Pining for Barry: Nostalgia for a disaster

The Washington PostApril 20, 2014 

The 50th anniversary of 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.

There is much to be written on the dangers and diminishing utility of a Republican electoral strategy based on maximizing the turnout of white voters. My concern here is with the tone and approach of the Goldwater movement. The candidate and his supporters regarded his vote against the Civil Rights Act not primarily as a political maneuver but as the evidence of ideological courage in the cause of liberty.

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.

Goldwater fully inhabited his stereotype. Brown v. Board of Education and associated decisions were “abuses of power by the court.” The Tennessee Valley Authority should be sold “for a dollar” (which did not help much with Goldwater’s electoral appeal in Tennessee or Kentucky). “We ought to forget the big cities,” Goldwater told the Georgia GOP convention. “We can’t outpromise the Democrats.”

When Goldwater eventually, inevitably and massively lost, it is instructive where he placed the blame. “This year, obviously,” Goldwater reflected, “millions of Republicans decided socialism and central-decided socialized government is all right.”

Obviously. Obviously it had nothing to do with a candidate who declared intraparty war, advocated “extremism in the defense of liberty” and opposed the landmark civil rights achievement of the 20th century.

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.

The problem comes in viewing Goldwater as an example rather than 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 for 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 to occur.

The Republican Party needs internal debate and populist energy. But it is not helped by nostalgia for a disaster.

Michael Gerson, a columnist for the Washington Post, can be reached at michaelgerson@washpost.com.

The Olympian is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service