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April 18, 2014 2:54 PM “The Spirit of Goldwaterism”

By Ed Kilgore

For all the hagiography directed at Ronald Reagan, I’ve always thought the real idol for the newly radicalized conservative movement of the Obama Era was Barry Goldwater, the original “constitutional conservative.” Mike Gerson agrees, and it worries him:

The 50th anniversary of the passage of the Civil Rights Act is also the 50th anniversary of the presumptive Republican nominee for president, Barry Goldwater, voting against the Civil Rights Act.
Goldwater, his defenders effectively argue, was not a racist, only an ideologue. True enough. He had been a founding member of the Arizona NAACP. He helped integrate the Phoenix public schools. His problems with the Civil Rights Act were theoretical and libertarian — an objection to the extension of federal power over private enterprise.
But some political choices are symbolic and more than symbolic. Following Goldwater’s vote, a young Colin Powell went out to his car and affixed a Lyndon Johnson bumper sticker. “While not himself a racist,” concluded Martin Luther King Jr., “Mr. Goldwater articulates a philosophy which gives aid and comfort to the racists.” Jackie Robinson, after attending the GOP convention in 1964, helped launch Republicans for Johnson.
In the 1960 election, Richard Nixon had won 32 percent of the African American vote. Goldwater got 6 percent in 1964. No Republican presidential candidate since has broken 15 percent….
Announcing his candidacy, Goldwater had pledged: “I will not change my beliefs to win votes. I will offer a choice, not an echo.” The choice was generally libertarian and Jeffersonian (in its resistance to federal power). The echo consisted of Republicans who had accommodated federal power on the welfare state, civil rights and much else. The energy of Goldwater’s movement was directed against compromised members of the GOP — the RINOs of their time. According to Goldwater, President Dwight Eisenhower had embraced “the siren song of socialism.” Goldwaterites accused the Republican establishment of “me-tooism” and advocating a “dime store New Deal….”

Sound familiar? No question about it.

The political events of half a century ago have current echoes. The spirit of Goldwaterism is abroad among tea party activists. Their ideological ideal is often libertarian and Jeffersonian. A few — Rand Paul (R-Ky.) briefly during his Senate campaign; Rep. Ted Yoho (R-Fla.) at a recent town hall — balk at accepting the constitutionality of the Civil Rights Act. More generally, they believe that the GOP’s political recovery must begin with the defeat of compromised GOP elites. Never mind that those elites, by any historical standard, are conservative….

But it gets worse:

The problem comes in viewing Goldwater as an example rather than as a warning. Conservatives sometimes describe his defeat as a necessary, preliminary step — a clarifying and purifying struggle — in the Reagan revolution. In fact, it was an electoral catastrophe that awarded Lyndon Johnson a powerful legislative majority, increased the liberal ambitions of the Great Society and caused massive distrust of the GOP among poor and ethnic voters. The party has never quite recovered. Ronald Reagan was, in part, elected president by undoing Goldwater’s impression of radicalism. And all of Reagan’s domestic achievements involved cleaning up just a small portion of the excesses that Goldwater’s epic loss enabled.

That’s exactly right, in both respects. The continuities between the Goldwater and Reagan campaigns—and especially the 1976 Reagan campaign that viewed itself as a purge of RINO Gerald Ford—are impossible to ignore, up to and including the signature “Viva/Ole” call and response of the shock troops in both. From within, Reagan’s ascent looked like a consummation of the 1964 crusade, not a correction. But had that impression been more general in the electorate, Reagan would likely not have won, even with all the advantages he had in 1980.

But the “spirit of Goldwaterism” is indeed alive in the activist “base” of the GOP. And 50 years after the original, it’s no more likely that “constitutional conservatism” is the basis for any real popular majority, and its advocates’ disdain for “popular majorities” supplies the final proof.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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