Fifty years after Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential defeat, in some respects little has changed. Liberals and establishment GOPers alike caution primary voters to do the sensible thing and run screaming from any candidate to the right of Mitt Romney. But as our own Steven F. Hayward—Ronald Reagan Distinguished Visiting Professor at Pepperdine University’s Graduate School of Public Policy—argues in the new Summer edition of the Claremont Review of Books (subscribe here), it is Goldwater and the Tea Partiers who have conservatism—and the very purpose of the Republican Party—right, precisely because of their “extremism.”
In his essay “Extremism and Moderation,” Steve revisits the birth of the modern conservative movement in the early 1960s, when Goldwater’s Conscience of a Conservative (ghostwritten by L. Brent Bozell, Jr. — “I read the book,” commented Goldwater; “I even agreed with parts of it”) shocked the political establishment—and its publishers—by selling 3.5 million copies in four years and landing on the New York Times bestseller list.
Steve finds Conscience remarkably fresh and relevant. “Conscience of a Conservative holds up so well across half a century-—its argument so fresh and direct—-that with only minor changes it could serve today as a Tea Party manifesto.” In Conscience Goldwater set forth arguments against “Leviathan, a vast national authority out of touch with the people, and out of their control” and in favor of smaller, responsive government:
I have little interest in streamlining government or in making it more efficient, for I mean to reduce its size. I do not undertake to promote welfare, for I propose to extend freedom. My aim is not to pass laws, but to repeal them. It is not to inaugurate new programs, but to cancel old ones that do violence to the Constitution, or that have failed in their purpose, or that impose on the people an unwarranted financial burden. I will not attempt to discover whether legislation is ‘needed’ before I have first determined whether it is constitutionally permissible. And if I should later be attacked for neglecting my constituents’ ‘interests,’ I shall reply that I was informed their main interest is liberty and that in that cause I am doing the very best I can.
The ravings of a lunatic!
Steve shows how Goldwater’s acceptance speech is fully consistent with his arguments in Conscience. Oft-cited but little studied, the speech is commonly reduced to two powerful lines: “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.” The lines (written by Claremont Institute distinguished fellow Harry V. Jaffa), defensible on their own, overshadow Goldwater’s larger point, linking the “extremism” of early the Republican Party’s opposition to slavery with its continued necessity in the fight against injustice: “Goldwater was onto something important—that successfully opposing the advance of the administrative state would require an ‘extreme’ disposition.”
Goldwater’s “extremism” line remains for many a subject of head-shaking ridicule: how could the Republicans have nominated such an man to lead their party? But the seemingly barren seeds of the conservative triumph in the primaries would, in time, bear fruit: “The bookend of the Goldwater extremism address was Ronald Reagan’s ‘Time for Choosing’ speech in the closing hours of the doomed campaign, which propelled Reagan’s subsequent political career. Without Goldwater, Reagan’s presidency might never have happened.” Indeed, Steve writes, Reagan’s greatest achievements themselves were the result of a refusal to compromise: “The later record of the Reagan years showed that most conservative policy victories owed to a spirit of ‘extremism’…rather than a spirit of accommodation and compromise.”
And yet after Reagan…we continue to hear liberal warnings against conservative candidates and policies. Steve’s 50-year retrospective of the 1964 campaign makes the case both for Goldwater’s success and for the comparative failure of moderate standard-bearers: “Minnesota Senator Gene McCarthy once remarked that the chief purpose of moderate Republicans is to shoot the wounded after the battle is over. Absent Goldwater, it’s doubtful Republicans would have ventured near the battlefield at all. The rhetoric may have been imprudent, but the new fighting spirit it inculcated to the next generation of Republicans was essential. The historical record argues moderation in the pursuit of electoral viability is no virtue. Just ask Bob Dole, John McCain, and Mitt Romney.”
Goldwater commented on the crushing outcome of the 1964 election: “If I had to go by the media reports alone, I’d have voted against the sonofabitch, too.” Which makes a point that has become something like an eternal verity.
We have much to learn from the history on offer in Steve’s penetrating essay. I have two takeaways relevant to the struggles of the day. To borrow the formulation of Richard Nixon’s confession of Keynesianism: We (Republicans) are all Goldwaterites now. And in its war on Goldwaterites (i.e., advocates of liberty and limited government), the left and its media adjunct are playing from a very old playbook.