Neither Goldwater nor Reagan Would Recognize The Modern GOP

I’ve often pointed out that, while some conservatives claim the conservative movement began with Barry Goldwater, modern conservatism has become a philosophy quite different from Goldwater’s beliefs. Goldwater was so distressed by the direction that conservatism was going, especially with the increasing influence of the religious right, that in his later years he even referred to himself as a liberal. I have no doubt that if he was still alive Goldwater would have actively backed Barack Obama over John McCain, especially after the addition of Sarah Palin to the ticket, as did two of his granddaughters. With the GOP becoming a southern regional party dominated recently by George Bush and now by politicians from the religious right such as Mike Huckabee and Sarah Palin, the party has also moved away from the views of Ronald Reagan.

Ronald Reagan’s name is repeated ad nauseum at most Republican gatherings primarily because the GOP does not have any old leaders to brag about. Nixon was a crook. Bush was an incompetent who undermined our national security and trampled on the Constitution. Previous Republican presidents such as Dwight Eisenhower, Teddy Roosevelt, and Abe Lincoln would all be Democrats today, and the conservatives would also drive out Gerald Ford.

Many modern Republicans cling to Ronald Reagan’s name and pretend his views were comparable to their own. Many of those who actually worked with Ronald Reagan know better and have recognized that the modern Republican Party has moved far to the right of Reagan. This includes former Reagan chief of staff Ken Duberstein, speech writers Jeffrey Hart and Peggy Noonan, and Colin Powell (see here and here).

Another Reaganite, Mickey Edwards,  describes how Ronald Reagan would not recognize what the Republican Party has become, criticizing the current Republican opposition to virtually all government action (other than for military action, which apparently does not count as big government):

A shocker: The Constitution, which we love for the limits it places on government power, not only constrains government, it empowers it. Limited government is not no government. And limited government is not “small” government. Simply building roads, maintaining a military, operating courts, delivering the mail and doing other things specifically mandated by the Constitution for America’s 300 million people make it impossible to keep government “small.” It is boundaries that protect freedom. Small governments can be oppressive, and large ones can diminish freedoms. It is the boundaries, not the numbers, that matter.

What would Reagan think of this? Wasn’t it he who warned that government is the problem? Well, permit me. I directed the joint House-Senate policy advisory committees for the Reagan presidential campaign. I was part of his congressional steering committee. I sat with him in his hotel room in Manchester, N.H., the night he won that state’s all-important primary. I knew him before he was governor of California and before I was a member of Congress. Let me introduce you to Ronald Reagan.

Reagan, who spent 16 years in government, actually said this:

“In the present crisis,” referring specifically to the high taxes and high levels of federal spending that had marked the Carter administration, “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” He then went on to say: “Now, so there will be no misunderstanding, it’s not my intention to do away with government. It is rather to make it work.” Government, he said, “must provide opportunity.” He was not rejecting government, he was calling — as Barack Obama did Tuesday — for better management of government, for wiser decisions.

A problem with political labels is that their definitions are not clear, and they change with time. At one time the major differences between left and right might have been over economics but, although many Republicans try to obfuscate this with their claims that Obama is a socialist, the left now supports a capitalist system at least as much as the right. Considering the amount of  collusion between big government and big business favored by Republicans, I often consider liberals to be the actual supporters of capitalism.

During the Bush years liberalism came to be defined more  upon opposing the policies of the Republicans than based upon past definitions. Currently the sets of views which primarily separate liberals from conservatives are 1) support for liberty by the left and opposition to the authoritarian views of the right and 2) having a reality-based viewpoint as opposed to the anti-intellectualism of the right. Edwards concludes his article criticizing both the anti-intellectualism of the Republican Party and its focus on seeking power rather than on promoting freedom:

The Republican Party that is in such disrepute today is not the party of Reagan. It is the party of Rush Limbaugh, of Ann Coulter, of Newt Gingrich, of George W. Bush, of Karl Rove. It is not a conservative party, it is a party built on the blind and narrow pursuit of power.

Not too long ago, conservatives were thought of as the locus of creative thought. Conservative think tanks (full disclosure: I was one of the three founding trustees of the Heritage Foundation) were thought of as cutting-edge, offering conservative solutions to national problems. By the 2008 elections, the very idea of ideas had been rejected. One who listened to Barry Goldwater’s speeches in the mid-’60s, or to Reagan’s in the ’80s, might have been struck by their philosophical tone, their proposed (even if hotly contested) reformulation of the proper relationship between state and citizen. Last year’s presidential campaign, on the other hand, saw the emergence of a Republican Party that was anti-intellectual, nativist, populist (in populism’s worst sense) and prepared to send Joe the Plumber to Washington to manage the nation’s public affairs.

American conservatism has always had the problem of being misnamed. It is, at root, the political twin to classical European liberalism, a freedoms-based belief in limiting the power of government to intrude on the liberties of the people. It is the opposite of European conservatism (which Winston Churchill referred to as reverence for king and church); it is rather the heir to John Locke and James Madison, and a belief that the people should be the masters of their government, not the reverse (a concept largely turned on its head by the George W. Bush presidency).

Over the last several years, conservatives have turned themselves inside out: They have come to worship small government and have turned their backs on limited government. They have turned to a politics of exclusion, division and nastiness. Today, they wonder what went wrong, why Americans have turned on them, why they lose, or barely win, even in places such as Indiana, Virginia and North Carolina.

And, watching, I suspect Ronald Reagan is smacking himself on the forehead, rolling his eyes and wondering who in the world these clowns are who want so desperately to wrap themselves in his cloak.

The Republican Party has turned into primarily a southern regional party based upon authoritarianism and anti-intellectualism. It would no longer provide a home for either Barry Goldwater or Ronald Reagan.

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  1. 1
    JohnJay60 says:

    I hear this refrain often – that Reagan would be disappointed in today’s Republican party.  But would he?  Our $10 Trillion (that’s about $35,000 per person, people) is almost entirely due to his philosophy of taking the cheap and feel-good way out of a problem: lowering taxes to give that ‘small government’ feel people wanted while not cutting government by an equivalent amount, lest he annoy the voters.  The borrow-and-spend philosophy has poisoned any reasonable effort to engage voters in a discussion of how big a government they’re really willing to pay for. 

    Our economic slavery to foreign debtors is Reagan’s legacy – kept alive by Republicans and, after the voters failed to reward Clinton’s balanced budget policies, no longer pursued by moderate Democrats.

  2. 2
    Ron Chusid says:


    Irresponsible spending is only one characteristic of the Republican Party. While the current Republicans do share this characteristic with the Reagan administration, they also differ in other ways.

  3. 3
    DB says:

    This is a great read. I have always found it odd that the right attacks the left for their admiration/worship of Obama when their views on Reagan are no different.

  4. 4
    JohJay60 says:

    Reagan’s legacy is not ‘irresponsible spending’ but ‘irresponsible revenue’, that is, tax cuts that mask the pain of reduced services.
    In contrast, while I am not a particularly big fan of Gov. Schwarzenegger, he and the California Legislature are (with the exception of some timing and debt fuzziness) going to be forced to let voters see the impact of reduced spending.  Whether taxes should have gone up, or spending down, at least Californians will be able to compare income and expenses and decide what they like.  The Reagan cowardice removed this kind of tradeoff from rational political discussion and set the wrong tone that will haunt us for a century.

  5. 5
    Eclectic Radical says:

    I do have to agree with JohJay60 that I’m not totally certain Reagan would really have all that much problem with today’s GOP. The W. Bush Administration was essentially the flaws of the Reagan administration trumpeted as its strengths and repeated ad nauseam for eight years. Irresponsible military intervention (Nicaragua, Lebanon, El Salvador), borrow-and-spend financial policy, corporate welfare state economic policies (the Chrysler bailout is why Paulson was so certain the Wall Street bailout was a good idea), and right-wing crusading against gays and minorities.
    W. Bush was Reagan, take two, without a Cold War to putatively justify it all. I don’t think invoking Reagan’s name to chastise the modern Republican Party holds up. Reagan invented the irresponsibility and demaguoguery of the modern Republican Party and abandoned the baseline of good governance that quasi-justified all the offensive rhetoric when it was coming from Nixon.

  6. 6
    Mike Hatcher b.t.r.m. says:

    Electic, I follow what you are saying for the most part in your post.  I can even see you charaturizing the Anti-same sex marriage and positions on gays in the military as a “right wing crusade against gays..” .  What do you consider the crusade against minorities?

  7. 7
    Eclectic Radical says:

    First of all, it’s not just about positions on same sex marriage and gays in the military, no matter what conservative politicians and pundits like to say. Republicans, en masse, opposed a law banning workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation. While a few rare Republicans do not, most oppose civil union legislation that would allow same-sex couples the legal privileges of a married couple absent the religious distinction of marriage… despite the fact that conservatives frequently claim they are just trying to defend ministers from being forced to marry gay couples.
    In the specific context of the argument at hand, Ronald Reagan completely ignored the AIDS epidemic for the majority of his presidency because he and his advisors considered it a ‘gay problem’ with no relevance for the majority of Americans. It was only acknowledged on a serious level after the American Red Cross scandal.
    So I think I am on very firm ground when I say that there is far more to the right-wing’s policy than simply opposition to same-sex marriage or gay service in the military. When their motivation is, without fail, one of religious zeal than ‘crusade’ is a very accurate word.
    That correction out of the way, I’ll go ahead and answer your question. The Republican Party is determined to force the American public to accept the idea that racism no longer exists and that only the explicitly racist policies of Jim Crow laws have negatively affected minorities and, now that Jim Crow is long dead, that’s the end of it. The insist on ignoring the deep and destructive damage that institutional racism did to minority communities and argue the lack of need to take steps to address the lasting effects that legal racism (and the shock of integration on an institutionally racist society) have had on minority communities.
    Conservative racists in both parties rail against ‘illegal immigration’ with religious fervor based in staunchly bigoted thought systems that go back to the ‘Know Nothings.’ They ignore or dismiss the legal fictions that created the problem of ‘illegal immigration’ in the first place, make false claims immigrants, and baldly pander to nativists on the issue. Amnesty advocate John McCain was forced to back-pedal many aspects of his immigration reform proposals in order to win the Republican nomination. The primary opponents of Bush’s immigration reform package (a bad law, but better than nothing) were conservatives of both parties from the South and Midwest.
    Senator Bob Corker (of Tennessee) won election on the back of a painfully racist campaign ad in which he enflamed racist sensibilities by showing his black opponent and his white girlfriend together on tv.
    Drug laws (which were primarily driven by Nixon and Reagan administration policies) target black and Latino Americans widly out of proportion with white drug users and drug dealers and treat ‘ethnic’ drugs far more severely than equivalent drugs primarily abused by wealthy whites.
    Conservatives, in all these cases, defend the status quo at best and argue for more reactionary/racist policies at worst.

  8. 8
    Ron Chusid says:

    Or a shorter (if incomplete) answer might have been “The Southern Strategy.” While this would have been the traditional short answer, Eclectic is right in stressing immigration policy. This has become the new way to bring conservative racism and xenophobia into polite society.

  9. 9
    Eclectic Radical says:

    While I’m sure this comes as no surprise, Ron, I am entirely unable to pass the elevator test. So I’ve mostly stopped trying and I attempt to do my best to make being a pedantic geek a virtue instead of an impediment whenever possible.

  10. 10
    Ron Chusid says:

    A discussion of right wing racism doesn’t work well with the elevator test. It is not like an issue where one side clearly states their viewpoint and then the rebuttal can be summarized quickly. For obvious reasons, right wing racism is done by more subtle means, making any discussion more involved.

  11. 11
    Fritz says:

    Of course, arguing about what dead people would do if they were around today is sort of pointless, but I think Barry Goldwater would have chosen to sit out last year’s election — both major-party candidates were so far from any notion of limited Federal government that support would have been improbable.

  12. 12
    Ron Chusid says:

    True, especially as if they were active in politics today they might have accepted more of the views of their party out of necessity. The real issue here is how the party has changed. The case for Goldwater not going along with the Republicans is stronger. Besides the lack of support for limited government in the GOP, in his later years he was already protesting the increased influence of the religious right on the party. While it is pointless to argue about what he would have done, with no way to prove it, my guess is that, like some of his grandchildren along with many other conservatives outside of the religious right, he would have backed Obama. Of course neither of us can prove whether he would have sat out or supported Obama.

  13. 13
    Fritz says:

    Hell, Ron, I couldn’t even stomach making a choice of the lesser of three evils last year.  🙂

  14. 14
    Eclectic Radical says:

    I’ll say this: given Goldwater’s personality and character, it would be very difficult for him to sit out an election. He was not the ‘non-participatory’ type. He had very strong beliefs about the need to actively defend one’s own principles in the public sphere.

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