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Barry Goldwater on the Civil Rights Act: The Antecedent to Rand Paul

Most Americans remember the “Sixties” as a time of civil rights sit-ins, anti-war protests and long-haired rock stars.  But almost exactly fifty years ago, a very different kind of “Sixties” was launched with the publication of Barry Goldwater’s Conscience of a Conservative.  In this best-selling manifesto, ghostwritten by William Buckley’s brother-in-law, Brent Bozell, Senator Goldwater put a new face on a nascent conservative movement that was exciting voters in the right-wing citadels of the Texas Panhandle, Southern California’s Orange County, well-to-do precincts of South Carolina textile towns, and the booming western suburbs of Chicagoland.  It was fifty years ago today that Barry Goldwater – not Sgt. Pepper – taught conservatives how to play.

Goldwater’s Conscience of a Conservative, to be anachronistic, rebranded conservatism in the United States for a popular audience.  Time magazine, in spritely style, captured the change in a “man-bites-dog” review:  “He thoroughly belies the U.S. liberals’ caricature-belief that an Old Guardist is a deep-dyed isolationist endowed with nothing but penny-pinching inhumanity and slavish devotion to Big Business.”  Barron’s, the business weekly, stated the case for Conscience of a Conservative’s popularity on the Right more positively:  “Its success springs in part from the author’s ability to give humanitarian reasons for following policies which usually have been associated with lust for gain.”

 It was true.  What made The Conscience of a Conservative both a best seller and a kind of bible to the growing cadres of the conservative rank and file was its winning combination of hard-nosed policy language (Goldwater) and high-minded justification (Bozell) for such toughness.  So, while the book predictably blasted the welfare state and the entire notion of a government-mandated social safety net, it did so in a high-minded language of moral rectitude:  “Liberals tend to look only at the material side of man’s nature.  The Conservative believes that man is, in part, an economic creature but that he is also a spiritual creature with spiritual needs and spiritual desires. . . . Conservatism therefore looks upon the enhancement of man’s spiritual nature as the primary concern of political philosophy.  Liberals, on the other hand—in the name of a concern for ‘human beings’—regard the satisfaction of economic wants as the dominant mission of society.”  Here was a neat reversal of conventional wisdom.

Since the New Deal, conservatives had typically attacked the growing welfare state as an infringement on the rights of property holders and as an un-American sort of class warfare.  Liberals responded by lambasting conservatives as cold-hearted bastards only interested in protecting the rich.  Goldwater, with more than a little help from Bozell, turned the tables.  Liberals, he said, are the hard-hearted materialists.  They care little, if at all, for the dignity and spiritual life of the less well-off.  It is conservatives who safeguard the moral character and long-term happiness of their fellow citizens.

Again and again, Goldwater (and Bozell) makes such morally-charged or philosophically-based arguments:  “It so happens that I am in agreement with the [anti-racial segregation] objectives of the Supreme Court as stated in the Brown decision,” writes Goldwater.  “I am not prepared, however, to impose that judgment of mine on the people of Mississippi or South Carolina. . . . That is their business, not mine.  I believe that the problem of race relations, like all social and cultural problems, is best handled by the people directly concerned . . . [and] should not be effected by engines of national power.”  Here, Goldwater forthrightly disavows ugly racism even as he makes the philosophical case that racial justice solutions must not be imposed from above by federal governmental fiat.  In the American federalist system, local authority must be respected, Goldwater argues, even when local authorities see issues in a vexing manner.

Goldwater’s manifesto made him the leading political conservative of his time, even as it became a powerful tool in the hands of grass-roots conservatives around the nation.  For Goldwater, the book’s popularity was ironic.  He was himself an instinctual, rather than an intellectual, conservative; his sister remembered him never having read a book while growing up in Phoenix and Goldwater had lasted only a year at the University of Arizona.  Nonetheless, Conscience of a Conservative took an enduring place in the popular conservative canon and helped elevate the intellectual profile of modern American conservatism.

In the context of the “Sixties” era, the high-minded rhetoric of Conscience of a Conservative proved only a rough guide to morally-justifiable policy.  After Barry Goldwater joined the ranks of racist southern Democratic senators to oppose the 1964 Civil Rights Act, his Republican colleague Illinois Senator Everett Dirksen dismissed Goldwater’s ideological justifications.  Speaking on the Senate floor, Dirksen charged Goldwater with fighting for a base cause against an act that history demanded:  “Utter all the extreme opinions that you will, it will carry forward.  You can go ahead and talk about conscience!  It is man’s conscience that speaks in every generation!”  Fifty years after the publication of Conscienceof a Conservative, many conservatives still prefer to see themselves as part of what is, at heart, an intellectual movement.  And just as was true in 1964, some of them would rather not dwell on the practical and political consequences of those ideas or on the justifications they too often offer those whose goals and beliefs are anything but moral.