Goldwater Reconsidered: “What’s Left?” February 2007, MRR #285

It’s one of the most famous television commercials in history. Called the “Daisy Girl” ad, it opens with a little girl in a sun-drenched field, picking the petals off a daisy. As she counts the petals, the voice over segues into a launch countdown. The girl fades into a nuclear explosion, and the ad ends with a pitch to vote for Lyndon Baines Johnson.

The Daisy Girl ad was instrumental in defeating Barry Goldwater in the 1964 presidential elections. Johnson portrayed Goldwater as a dangerous extremist, and used Goldwater’s support for the use of tactical nuclear weapons in Vietnam to put the fear of global nuclear holocaust into the American electorate. Johnson won a landslide victory, and Goldwater’s faction of the Republican Party was thoroughly crushed.

Goldwater’s was the conservative wing of the GOP. Conservative on all counts. His was the original small government, free market, anti-communist, isolationist conservatism we associate today with paleoconservatives like Patrick Buchanan. Goldwater sought to roll back both the New Deal and federal involvement in the civil rights movement which ended legal segregation, guaranteed blacks the right to vote, and attempted to halt racial discrimination in housing, education, and employment. Goldwater’s free market economics was trumped by a patriotic nationalism that sought to protect American industry from unfair foreign competition, much as his isolationist, anti-interventionist foreign policy was trumped by a virulent anticommunism that sought to forcibly role back the Soviet bloc, with nuclear weapons if necessary.

In the 1964 primaries, Goldwater’s Republican faction trounced the GOP’s other major faction, the liberal wing led by Nelson Rockefeller. Rockefeller’s Republicans basically accepted the New Deal, government economic intervention, the welfare state, and federal support for civil rights, though perhaps not as fervently as the New Deal liberal wing of the Democratic Party led by Johnson. The Democratic Party also had a second main wing, a conservative faction, a gaggle of pro-segregation, populist, states rights southern Democrats led by George Wallace. All four groups were anti-communist, of course, with the Republican Party more zealously so.

[The claim that the United States is a democracy with two distinct political parties can be challenged on the basis of this political line-up alone. Despite American politics having moved decidedly to the right since 1964, one would be hard pressed today to separate out two ideologically distinct political parties based on the likes of Junior Bush, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bill Clinton, and Zell Miller, each politician representative of a major political tendency in their respective political parties.]

The GOP’s liberal wing gained ascendancy after Goldwater’s defeat, contributing to Richard Nixon’s presidential victory in 1968. And, given the rightward shift in US politics over the last three decades, it’s accurate to describe Nixon as America’s last liberal president. He continued to push through civil rights legislation, ignobly ended the Vietnam War, recognized Red China, and implemented wage-and-price controls to combat economic stagflation, all of which were anathema to the Republican Party’s conservative faction. Decimated by Goldwater’s rout, GOP conservatives made a crucial strategic decision to return to their base-churches, communities, civic organizations-and rebuild their power, with the goal of eventually retaking the leadership of their party.

School boards were often the first steppingstone for these conservatives in retaking the Republican Party, followed by municipal and state governments. Formulating an ideological and programmatic consistency-admirably accomplished by the New Right and evangelical Christianity-was also critical, as was establishing effective party discipline. Moderate and liberal Republicans were labeled RINOs (Republicans In Name Only), attacked by conservative Republicans as vehemently as Democrats, subjected to political dirty tricks during Republican primaries, denied funding and support from party institutions, and shorn of power and influence once in office. In addition, Southern Democrats, long disenchanted with their party for its championing of desegregation, civil rights, and affirmative action, and denied a third-party alternative with the defeat of George Wallace’s American Independent Party, deserted the Democratic Party in droves to become conservative Republicans. The conservative wing of the GOP first tasted national victory with the election of Ronald Reagan to the presidency in 1980, thanks in part to support from working-class “Reagan Democrats.” Conservatism’s triumphant comeback was sealed with the capture of Congress in 1994 under Newt Gingrich and the “Contract for America.” The Republican Party’s conservative wing has maintained its dominance in national politics every since.

[An interesting sidebar to this discussion comes from realizing that the very recent rise to national prominence of Republican neoconservatives is actually not a part of this conservative Republican “revolution.” Neocons are often nowhere near as socially, politically, or economically conservative as their properly conservative brethren, and they’ve junked traditional conservative isolationism for an aggressive democratic imperialism that has the Republican Party aping the Democrats in initiating major military campaigns around the globe. Riding the coattails of the conservative GOP’s rise to power, the neocons should be considered usurpers, not inheritors, as folks like Patrick Buchanan make clear.]

This brief analysis of how Goldwater’s conservative faction of the Republican Party went from abject defeat to sweeping victory is why I don’t hold much hope in things significantly changing, now that the Democratic Party has narrowly seized control of Congress. The Democrats, especially moderate and liberal Democrats, did not learn the vital lesson from their defeats in 1980 and 1994 that long-term success requires they return to their social base to rebuild their political power. As a consequence, the Democratic Party lacks effective organization, forceful party discipline, a unifying program, and an inspirational vision to challenge Republican hegemony. Democrats won by default in 2006. Put another way, the Democratic Party did not win, the Republican Party lost. The Iraq debacle, a string of ethical and moral scandals, a lackluster economy, and hemorrhaging federal spending eroded the Republican conservative base to a degree. More important, these issues drove independent voters en masse into the arms of the Democratic Party. Without anything substantive to hold them there however, it’s not a matter of if, but when, the Democrats once more find themselves out of power.

Regular readers of my column know that this isn’t my main beef with those who are ecstatic over the Democrats gaining majorities in the House and Senate. Even if the Democrats somehow, despite the odds, retain control of Congress for the next six years, and even if the Democrats miraculously manage to win the presidency in 2008, nothing much will change, because there isn’t a rat’s ass worth of difference between the Democratic and Republican parties. All the differences between the four factions of the two parties I outlined above would fit nicely into a single European political party, with room to spare, in a system of parliamentary democracy that frequently includes significant participation by fascists, communists, monarchists, and greens. Democrats got us involved in the first and second World Wars, not to mention Korea and Vietnam. And much as it took a Republican president-Nixon-to normalize relations with Communist China, it took a Democratic president-Clinton-to gut LBJ’s Great Society welfare state. I predict that when Medicare and Social Security go under the axe, it’s a Democratic president who will be doing the chopping.

That Barry Goldwater wouldn’t exactly be welcome in today’s conservative GOP is an enlightening footnote here. Goldwater hated the influence of religious extremism in politics, supported racial desegregation, considered abortion a matter of personal choice, favored the legalization of marijuana, and didn’t have a problem with homosexuality. Karl Hess, in his autobiography Mostly On The Edge, understood that Barry Goldwater was as much the father of modern day American right-wing libertarianism as he was of GOP conservatism. In the end a self-reliant communitarian anarchist, Hess started as Goldwater’s speechwriter, credited for penning the famous quote: “I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!”

A sentiment that’s anathema to today’s GOP.

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