal of the evangelical Christians who would become the New Right’s stalwart warriors, Goldwater’s vision of American society was deeply religious. (Here, perhaps, is the imprint of his ghostwriter Bozell: like his mentor Buckley, a devout Catholic of the ultramontane variety.) For Goldwater, conservatism was not merely a political position, it was an expression of divine truth: ‘Conservatism, we are told, is out of date. The charge is preposterous and we ought boldly to say so. The laws of God, and of nature, have no dateline.’ The Conscience of a Conservative had as its sombre purpose the redemption of the individual and the salvation of an entire nation.

From the ‘nature of man, and the truths that God has revealed about his creation,’ Goldwater derived several basic principles that may have rested uneasily with Bozell’s Catholicism. Goldwater was a radical individualist. ‘Every man, for his individual good and for the good of his society, is responsible for his own development.’ He railed against the welfare state because he saw it as a soul-destroying institution. Welfare, he argued, ‘transforms the individual from a dignified, industrious, self-reliant spiritual being into a dependent animal creature without his knowing it.’ The greatest hindrance to the fulfilment of human potential was government itself. ‘Throughout history, government has proved to be the chief instrument for thwarting man’s liberty.’

For Goldwater, next to Holy Writ was the inspired text of the US constitution, a document that rested on ‘ancient and tested truths’. No mainstream Protestant could sanction a literal reading of the Bible, but like many of his rightist compatriots, Goldwater transferred his suppressed biblical literalism onto America’s founding documents. ‘The constitution,’ he proclaimed with the solemnity of a fundamentalist, ‘is what its authors intended it to be and said it was.’ The Founders intended a limited government, not a state with regulatory powers over business, not a system of government-subsidised props for the indolent, not a vast, faceless bureaucracy. Any act of constitutional interpretation – at least, any that led to conclusions which disagreed with Goldwater’s – was an act of intolerable hubris, ‘substituting our own intentions for those of the constitution’s framers’.

Perhaps the most surprising element of Goldwater’s political philosophy – at least in the light of the current neoconservative crusade to ‘democratise’ the Middle East – was his deep suspicion of the demos. He reiterated the common right-wing criticism of the post-New Deal federal government as ‘a vast national authority, out of touch with the people, and out of their control’. But unlike the increasingly vocal advocates of participatory democracy, on both the right and the left, Goldwater did not propose giving power to the people. Siding with those Founders who sought to restrain the democratic impulses unleashed in the age of revolution, Goldwater warned against the ‘tyranny of the masses’: ‘many a democratic society . . . has lost its freedom by persuading itself that if “the people” rule, all is well.’

Goldwater’s anti-democratic sentiments were as much an expression of realpolitik as a resuscitation of Aristotle and his 18th-century Anglo-American heirs. When he wrote The Conscience of a Conservative, the right had spent a quarter-century wandering in the desert of the New Deal. Even Goldwater’s fellow Republicans – like Eisenhower, Rockefeller and the Supreme Court chief justice Earl Warren – had fallen to their knees to worship the false idols of economic regulation and social welfare. Goldwater’s suspicion of the demos was explicable: the deluded masses had continued to elect Democrats (and their Republican toadies) who were committed to big government. If Americans were, as Goldwater claimed, naturally conservative, how could this be? ‘Welfarism,’ he wrote in a lengthy italicised passage, ‘is much more compatible with the political processes of a democratic society.’ An excess of democracy allowed those who craved absolute power to ‘swindle’ the people into giving up their freedom in exchange for a little economic security. Liberalism was a collective delusion, a form of false consciousness that kept individuals from achieving their true spiritual fulfilment through self-sufficiency. The social welfare state was the product of too much democracy.

Perhaps no issue was more important for Goldwater – and for his followers – than that of African American civil rights. Goldwater himself professed support for the goal of racial integration – he believed in a colour-blind America. But he vehemently opposed the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision which ruled that racial segregation in public schools was unequal and unconstitutional. Falling back on a narrow reading of the constitution, Goldwater argued that education was a state and local prerogative – and that any federal mandate that schools be desegregated was constitutionally impermissible.

Goldwater’s GOP was nominally the party of Lincoln, of emancipation and Reconstruction. But Goldwater was an architect of a Republican Party that profited from Southern whites’ disaffection with liberalism. In 1964, he discovered the GOP’s promised land: the old Confederacy. For most of its hundred-year history (except during Reconstruction, when blacks were briefly enfranchised), the Republican Party had no meaningful presence in the Deep South. Southern whites despised the party of Lincoln. Goldwater’s position on civil rights – in particular his use of ostensibly race-neutral language like ‘states’ rights’ and ‘freedom of association’ – echoed Southern white racists’ growing embrace of colourblind rhetoric to prop up racial segregation and racial privilege. In 1964, Goldwater won the majority of votes in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina.

Like all revolutions, the Republican one contained within it the seeds of its own destruction. And Goldwater’s manifesto, like every founding text, took on different meanings over time. Goldwater himself grew increasingly distant from his tract’s moralistic language and more committed than ever to its economic libertarianism. By the 1980s, when the religious right took over the GOP at the grassroots (much as the Goldwaterites had in the 1960s), he denounced religious extremism as damaging to the individual liberties that he had long championed. Nothing gets attention like apostasy and liberal and moderate pundits used Goldwater’s words to accuse his successors of moving so far to the right that they were out of touch with their own founding father. But it is a misreading of Goldwater’s fusionist politics to give too much weight to a few ostensibly moderate statements. His anti-democratic tendencies put restraints on his libertarianism. It was his emphasis on authority – as much as his emphasis on liberty – that gave his politics such resonance in the 1960s and beyond.

When it came to police power, military might and international trade, Goldwater was a statist. During the summer of 1964, Harlem, Rochester and Philadelphia exploded in riots. Student protests rocked Berkeley and other campuses. Protesters often described their actions in terms that should have appealed to Goldwater’s libertarianism: University of California students fashioned themselves into a ‘free speech movement’ and civil rights activists presented their demonstrations as expressions of individual conscience and demands for liberty. Goldwater had famously lashed out against the ‘police state’ that he believed would result from unchecked liberalism, but he had no objections to Alabama troopers pummelling civil rights activists or California state police dragging limp Berkeley students off to jail. ‘Of the genuine police state in the nation’s midst – Mississippi – he said nothing at all,’ Rick Perlstein wrote in his definitive 2001 account of the presidential battle. Goldwater’s campaign, with cutting-edge television advertisements that highlighted disorder in America’s campuses and streets, laid the groundwork for the expansion of the military and carceral state. His law and order politics were his greatest and most poisonous legacy. The lifeblood of the Republican Party, they also secured the long-term health of his beloved Arizona.

At times, the struggle between liberty and authority led to division. At the end of the 1960s, Young Americans for Freedom split when their social conservative majority rejected their libertarian comrades’ calls for the legalisation of marijuana and prostitution. Later, the GOP’s moral majority shunted aside the Log Cabin Republicans, a group that promoted gay rights using Goldwater’s libertarian arguments. Yet, despite occasional dust-ups, economic libertarians and social conservatives have remained comfortably within the party’s big tent.

Goldwater’s tract provides the explanation. His politics were at once profoundly libertarian and profoundly authoritarian. Most libertarians harbour a naively benign view of the human condition: Goldwater’s view was more jaundiced. Human freedom demanded external control. It necessitated the expansion of police powers to curb the excesses of those who might trammel others’ freedoms. The future that Goldwater saw was a country at once stripped of nearly all of its regulatory powers when it came to business activity but with a strong military ready not just to contain but to trample its Communist enemies, a strong police to put down unrest in the streets, and a defended national border.

It has taken the paradoxical presidency of George W. Bush to bring the paradoxes of Goldwaterism to the surface. Bushism is Goldwaterism on steroids, but also something radically different. More than his Republican predecessors – even Reagan – Bush has reorganised the economy to favour the Republicans’ corporate base. The near abolition of estate taxes and the appointment of judges like Samuel Alito and John Roberts who are committed to dismantling the regulatory state fulfils Goldwater’s dream of strict constructionist judges burying the New Deal. Bush’s commitment to moral conservatism (even if his over-the-top evangelicalism would have outraged Goldwater) is the extreme expression of the religious ideology that permeates The Conscience of a Conservative. And his muscular foreign policy – treating ‘radical Islam’ as the equivalent of the Communist menace – is latter-day Goldwaterism. The Bush administration’s embrace of domestic spying, preventive detention and secret tribunals takes Goldwater’s emphasis on authority and security as far as it can go. Bush’s indebtedness to the military-industrial complex – he is, like Goldwater, a product of the Sun Belt – has, however, led him to expand the state beyond what even Goldwater himself might have tolerated. What Bush has lost – and why the Republican fusion is now so fragile – is the sense of balance that, in the end, made Goldwater less of an extremist than his heirs. For Goldwater liberty and authority always existed in tension. Today, both exist in hypertrophied form, their exaggeration finally reaching the point of untenability. Or so at least we can hope.