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Conscience Revisited: Barry Goldwater and the History of the Conservative Movement in U.S. Politics

Considering how prominent of a role conservative politics has played in the closing decades of the 20th Century, and still plays in these two initial decades of the 21st Century, it would probably be strange for many contemporary observers to hear that the emergence of conservatism—as a distinct political identity—is a relatively recent phenomenon within greater American thought.

Partisan politics has been a mainstay in the American political scene since even before the contentious presidential election of 1800 between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson (and Aaron Burr).  Nonetheless, the ideological quarrels that surround the now-common left-wing/right-wing divide between the Democrats and Republicans were not so clearly defined throughout most of American history.  Originally, the differences that existed between the two leading parties usually rested more on regional, than national platforms.

In the first half of the 20th Century, an individual Democratic policymaker could be either conservative or liberal, depending on the demographic of his constituency; the same went for individual Republican policymakers.  To really understand the significant of the shift between party politics now and then, consider the fact that the American South was once largely Democratic, yet still conservative on social issues; likewise, the American North was largely Republican, yet still liberal on social issues (at least, in comparison to the South).  Obviously, it would be misleading to say that the two parties have simply switched and traded their platforms over the course of the last century.  The truth is that, even then, a noticeable fraction of the Democrats tilted liberal, and a noticeable fraction of the Republicans tilted conservative.  The real difference between the party politics today and then, is that on the national scene both major parties used to be dominated by political moderates; thereby, allowing for more variation in thought within the outlying margins of the party line on specific issues, while the main interests for both the Democratic and Republican parties remained on average centrist (with a handful of notable exceptions, of course).

When it came to conservative politics in the early-to-mid 20th Century, the underlying fact is (although there certainly existed conservative ideas, issues, and proponents) there still was no organized conservative identity among leading policymakers, or the average voter.  Moreover, due to the economic stability that followed the Second World War, public opinions on issues like taxation and the welfare state tended to be (what would now be called) left-of-center, with little overt suspicion being directed at the efficiency of the federal government to play a leading role in the socioeconomic sphere.  And the outward demeanor of both the Democratic and Republican parties reflected this general sentiment in the political realm.

As far as mainstream American culture was affected, there were no prominent, self-identified conservative voices, no talk of the inefficiency of big government regulators, and no serious calls for the transfer of federal power to smaller state authorities.  Strange as it sounds to present-day ears this was very much the reality of American politics circa 1960.  And might very well have remained the reality to this day, if Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater had not seen fit to make his views heard; views he was sure would resonate with Americans and change the course of US politics thereafter.  Although largely forgotten outside of political circles today, Barry Goldwater was the cementing force that built the backbone of a developing conservative movement that began in 1960 with his publication of Conscience of a Conservative, tested the waters with his failed 1964 bid for president, and came full circle with Ronald Reagan’s 1980 Presidential victory.

Building the Foundation for the Conservative Movement

Although post-World War II American culture was largely characterized by conservative social mores, throughout the 1940s and 1950s there existed no united or organized political movement that placed conservative interests as its guiding ideology.  That’s not to say there were no conservative voices in the era.  William F. Buckley, Jr. launched the bi-weekly right-wing magazine National Review in 1955, proclaiming in his missions statement, “It stands athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it.”[1]  And in 1957, Russell Kirk sought “to pursue a conservative policy for the sake of a liberal understanding”[2] with his Modern Age journal.  But even these were de facto reactive outliers attempting to counter the dominance of moderate (and, arguably, progressive) attitudes of the time.  Certainly, as far as a political presence is concerned, the conservative right’s influence was downright nonexistent on the national scene.

The 1950s were heavily marked by bipartisan cooperation under the leadership of President Dwight Eisenhower; where moderates from both the Democratic and Republican front worked to create an exceptional time of tranquility and political peace.[3]  It was a time of prosperity; where the calls of a disgruntled minority of individuals warning of social and economic doom were easily rebuked as delusional by the comfortable reality enjoyed by more middle-class , white Americans than ever before.  It was in this atmosphere of consumerism and comfort that Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater proclaimed the need to counter the rise of the welfare state and the economic collectivist practices of the federal government, and bring about a drastic change in the structured view of the human being and of society; or, in his words, “to put things in their proper place.”[4]

Goldwater begins his 1960 book, Conscience of a Conservative, by declaring his concern that conservatives are far too apologetic about their political convictions.[5]  He quotes Eisenhower’s stance of being, “conservative when it comes to economic problems but liberal when it comes to human problems,”[6] as evidence that conservatives are not properly represented in American politics by either of the two dominant parties.  This was a grim reality in Goldwater’s view because it was the conservatives who take account of the whole man (though he never really elaborate on this point in much detail), while the liberals tend to look only at the material side of man’s nature.[7]

Speaking in a time where there were more than enough material goods to go around (still talking primarily about the white, middle-class here), many Americans would have disagreed with Goldwater, arguing that the Government was doing more than enough to provide for its citizens whole being and needs.[8]  After all, 1960 was the dawning of the New Frontier, a symbolic rise (even if arguably a superficial one) for the liberal agenda, seeking to expand the ideals of the New Deal, organizing and regulating the socioeconomic aspects of American policy under the function of the federal government.  This was precisely the problem, Goldwater argued, “Every man, for his individual good and for the good of his society, is responsible for his development,”[9] not the government, which represents power in the hands of some men to control and regulate the lives of other men.[10]  For was it the other way around, Goldwater would argue, the outcome always results in a large national authority out of touch with the people, and removed from their control.

Goldwater cites as evidence the fact that the government takes six percent of most payrolls in Social Security taxes, “thus compelling millions of individuals to postpone until later years the enjoyment of wealth they might otherwise enjoy today.”[11]  Of course, the fact that so many people in the post-War decades were enjoying great wealth seemed to counter Goldwater’s position.  If there was ever a time to preach of a shortage in prosperity, to most observers, 1960 was not it (as Goldwater would later learn in his failed 1964 run for President).  Nonetheless, Goldwater saw his appeal as a return to the ideals of limited government, which he considered to be the core principle of the Constitution.  He saw himself as standing up for the laborer, whose earning potential is being jeopardized for the sake of a collectivist agenda, which he considered tantamount to socialism,[12] and inexcusable in the broader Cold War struggle against the Soviet Menace.[13]

But the fault for the abandonment of conservative values does not lie solely with the federal government.  Goldwater had no apprehension about declaring that we, too, share the burden of responsibility:

All too often we have put men in office who have suggested spending a little more on this, a little more than that, who have proposed a new welfare program, who have thought of another variety of security.  We have taken the bait, preferring to put off to another day the recapture of freedom and the restoration of our constitutional system.  We have gone the way of many a democratic society that lost its freedom by persuading itself that if the people rule, all is well.[14]

Goldwater’s overall message in Conscience of a Conservative is that the system is broken, we are contributing to it, and it’s time we reverse the trend for the sake of preserving our core political and ethical values.  In an era remembered for experiencing the zenith of liberal progression, and dominance of political moderates, Goldwater’s rallying cry for conservatism appeared far more radical by comparison.  His uncompromising stance that America is lacking something in the face of unparalleled abundance, served to alienate him from the electorate and moderate Republican base, yet planted the seed in the minds of a still infant right-wing movement that would champion his points in the decades to come.

Impact of the 1964 Election on Mobilizing the Conservative Base

In 1964, four years after publishing Conscience of a Conservative, Barry Goldwater would be trumpeted by a grassroots movement of conservatives, eager to oust out moderate influences from the Republican Party, and put one of their own in the White House.  The reaction to Goldwater’s rallying cry was a rise in independently (usually suburban) organized conservative groups, reflected in how the number of right-wing groups more than doubled from 1957-1965.[15]  Goldwater had struck a chord with a potentially large electorate, who saw him as “a symbol of the ambitious and growing power of the newly mobilized Right”[16], for whom he affectionately came to be known as “Mr. Conservative.”

Quite early on in the presidential primaries, both the National Review and Modern Age voiced heavily in favor of seeing Goldwater make a bid for the Presidency, and on February 16, 1963, a body of 55 conservatives organized the Draft Goldwater Committee.[17]  Thus, on September 16, 1964, Barry Goldwater stood at the stage of the Republican National Convention, as the Party’s Presidential Candidate, declaring, “The Good Lord raised this mighty Republic to be a home for the brave, and to flourish as the land of the free.  Not to stagnate in the swampland of collectivism, not to cringe before the bullying of communism,”[18] to the ovation of an enthusiastic group of conservative supporters.

The run-up to his nomination was a direct confrontation between the moderate wing of the Republican Party and the growing right-wing movement, emboldened through Goldwater’s conservative message.  Nelson Rockefeller, the liberal Republican governor of New York, was the primary candidate (next to Goldwater) who stood to gain the Republican Party’s nomination in 1964.  Rockefeller had criticized Goldwater in the past for being a captive of the radical-right, dependent only on rhetoric, and without any clear positions (claiming, among other things, that he did not know whether Goldwater was a segregationist or not).[19]  Goldwater, on the other hand, made it a rule to not respond in similar fashion to the attacks levied against him by Rockefeller, and maintained that their disagreements (and the general disagreements between the moderate and conservative wings of the Republican Party) lie strictly in their views towards the welfare state, “when [Rockefeller and I] argue, it’s in the relatively small…but…important fields.”[20]  Here, Goldwater’s tactic was docile, but calculative, in that he understood the need for a unified Republican Party to exist in order to secure a victory over the still strong Democratic base.

Nonetheless, the possibility of a Rockefeller victory did much to rally conservatives in the early 1960s, who foresaw a Rockefeller nomination as a return to Eisenhower bi-partisanship.[21]  Despite his appeal for party harmony, Goldwater must have been aware that his promotion as the voice of American conservatism more-or-less secured him a place in the 1964 election; thus, he could afford to play the role of the polite and loyal Republican, while urging for a reformation of the Party from within: “I realize that in the country there are people who accept me suspiciously; and some not at all.  Now, why is this true?  And I think this is important, not because it’s Barry Goldwater, but because I’m conservative and not ashamed to talk about it.”[22]

  • The Influence of Changing Demographic Trends

Goldwater’s campaign heavily restated the position he had made in Conscience of a Conservative.  His demand for Freedom for Labor,[23] where employers could operate without government interference did much to bring in support from self-employed businessmen and farmers, who were struggling to operate financially under extensive government regulations.  He also voiced his discontent about America’s involvement in distributing foreign aid, “Today your tax money is being used by the politicians in Washington to subsidized foreign aid—which in turn is robbing American workers of their livelihood.”[24]

Besides the humble conservative suburban family and simple employer who might have resented the lack of social values and welfare taxes respectively, Goldwater also had an appeal to the growing evangelist movement.  This was partly due to his stance that man’s spiritual self needs to be restored,[25] but even more so because of his hard-line, uncompromising take on eradicating the Soviet Union, which “among religious conservatives—who saw the Soviet Union as the ‘Anti-Christ’—this stance was the only form of principled anticommunism they would accept.”[26]  In contrast to his Republican counterpart, Nelson Rockefeller, Goldwater was truly seen as the first candidates of his kind; unmoving and unashamed to denounce all forms of government programs and assistance, and demand a revitalization of individual responsibility.  As one supporter put it, “It is time we have a fine candidate for president from the west for a change and not permit a few Republicans in the east to keep control of our party.”[27]

Another surprising outcome that was seen in the 1964 election was the start of a political shift in the South, which had since the time of Franklin Roosevelt been a Democratic stronghold.  The shift was partly caused by the migration of suburban Whites into the sunbelt, but more relatively it was a reaction to the Civil Rights Movement—and the liberal support of it—which had engendered bitterness in the South, and garnered growing support for Goldwater who had voted against the Civil Rights Act[28] (not so much on account of possessing any personal racist sentiments, but because he favored the state’s right to implement reform rather than the federal government).  Although, the South remained Democratic for the 1964 election, the Goldwater campaign had chiseled a crack in the region, and set the stage to where the GOP could compete and eventually overtake the electorate beneath the Mason-Dixon Line.

1964:  Harnessing Victory Out From a Loss

Goldwater’s opponent in the Presidential election, incumbent President Lyndon B. Johnson, for his part was determined to crush the other side with a decisive victory.  Having assumed office after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Johnson felt himself in need to demonstrate his ability to actually win the Presidency through the electorate rather than a default clause.  This he did; ultimately winning 61.05% of the popular vote and 90.3% of the electoral vote[29]. By any view of the margin, it was a landslide victory for Johnson, symbolizing that in 1964 the majority of Americans were indeed satisfied with the policies of the government, as well as the national programs being implemented by the moderate-to-left policymakers of both parties.

Despite the spectacular failure of the Goldwater campaign, all was not grim for the newly emerging conservative movement, which was experiencing its first true attempt at organization.  It had managed to get one of its own in the front lines of battle, against the will of a predominantly moderate wing of the Republican Party, and without possessing any true political clout yet.  Whereas a mere four years ago it possessed virtually no representation in Washington, the conservatives were now in a position to challenge the moderates within their own Party—and actually get their way.  Gleefully boasting Goldwater’s famous soundbite as their slogan: “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice!…Moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”[30]

The Decline of Liberalism and the Economic Woes of the 1970s

After 1966, Johnson’s Great Society was well on its way to the furnace, as the once dominant liberal factions began to fracture over domestic and foreign issues, allowing the rising conservative movement to steadfastly advance to political prominence.  Johnson himself was largely to blame for the decline of liberalism, as his push for war in Vietnam lagged on throughout the 1960s, and his refusal to raise taxes to support his extensive governmental programs destroyed the edge the Democrats had held since the 1960 election.[31]  Whereas in 1964 the election reflected the notion that the American people still had a substantial amount of faith in the government’s policies, the closing of the decade brought about a different picture; illustrated by protests, race riots, and growing distrust for Washington’s competence, as inflation rose and devastated the economy.[32]  The age of affluence, enjoyed by the baby boomer generation since the end of the Second World War, was dead and gone.

  • The Final Days of the Moderate Republicans

What followed in the 1970s was the once underrepresented conservative movement becoming an unrecognizable juggernaut of its former self, as it displaced the moderate factions of the GOP, and filled the void left by the decline of liberalism; drawing more and more appeal from an American public that was steadily becoming disenchanted with the promises of Johnson’s Great Society.  The final push needed to get Goldwater’s conservative movement going came from the actions of Richard Nixon, arguably the last elected moderate Republican to hold the Presidency.  Nixon capitalized on the bifurcation of once loyal Democratic factions to build a political coalition around elements of disaffected Democrats.[33]  Nixon’s strategy was to mobilize working class whites into a hopeful Republican majority, but many of his foreign policy undertakings, such as his détente position with the Soviet Union and his visit to communist China in 1972, caused conservatives to grow dissatisfied with his take on Republicanism right from the start of the 1970s.[34]

After Nixon’s resignation matters did not improve between the feuding factions of the Republican Party, as his successor Gerald Ford dealt the final blow to the moderates of the Republican Party when he nominated Nelson Rockefeller—Barry Goldwater’s liberal 1964 rival for the Party’s nomination—to be his vice-president.  The decision created uproar among conservatives who sought any and every means at their disposal to stop the Rockefeller nomination.  Still weary from the Nixon resignation, moderate Republicans had no strength to fight another battle, feeling themselves more and more outnumbered and subdued by their more conservative counterparts.[35]  What resulted was the formation of a New Right:

The New Right is not merely an election coalition concerned with winning elections and roll calls; it is the political expression of a relatively new social movement that regards itself as a depository of American values and as the exploited victim of an alliance between an entrenched elite and a ravenous proletariat.[36]

Whereas political moderation and liberalism had been the mainstay for the initial decades following the Second World War, in the mid-1970s, amid wide-scale inflation, economic downturns, and growing government security, a shift occurred within the white middle-class sector of American society, eager to dissolve the old liberal elites (which, in their opinion, had been floundering money on welfare programs) and replace it with its own sociopolitical interests; it was suburban radicalism.

Nevertheless, in 1973 the widely held believe was that Nixon’s resignation would seal the fate for the Republican Party,[37] and the 1976 presidential election victory for Democrat Jimmy Carter certainly seemed to indicate a setback for the GOP.  In reality, 1976 was the shining year for the conservative movement, as it brought to prominence the leading figure it had been waiting for since Barry Goldwater:  Ronald Reagan.

Reagan had been a strong supporter of Goldwater’s 1964 election campaign, and two years later had made his own entry into politics by becoming Governor of California, in 1966.  He had spent the great bulk of the 1970s criticizing Nixon’s détente strategy,[38] and convinced of Ford’s disastrous economic policies (which consisted of having employees wear WIN, “Whip Inflation Now”, buttons that, unsurprisingly, did not do much to end inflation),[39] he challenged the incumbent for the ’76 GOP nomination:

This collectivist, centralized approach, whatever name or party label it wears, has created our economic problems.  By taxing and consuming an ever-greater share of the national wealth, it has imposed an intolerable burden of taxation of American citizens.  By spending above and beyond even this level of taxation, it has created the horrendous inflation of the past decade.[40]

It was a statement of bold uncompromising leadership, of the Goldwater variant, but more so than that it was an answer.  Whether it was a good answer or merely vague oratory was trivial to the people who identified with it, as it was more than what Americans had been getting for nearly a decade.

Unfortunately for Reagan, after making several headways in the primaries his campaign ran into a roadblock as it became short of money and short of the spark necessary to challenge a sitting president.[41]  But, just as in 1964, the seed was planted.  Unlike then, this time around conservatives were not starting from nil, but had overtaken several key political positions, created enough think tanks, employed grassroots issues to great effect, raised money, and capitalized on internal fracturing of the liberal coalition,[42] that when it came time for the 1980 election they were ready for victory.  Carter, for his part, would be plagued with problems all throughout his one-term presidency; from high inflation (hovering around 12% in 1979)[43] to prolonged hostage negotiations with Iran[44] to high energy/gas prices,[45] everything fell into place for Reagan to make a comeback in 1980.

The Political Ascent of Ronald Reagan

Well armed to take the White House this time around, Reagan mobilized the conservative base (which had by 1980 taken control of the Republican Party) under his heartwarming slogan, “Let’s Make America Great Again.”[46]  Unlike Goldwater, Reagan approached the American public with optimism of American greatness and perseverance, and set out a simple message:  The United States is, and can continue to be, the dominant nation in the world in economic, geopolitical, and moral terms without citizen sacrifice, if it is not held back by the dead hand of government.[47]

Reagan’s political ads played up his success as California Governor, championing him as the greatest tax reformer in history who inherited and fixed a state that was near bankruptcy.[48]  Unlike Goldwater, Reagan understood the importance of appealing to the public’s self-worth.  Whereas Goldwater had no reservations about placing blame on the American public for its willingness to go along with government spending on welfare programs, Reagan discarded the dark mood by calling on the great values of a bygone era in America’s noble past (though few bothered to ask him to identify and provide the exact details of this vague Golden Age he kept referring to) that needs to be rediscovered if the country was to solve the domestic and foreign ills afflicting it.[49]  Reagan also resonated with the electorate through his good-natured sense of humor.  A famous example being when asked by reporter Sam Donaldson of ABC News, about whether or not he himself accepts any of the responsibility he seems to place on past administrations and politicians, he wittily retorted with, “Yes, because for many years I was a Democrat.”[50]

Reagan used the points made in Conscience of a Conservative and applied them as solutions for contemporary problems.  For instance, the need to reduce regulation of businesses to stimulate the economy was an idea promoted by Goldwater, but gained little enthusiasm during the time of great middle-class affluence in the early 1960s.  Another major theme he took from Goldwater’s book is the call for a decisive victory in the Cold War against the Soviet Union:  “Today, we are not equal to the Soviet Union, and that is why they were able to cross into Afghanistan / we have betrayed our friends and appeased our enemies…There will be more Taiwans and more Vietnams.”[51]  This was blatant hyperbole on Reagan’s part, as the US had a well forged industrial military complex, rival to—if not far superior of—the Soviet Union.[52]  Nonetheless, the rhetoric worked.

It worked because for the first time conservatives were heavily represented in both the regional and national platform, but also because of Reagan himself, who “embraced an unrealistic worldview formed in the Hollywood of bold heroes and dastardly villains during the prewar and early postwar years when patriotism and fantasy were unashamedly blended together.”[53]  And what America needed more than anything was for someone to plainly tell them who the bad guys were, something Reagan had little trouble doing.

  • The 1980 Election: The Conservative Movement Comes Full Circle

In 1980, Ronald Reagan defeated incumbent Jimmy Carter in a landslide victory, winning 489 electoral votes compared to Carter’s 49,[54] becoming the first president of the conservative movement to be elected to the Presidency. Despite having sheared Goldwater’s original message of its doom and gloom, during his inaugural address Reagan firmly stated, “In this present crisis, government is not the answer to our problem, government is the problem,” drawing a clear parallel to the arguments made by Goldwater two decades earlier.

The warning Conscience of a Conservative sounded in 1960 against the ills of consumerism and government collectivism, which during a time of prosperity was seen as pessimistic and out of touch with reality, suddenly began to find an audience among the American people in the late-1960s, leading to the election of prominent conservatives in favor of the old liberal guard.  It was in this scenario that Ronald Reagan, an enthusiastic supporter of the Goldwater campaign, emerged on the national scene.  Utilizing Goldwater’s political principles and modifying his message to resonate with a disgruntled public eager for change.  He seized the opportunity to establish a strong base in the 1970s and, in 1980, captured the White House for the movement, setting the country on a course of conservative policy that would be defined in his personal image, but never straying far in tone from Goldwater’s model first expressed within the prose of Conscience of a Conservative.

Afterword

The purpose of this post is to chronicle the founding and rise of the conservative movement from a small grassroots campaign surrounding the person of Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater, to its modern incarnation as the defining voice of the Republican Party, and a major political force on the U.S. political scene as a whole.  Yet, it would be incomplete of a narrative were this text not to have a word of mention on the development of conservatism since its ascension to the mainstream of American political culture.

For his part as the founder of the conservative movement, Barry Goldwater often experienced a gradual level of contention with the more ardent factions rising to prominence within conservatism.  Despite having insisted in his groundbreaking book that the political establishment is not doing enough to nurture the spiritual needs of the nation, by the 1980s Goldwater was openly opposing the growing influence of the Religious Right on the Republican Party; vehemently declaring:

I’m frankly sick and tired of the political preachers across this country telling me as a citizen that if I want to be a moral person, I must believe in “A,” “B,” “C” and “D.” Just who do they think they are? And from where do they presume to claim the right to dictate their moral beliefs to me?
And I am even more angry as a legislator who must endure the threats of every religious group who thinks it has some God-granted right to control my vote on every roll call in the Senate. I am warning them today: I will fight them every step of the way if they try to dictate their moral convictions to all Americans in the name of “conservatism.”[55]

He opposed anti-gay discrimination in American society, and also called for the open inclusion of gay individuals into all branches of the American military; remarking, “quit discriminating against people just because they’re gay. You don’t have to agree with it, but they have a constitutional right to be gay,”[56] and “why the hell shouldn’t they serve? They’re American citizens. As long as they’re not doing things that are harmful to anyone else,”[57] respectively.  Most surprising of all for a social conservative, Goldwater considered a woman’s right to an abortion to be strictly a personal choice, which ought to remain free of any government intervention.[58]

For these reasons (and a few others), Barry Goldwater started to look more like an outcast to the movement he helped launch; something he himself made reference to in his final years, reportedly telling his colleague Bob Dole just two years prior to his death “We’re the new liberals of the Republican party. Can you imagine that?”[59]  Considering the fact that Goldwater maintained the same basic political positions all through his life and career, this supposed “break” from what was rapidly becoming the conservative mainstream, illustrates the ideological growth and transition the conservative movement underwent from the 1980 election onward.

Goldwater’s more politically successful protégé, Ronald Reagan, has become the hallmark of the conservative politician for today’s right-wing policymakers and voters.  Although it would be accurate to point out that Reagan did not really decrease the scope of the federal government, or lower taxes to a significant level (he actually raised them throughout his Presidency),[60] the fact still remains that the popular image of Ronald Reagan (even if it’s only based on superficial idealism) stands as the ideal of conservative politics today.

Reagan’s active career in U.S. politics came to an end not long after leaving office, when he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in early 1994.  Thus, his personal opinion of what he may have thought of the continued development of the movement his person has come to define is impossible to tell.  In a sense, it doesn’t even matter, because it the legacy of the man that has been canonized to political sainthood by its admirers, rendering any nuanced details about the man himself essentially irrelevant in the greater narrative.  It is this quasi-sainted legacy that has found itself referenced in the policies, adorations, and campaigns of just about every conservative candidate and public commentator that has appeared on the national scene of American political discourse since the Great Communicator left office.

There is, however, a noticeable change in the evolution of the conservative movement since its inception in 1960, and its political validation in 1980.  Whereas in its infancy and developmental years the movement largely tended to center around leadership figures like Goldwater and Reagan, today the conservative movement (comfortably nested in the mainstream of the Republican Party) is much less concentrated on any individual politician to carry the message home to the greater public; like most political movement that gain mainstream status, conservatism has become more ideology, than personality driven.  Furthermore, the message has shifted from calling for a reformation of America’s sociopolitical reality to a preservation of it (most likely due to the fact that conservative thought is today an indisputable part of the political order, instead of a fringe outlier).

No doubt conservative thought has changed and adapted over the years (for better or worse, depending on whose opinion is consulted on the matter).  But, given the backdrop of the ongoing 21st Century, and the continued move away from a regional to a global perspective among the coming generation of voters and policymakers, the future of conservatism in America is unlikely to be shaped by any rising figure, à la Goldwater or Reagan.  Rather, its representation and relevance will rest with the broader scope of the people and groups who choose to identify with the political message in the current and coming decade(s).  In addition, to a number of other potential circumstances and events, the sociopolitical and economic details of which are impossible to foreshadow in advance.

The very election of President Donald Trump may be a prime example of this, given that he embodies an executive whose own personal character and behaviors are of little importance to his conservative, right-wing supporters, whose steadfast allegiance appears to be solely based on President Trump’s correct recitation of standard conservative talking points, spruced up by the man’s aggressive dosage of vilification against the conservative movement’s standard political targets.  Hence, whatever failings the current Republican President has that fall short of the conservative ideal are deemed irrelevant by conservative leaders and voters on the trade-off of what they hope he will do to propagate conservative ideology and dominance in the political scene.

Only time will tell whether such developments lead the conservative movement in this country to maintain its continued public and political relevance, or if it will result in its eventual demise as a political force.

 

Footnotes

[1] William F. Buckley, Jr., “Our Mission Statement,” in National Review, November 19, 1955.

[2] Russell Kirk, “Apology for a New Review,” Modern Age, Summer 1957.

[3] Walter Williams, Reaganism and the Death of Representative Democracy (Washington D.C.:  Georgetown University Press, 2003), 82.

[4] Barry Goldwater, Conscience of a Conservative (New York:  Manor Books, 1974), 10.

[5] Goldwater, Conscience of a Conservative, 9.

[6] Goldwater, Conscience of a Conservative, 9.

[7] Goldwater, Conscience of a Conservative, 10.

[8] “Trust the Federal Government 1958-2004,” The ANES Guide to Public Opinion and Electoral Behavior, http://www.electionstudies.org/nesguide/toptable/tab5a_1.htm.

[9] Goldwater, Conscience of a Conservative, 12.

[10] Goldwater, Conscience of a Conservative, 17.

[11] Goldwater, Conscience of a Conservative, 21.

[12] Goldwater, Conscience of a Conservative, 70.

[13] Goldwater, Conscience of a Conservative, 88.

[14] Goldwater, Conscience of a Conservative, 21-22.

[15] Lisa McGirr, Suburban Warriors, (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2001), 113.

[16] McGirr, Suburban Warrior, 122.

[17] McGirr, Suburban Warrior, 123.

[18] Barry Goldwater’s Acceptance Speech at the RNC, San Francisco, July 1964.

[19] Jack Bell, Mr. Conservative (New York: MacFadden Books, 1964), 178-179.

[20] Bell, Mr. Conservative, 181.

[21] Gregory L. Schneider, The Conservative Century: From Reaction to Revolution, (New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2009), 106.

[22] Bell, Mr. Conservative, 173.

[23] Goldwater, Conscience of a Conservative, 45.

[24] Stephen L. Cooper, A Rhetorical Analysis of Invention in Selected Speeches by Senator Barry Goldwater in the Pre-Convention Campaign of 1964, (Thesis: The University of Texas, 1965), 106.

[25] Goldwater, Conscience of a Conservative, 10.

[26] McGirr, Suburban Warrior, 132.

[27] McGirr, Suburban Warrior, 132.

[28] Schneider, The Conservative Century, 170.

[29] 1964 Election Presidential General Election Results, 2005, http://www.uselectionatlas.org/RESULTS/national.php?f=0&year=1964.

[30] McGirr, Suburban Warrior, 140.

[31] Schneider, The Conservative Century, 120.

[32] Schneider, The Conservative Century, 120.

[33] Schneider, The Conservative Century, 126.

[34] Schneider, The Conservative Century, 127.

[35] Schneider, The Conservative Century, 127.

[36] Schneider, The Conservative Century, 128.

[37] William Safire, “G.O.P., foot-soldiers, and guilt,” Chicago Tribune, November 21, 1973, sec. 1.

[38] Schneider, The Conservative Century, 129.

[39] Schneider, The Conservative Century, 132.

[40] Craig Shirley, Reagan’s Revolution: The Untold Story of the Campaign that Started It All, (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2005), 80-81.

[41] Schneider, The Conservative Century, 132.

[42] Schneider, The Conservative Century, 155.

[43] Jerry Bishop, “Age of Anxiety Stress on American Life is increasingly Blamed for Economic Turmoil,” New York Times, April 16, 1979, sec. Business and Finance, D14.

[44] Adam Clymer, “GOP May gain Nationally; harder for Carter and O’Neill,” New York Times, November 6, 1978, front page.

[45] Schneider, The Conservative Century, 147.

[46] Elizabeth Drew, Portrait of an Election: The 1980 Presidential Campaign, (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1981), 113.

[47] Williams, Reaganism, 54.

[48] Ronald Reagan Campaign Commercial 1980

[49] Williams, Reaganism, 56.

[50] Press Conference, September 1982.

[51] Drew, Portrait of an Election, 115.

[52] McGirr, Suburban Warriors, 26.

[53] Walter, Reaganism, 56.

[54] James Whitson, President Elect, 1980, http://www.presidentelect.org/e1980.html

[55] Speech in the U.S. Senate, 16 September 1981.

[56] Lloyd Grove, “Barry Goldwater’s Turn Left,” Washington Post, July 28, 1994, sec. C01.

[57] Ibid.

[58] Robert A. Goldberg, Barry Goldwater (Yale University Press, 1995), 331.

[59]Michael Murphy, “Conservative Pioneer Became an Outcast,” The Arizona Republic, May 31, 1998, http://www.azcentral.com/specials/special25/articles/0531goldwater2.html.

[60] Catherine Rampell, “Tax Pledge May Scuttle a Deal or Deficit,” The New York Times, November 18, 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/19/business/economy/tax-pledge-may-scuttle-deal-to-cut-deficit-economic-memo.html.

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On Arguing Economics

Just to get the main point across allow me to start this post by simply stating, there exists no such thing as the economic model from which we can impartially derive any sort of self-evident conclusions, policies, or values.  By which I mean that there is no purity test to determine which economic model is somehow more objectively “valid” than another.

For example, take two modern economic models that stand on completely opposite sides of the spectrum:  Marxist communism and laissez-faire freemarket capitalism.  [I’m aware that different people have over the decades attempted to give varying definitions within both these models, thereby making an overreaching analysis on my part impossible; hence, I will primarily be addressing elements that are agreed upon components by almost all professional voices in the aforementioned fields.]  Putting aside what Marxism has come to mean to the layperson through the various revolutionary forces that carried its banner in the 20th Century, at the core of the economic model is the proposition that societal development is best understood as the process by which humans–as a collective–produce the necessities of life (often referred to as historical materialism among Marxist scholars).  While the nuances of the whole thing can get very convoluted from here on out, the basic framework Marx was working off of, within this scope of historical materialism, is that human society is better served if the workers who physically produce the products necessary for the life of all of society retained economic control over said products.  From this he further postulated the emergence of a commune like market of commerce, in which production is owned and distributed equally among all sectors of society (i.e. communism), as a historical inevitability that human development is progressively heading towards in the modern era.

The theoretical problem of course in the Marxist economic model is that the validity of historical materialism is dependent on the notion that we accept the validity of historical materialism; this is otherwise known as a tautology (or circular argument), and is fallacious by definition.  The practical part being ignored in this model is that the perception of human progress as developing towards one specific sociocultural norm or another is only evident in hindsight, and any economic/social course that ends up developing can in retrospect be rationalized in terms of its preceding events; this is true even for identical situations that yield contrasting outcomes.  Not to mention, if we are to approach economics from a historical perspective (as Marxism claims) a decent case could be made that human nature (even in modern, industrial time) seems to be more conducive on creating hierarchical social structures, rather than collective communes.

Before any freemarket advocates who might be reading this start handing out congratulatory “Likes” to my dismantling of Marxism (I’m looking your way libertarians and self-styled classical liberals), it needs to be said that the reasoning underlying laissez-faire freemarket capitalism fares no better than its socialist antipodes.  The premise that economic sectors perform at their best when market forces are allowed to compete unmolested by non-market factors (like the government), rests on the idea that little to no regulation will in itself create an environment in which all the various forces that make up the marketplace will have to compete against one another; theoretically leaving the final word on what products/serves are to succeed in the freemarket to the consumers (i.e. all of us).  In theory, this sounds great; in practice, just like when it comes to Marxist economics, historical data casts a few doubts on the extent to which laissez-faire capitalism holds up.

First, the proposition that the freemarket is something akin to a self-sustaining, self-correcting organism ignores the fact that the freemarket is–above all else–entirely man-made.  The freemarket, as an economic plane in which human beings exchange commerce, is not a naturally occurring phenomenon, anymore than a locomotive is a naturally occurring phenomenon; we purposefully invented it to serve our economic needs.  Thus, to argue a “hands-off” approach to an entity whose very existence is owed to primarily “hands-on” interests, can be argued to be more than a bit narrow-sighted.

More than that, when we look at the era in which laissez-faire freemarket capitalism thrived unmitigated in the U.S.–the late 19th and early 20th Centuries–instead of seeing a marketplace of robust competition, driven by the needs of the consumer, we see a gradual concentration of market power in the hands of a handful of conglomerates.  The reason being that, economically speaking, the initial surge in competition experienced in a newly emerging market, left to its own devices, can in time have a minority of businesses surpass their competition to the point that they are virtually the only option on the market left for the consumer.  In this historical scenario, the presence of a laissez-faire freemarket did not create a healthy competitive environment, nor did it have any means to correct the centralization of commerce powers in the hands of the few over the many.  (In fact, in this case the government actually did have to step in and implement anti-monopoly laws to try and introduce competition back into the market.)  Therefore, the unanswered (or unanswerable) question concerning laissez-faire capitalism is the issue of–given the proposition that faceless, easily corrupted government agencies cannot be trusted enough to interfere with the business operations of the freemarket–why faceless, easily corruptible conglomerates ought to, for some reason, be seen as more trustworthy in this regard?

Although this much should be obvious by now, the point of this post isn’t to convince anyone to accept the superiority of one economic theory over another.  Even as far as the two (admittedly more extreme) examples cited above, I’m sure that given more time and interest we all could go back and forth listing all the sincere benefits and advantages of both Marxism and laissez-faire capitalism.  Acknowledging this, my greater point about economics remains the same, which is that while the historical study of economics can produce viable, scientifically tangible, insights about some aspect of human societies (primarily developments in the commercial and fiscal sectors), proposed economic theories themselves lack this level of scientific rigor.  All economic theories (be it Marxism, laissez-faire capitalism, or anything in between) by necessity begin with an assumed conclusion (“human society is naturally moving towards a collective communal state”, “the freemarket operates best when left unregulated”, etc. etc. etc.) and then go on to selectively interpret all socioeconomic developments through the lens of whatever situation is more conducive to the promotion of the favored economic conditions already accepted by the economic theory in question.

From this it certainly does not logically follow that all economic theories are equal in their outcome (whether for good or bad).  Or that any one economic theory couldn’t be claimed as more preferable for any specific society (I think most reading this can agree that feudalism would generally be a horrible model for modern society).  What it does mean is that there is no such thing as an all-encompassing, omniscient economic system deduced through unfiltered objective reality, as opposed to individual, subjective human preferences.  In light of that, I think perhaps talks of economics from opposing viewpoints is due a bit more humility and reservation about one’s own pet theories, than what is currently on display in public discourse.

Just some food for thought, savor it as you wish.

Straining the Plank: Why Occupy Wall Street Failed

The Tea Party movement began as a set of right-wing protests following the election of President Obama in 2008.  It’s original intent was to institute financial reform, by way of reducing government spending and lower taxes across the board.  Subsequently, it began to add more and more elements from the conservative end of US political spectrum, largely by way of influence from the evangelical Christian right, to the point that the two political movements became synonymous with each other by its latest incarnation (thereby alienating the strong libertarian and moderate capitalist wings that may have been inclined to support its original message).

Similarly, Occupy Wall Street was a serious of protests that launched in late 2011, whose stated goal was to address the economic inequalities brought about by crony capitalism, and called for system-wide economic reforms to be instituted within financial and political sectors.  (That was the focus of the movement from the beginning, and it was articulated very clearly for those who were willing to listen; despite several media outlets repeatedly claiming confusion on what the goals of the Occupy protesters were from the time of the first sit-ins in Zuccotti Park).

What made Occupy Wall Street (OWS) unique was the fact that it wasn’t organized like a rally (like most protests of this nature usually are, including the aforementioned Tea Part protests), but a sit-in, with tents and separate “tent-communities” being set up for what most people there expected to be an indefinite stay.  The protests lasted for months (some would count it in years) after the initial sit-in in NYC, and it’s even been argued that fragments of it are still going on, and have expanding into several cities and countries around the world.  The message is slightly different from region to region, but the main points (it is argued) remain the same.   Yet, I would argue that from very early on a vital shift in focus (or loss in focus, as I would put it) doomed the movement before it really gained real traction.

Like the Tea Party rally, early in its development OWS started adopting several social issues to its already ambitious platform.  And like the case with the Tea Party, I personally think this was an unwise move on the part of whoever makes up the ranks of the main organizers for these things (yes, there is always a core group of organizers in these things, otherwise nothing would ever happen).

The central theme of the current financial system needing serious reform is a cogent message to the majority of people who might potentially support your activism.  People will disagree about the methods and phrasings, but the basic desire for change will be heard.  The problem is that as any movement gains a following, social interests groups will naturally gravitate to them in hopes of bringing attention to their own concerns and issues.  Though seemingly a benign move (and I have no reason that it is in any way motivated by malice), it can have the inverse effect of drowning out the original message, which attracted the majority of attention to begin with, spiraling the whole discussion into irrelevancies that only appeal to a select minority of participants.

It’s what I call straining the plank, where too many issues are put on one surface, causing it to eventually bend and break from over-extension.  This is not to say that the social interests advocated for aren’t worth promoting, individually.  It does mean that if you allow every seemingly worthwhile concern to be heard under one tent, at the same time, almost no one’s interests are going to be addressed due to the fact that everyone sees her or his pet-issue as the rightful focus of the discussion.

By far the most valid criticism that can be targeted at my occasional posts on sociopolitical matters is that, while I spend a great deal of time writing polemics against other people’s ideas and reasoning, I offer little to nothing as an alternative to the (in my opinion) faulty thinking I’m so fond of ranting against.  Fair enough, and allow me to break this annoying cycle today.

If I was a more politically active person (the sort that starts and supports social movements; in other words, someone completely unlike me), and I was setting out to reform the global financial system, I would focus on reforming the global financial system.  If, for example, in the midst of my efforts I was approached by an environmentalist group, or a social liberties group, or any other sociopolitical activist group whose affiliation with financial reform is only tangential at best, looking to incorporate their message in with mine, I would greet them, give them the number to an already established organization that caters to their specific interests, wish them well, and telling them that if their group’s interests ever directly correlate with financial reform, to give me a call.  But not before.

In other words:  Do the environmentalists wish to promote their cause?  Great, give them the number to Greenpeace, and continue to focus on financial reform.  Gay rights, you say?  Absolutely, I believe GLAAD would be more than happy to have your time and contributions, while we continue to focus on financial reform.  Anti-war?  Women’s reproductive rights?  Separation of Church and State?  All wonderful and worthwhile causes, all very important, but if our focus is financial reform, then our focus is financial reform, and it is the cause we have decided to promote at the moment.  Period.

This might sounds heartless and elitist to many, but I see it as being focused on the task that’s been set out.  Strength in numbers only works when everyone pulls in the same direction.  100 different hands, placing pressure in 100 different directions just creates stagnation, and deforms the shape of the original platform.  The problem with wanting to do or reform everything in one go, under one banner, is that you will undoubtedly end up doing and reforming nothing of long-term value (biting of more than you can chew in one sitting, so to speak).  Resulting in the possibility of finding yourself part of a movement that either dead on arrival, or–worse yet–whose stated goal(s) has become unrecognizable to you.

What Occupy Wall Street failed to understand is that there is nothing compromising about picking one’s battles, one at a time, and not being distracted by 50 other equally pleasing objectives.  In fact, if real political change is your goal, I would submit that it’s pretty much a necessity of the game.