The Two Goldwater Myths

David Frum argues that believing the Goldwater Myth will make it hard for conservatives to recover:

Conservatives live in thrall to a historical myth, and this myth may soon cost us dearly.

The myth is the myth of the Goldwater triumph of 1964. It goes approximately as follows:

In 1964, after years of watered down politics, Republicans turned to a true conservative, Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater. Yes, Goldwater lost badly. But in losing, he bequeathed conservatives a national organization – and a new champion, Ronald Reagan. Goldwater’s defeat opened the way to Reagan’s ultimate triumph and the conservative ascendancy of the 1980s and 1990s.

This (the myth continues) is the history we need to repeat. If we can just find the right messenger in 2012, the message that worked for Reagan will work again. And even if we cannot find the right messenger, losing on principle in 2012 will open the way to a more glorious victory in 2016.

The Goldwater myth shuts down all attempts to reform and renew our conservative message for modern times. And it offers a handy justification for nominating a 2012 presidential candidate who might otherwise seem disastrously unelectable. Altogether, the myth invites dangerous and self-destructive behavior by a party that cannot afford either.

Frum continues to poke holes in this myth, but the most important point is that “The Goldwater myth shuts down all attempts to reform and renew our conservative message for modern times.” As a result we see conservatives who are in denial over the fact that they were thrown out of power because their policies do not work and are not relevant to current times. Instead they make the absurd argument that they lost because they were not conservative enough.

Frum is also right in questioning whether conservatives can believe history will repeat itself. There were many factors which contributed to both Goldwater’s defeat and to later Republican victories. Going down to defeat with an extreme conservative in 2012 does not mean this will be followed by Republican victories as occurred after Goldwater’s 1964 loss.

There is yet another aspect to this myth which I do not believe Frum realizes. Barry Goldwater was at approximately the same point on the left to right spectrum of 1964 as many Republicans are at today. This misleads them into thinking that they are pursuing the policies of Barry Goldwater. This is an unfortunate myth as current conservatism has little to do with Goldwater’s beliefs.

As I noted just over a month ago, Barry Goldwater would barely recognize the current Republican Party. It came as no surprise that two of his granddaughters backed Obama over McCain. Goldwater was a strong opponent of the influence of the religious right in the Republican Party, supported a woman’s right to abortion, and believed gays should be able to serve in the military. Whenever in office (as opposed to their empty rhetoric when in opposition) the Republican Party has totally abandoned any support for small government or fiscal responsibility. The social conservative views which Goldwater strongly opposed have become the dominant and defining philosophy of the conservative movement.

If conservatives think they can return to power by using  Goldwater as a model, they must get past the myth that their views have anything to do with the views of Barry Goldwater. Only after realizing that their views are neither the views of Goldwater or views which are relevant to the twenty-first century can they also consider the arguments presented by David Frum.


  1. 1
    JollyRoger says:

    Goldwater saw what was happening before he left us, so I suspect he might well recognize the Goppers. He’d also be speaking out against them.

  2. 2
    Ron Chusid says:

    It is a shame Goldwater hasn’t been around in recent years. Besides his opposition to the religious right he might have brought a much saner attitude towards the response to the 9/11 attacks. I recently came across this comparison on another blog between Goldwater’s views and modern Republican views as expressed by Newt Gingrich:

    “If there’s a threat, you have a right to defend society. People will give up all their liberties to avoid that level of threat.” – Newt Gingrich

    “[W]e would rather die than lose our freedom … There are ways … in which we may save both our freedom and our lives; but all such suggestions are meaningless and vain unless we first understand what the objective is. We want to stay alive, of course; but more than that we want to be free.” – Barry Goldwater, The Conscience of a Conservative

  3. 3
    Fritz says:

    My favorite coffee mug these days shows a guy with a shovel and the label “Exhume Goldwater 2008”.    I wish we could.

  4. 4
    Ron Chusid says:

    He was certainly not perfect (who is?) but the Republicans would be far better off if really influenced by Goldwater’s views as opposed to listening to people like Rush Limbaugh.

  5. 5
    Fritz says:

    Privately, Johnson speculated that Jenkins’ arrest was a Republican dirty trick, but Senator Barry Goldwater, in the midst of a desperate campaign for the presidency, refused to exploit the incident. His extremist comments (“I want to lob one in the men’s room of the Kremlin and make sure I hit it,” he said in one campaign speech) had alienated many voters, and the Jenkins scandal must have seemed like the trump card he’d been waiting for. But despite the advice of many in his campaign, Goldwater would not make an issue of Jenkins’ arrest. The split in his camp—between the libertarian Goldwater, who would many years later come out in favor of gay rights, and the conservative moralists, who would evolve into today’s Christian Right—was the genesis of a rupture that haunts the Republican Party to this day. But for Goldwater, who knew Jenkins from the Senate and served as commanding officer of his Air Force Reserve unit, the most important reasons were personal. “It was a sad time for Jenkins’ wife and children, and I was not about to add to their private sorrow,” Goldwater later wrote in his autobiography. “Winning isn’t everything. Some things, like loyalty to friends or lasting principle, are more important.”

  6. 6
    Eclectic Radical says:

    Goldwater also supported complete decriminalization of most controlled substances, which would have been a de facto end to the drug war. He supported genuine immigration reform, including both broader and more meaningful amnesty for undocumented aliens and a revocation of immigration restrictions targetting countries in the Americas.

    The Republicans, today, who come closest to Goldwater are Bob Barr and Ron Paul, and even they faul short in basic civil liberties.

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