Barry Goldwater: The Self-Styled “Extremist” Whose Politics Were Endlessly More Rational Than Anything In Today’s Washington

While once a political standard bearer for the conservative movement within the Republican party and a man whom conservatives in the US could set their watch to, former US Senator Barry Goldwater now reads like a political enigma, twenty years after his death in 1998.

Goldwater rose to prominence as a Senator who was first elected in 1952. The timing of Goldwater’s rise within the conservative wing of the Republican party came just as the previous such standard bearer Senator Robert Taft died in 1953. In many ways, Taft and Goldwater were very similar. Both favoured limited government, particularly where the Federal government was concerned, both favoured low taxation, balanced budgets, a rolling back of New Deal era initiatives and both were opposed to forms of collectivism they saw as unconstitutional. Both were equally well known for their straight forward manner of speech in an era where effected New England style political dialects were still very much the norm in the United States.

Where they differed is that while Taft opposed what he viewed as creeping leftist thinking at home, Goldwater also opposed communism abroad, while Taft was more worried about the creation of NATO, the CIA and became known for his total opposition to US participation in the war in Korea. Thus, like his personal friend John F. Kennedy, Goldwater was not only a Cold Warrior, but was among the most thorough Cold Warriors of his day.

By the time the Cold War had finished, many in the Republican party were looking for new wars at home and abroad while Goldwater was looking for neither. For Goldwater, collectivism (as he called it) was the enemy and once the Communist Party of the Soviet Union ceased to be, so too did Goldwater’s zeal for an extravagant foreign policy.

My own fascination with Goldwater stemmed not only from his straight forward rhetoric, but from his opposition to the rise of the Evangelical right within the Republican party. Goldwater remained totally opposed to Evangelical Republicans who he called “nuts”, believing that the Evangelical movement was just another dangerous push for big anti-constitutional government. This is where Goldwater’s ideological consistence became apparent. Goldwater was opposed to those on the left wanting to expand the role of government in the name of progressive social initiatives, but he was equally opposed to those on the Evangelical right who wanted to expand the role of government to become a theocratic moral policeman in the daily lives of ordinary citizens. This attitude won Goldwater the praise of the musician and political commentator Frank Zappa who tried to invite Goldwater to once of his concerts. According to Zappa, Goldwater was at a Ham Radio convention that night, which is unsurprising as apart from politics, Goldwater loved nothing more than building amateur radios and flying planes.

Beyond this, Goldwater was a sincere secularist who argued strongly in favour of the US Constitutional separation between church and state. In spite of his opposition to the presidential campaign of evangelical preacher Pat Robertson, he claimed that he had no problem with preachers in congress so long as they “left their Bible outside”.

Commentating on the dangers of the Evangelical right to the health of US politics, Goldwater proclaimed,

“There is no position on which people are so immovable as their religious beliefs. There is no more powerful ally one can claim in a debate than Jesus Christ, or God, or Allah, or whatever one calls this supreme being. But like any powerful weapon, the use of God’s name on one’s behalf should be used sparingly. The religious factions that are growing throughout our land are not using their religious clout with wisdom. They are trying to force government leaders into following their position 100 percent. If you disagree with these religious groups on a particular moral issue, they complain, they threaten you with a loss of money or votes or both”.

When it came to Russia and China at the beginning of the 1990s, Goldwater also shared different views from many of his Republican peers. In 1993, Goldwater stated that if China “got rid of communism”, they would become the “leading military and economic power in the world”. The shocked interviewer was put further aback when Goldwater stated that the reason for this was that Chinese “like to work and we (Americans) don’t like to work”. Forgetting the fact that Goldwater wasn’t the sort to be able to or more accurately, care to draw the distinction between Marxist-Leninism and the Market Socialism of Deng Xiaoping, his quote is memorable because it was offered in the context of a question regarding Japan exceeding the US in manufacturing. Goldwater dismissed the anti-Japanese attitudes of late 1980s/early 1990s America that were eerily similar to the Sinophobic attitude of today. Instead, he stated that Japanese cars had in recent years, been better than US cars but that in the future Russia and China, as well as surging European makers could challenge the dominance of Japan. 25 years later, and Goldwater’s remarks are surprisingly accurate.

For Goldwater, the free marketplace reigned supreme while every ideology which opposed it in its most pure form from Marxism to Evangelism was considered fully objectionable. How ironic then that Hillary Clinton cut her political teeth campaigning for Goldwater during his woefully unsuccessful Presidential bid in 1964. While Hillary Clinton inherited Goldwater’s unique ability to lose nation wide elections in an unforgettable style, what she did not inherit was the manifold nature of Goldwater’s Constitutionalism that was often mistaken for political “extremism”, an epithet he tried to turn into a positive connotation during his 1964 Republican Convention speech.

Hillary Clinton remains the cheerleader for a campaign against all things Russia that has also seduced many of the Republicans who themselves cut their teeth on the Evangelical right in the 1980s, when Goldwater opposed its rise. For them, all things Russian are bad, where for Goldwater, it was simply a matter of profound scepticism with any political and more importantly, an economic system that wasn’t as free market orientated as he was.

It is impossible to know how Goldwater would have reacted to the Russiagate fiasco of today. While Goldwater was never associated with the McCarthyism of the 1950s, he nevertheless was able to win solid support from the anti-communist vote in the US. But with communism in Russia gone from front-line politics and anti-Russian hysteria at an all time high in the US, it seems difficult to image a man as rational as Goldwater embracing a movement grounded not in principled economics (whether good or bad economics), let alone any other kind of ideology, but on mere innuendo, rumour, overt bigotry and childish character defamation.

Goldwater’s political genius was that he was able to take pure ideological consistency and still appear more nuanced than those who embraced any and every contradictory right wing trend of the day. While Republicans in the 1990s for example were trying to argue for a complete ban on homosexuals in the military, Goldwater stated that it would be both unconstitutional, impractical and counterproductive to deprive people of the right to join the military simply for having a private life that they keep private. This, like his libertarian views on abortion, confounded many on the Evangelical right, but it was in fact they who had moved towards authoritarianism, while, Goldwater remained consistent in wanting government out of the workplace, the bedroom, the boardroom and the operating room. Goldwater also admitted that in an international and historic context, his views would be seen as liberal, while only in the uniquely American context would such views become conservative.

Today, both the so-called right and so-called left in the US have become far removed from Goldwater’s brand of conservatism. Both act like the competing versions of a bygone European far-right, concerned with the politics of identity, tampering with the economy from a corporatism rather than genuinely progressive perspective and without any tangible benefits and decades and most worryingly, for the first time in decades if not in over a century, the politics of division have gone from the fringes to the mainstream.

Would Goldwater have been a Russiagater, in conclusion, I doubt it. By his own admission his “extremism” was “in the pursuit of liberty”, while Russiagate is a form of extremism in pursuit of madness.

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