Conservative Conscience Redux

August 30, 2007 | By | 6 Replies More

According to this article, Barry Goldwater’s book, The Conscience of a Conservative, is being reissued. Timely reading? Depends on what audience at which this is aimed.

I seriously doubt conservatives of the Rove/Norquist stripe will have much sympathy with Goldwater, who now seems admirable and even iconic compared to the dunces dancing to the tune of the Far Right today.

It might be well to remember that traditional conservatism bears little substantive resemblance to what passes as popular conservatism today. Since Reagan, the Right has taken up the gauntlet of attack as its primary ethic, and this is now costing them.

It has been asked in recent decades just what Liberals stand for, but I think the question is better applied to Conservatives. A quick glance at the Right’s c.v.s suggests they stand for fewer taxes, more rigid controls on judicial interference with private business, fewer taxes, banning sex, fewer taxes, weakening environmental conservation, fewer taxes, more expensive health care, fewer taxes…

Not an impressive list. They have become reactive, even when they clearly had won the field in popular support, shouting back at the Left as if people still weren’t listening, and it has become all they seem to do. Goldwater’s considered conservatism is almost balm-like in its relative rationalism.

Conservatism itself has never been a bad thing. Harkening back to an earlier time, all it meant was being more cautious, being less willing to spend public money on “What if?” proposals, and being averse to change for change’s sake. It meant relying on the vast resource of the private sector to solve most problems instead of assuming that corporations automatically meant bad things about to happen.

Liberalism, on the other hand, was once all about Free Markets. Laissez-faire capitalism is a liberal invention. It meant, in this formulation, opening up opportunities for those kept artificially out by a staid and traditional set of procedures.

Things change. We have now devolved in politics to what amounts to screaming matches, cut fights, and ritual playground games, with both sides lining up on opposite sides to denounce anything the other side offers. It has perverted the discourse.

Consider: birth control is a privacy issue. It ought to be the most conservative issue we have. Conservatives who traditionally would denounce any invasion of privacy as an infringement on fundamental rights should embrace the notion of a right to choose almost reflexively.

Consider: Barry Goldwater became a mighty advocate of environmentalism. Preserving the land, nurturing natural resources, ought to be a seedbed for conservative activism.

Consider: Involvement in foreign wars has been the legacy of our most progressive and (in a contemporary sense) Liberal presidents. Conservatives have generally been averse to what amounts to gunpowder diplomacy, yet that situation has now reversed itself profoundly.

Since the end of WWII, a brand of conservatism has evolved, exemplified early on by writers like Phyllis Schlafly, that has less to do with authentic conservatism and mostly to do with the creation of an established order wherein public policy amounts to little more than protectionism of the privileges of an elite. The desire for a preconceived social order, supportive of the self-selected “natural” rights of those on the top end of private money, has predominated this strain of rightwing thought. Fewer taxes, to these folks, does not so much equate with less public service as it does to less government oversight. Environmental policy ends with what one of these folks can see from the front porch of his or her mansion in the midst of a vast estate. Denial of birth control has less to do with any moral right than it is a method of keeping the lower incomes population bound to a cycle of child-rearing that makes it virtually impossible for most of them ever to rise up economically–or intellectually–to challenge the status quo. (When I say intellectually, what I mean is this: how many people have the time or resource to continue an education when they have children to raise and more children to raise? Some can manage, but without a viable method of child care, this becomes categorically impossible—and what is one of the chief failures of the welfare and antipoverty programs of the past four decades? No child care.)

Rove, Norquist, Reed, Schalfly, Coulter, Riley, Limbaugh, Lott….these folks would not be recognized by Barry Goldwater as conservatives. They are wanna-be aristos.

But this just makes the response of the Left even more problematic. Not all aspects of conservatism are repugnant, and not all conservatives are fascists. It is a mistake to shut out their voices simply because they’re on the other side of the playground.

Maybe checking out Goldwater’s book would be a good place to start over. We might discover, under the detritus of 27 years of ugly schoolyard rumbles, that we have more in common than we think.


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Category: American Culture, Civil Rights, Communication, Culture, Current Events, Noteworthy, Politics, Reading - Books and Magazines, Recommended Reading/Films/Sites

About the Author ()

Mark is a writer and musician living in the St. Louis area. He hit puberty at the peak of the Sixties and came of age just as it was all coming to a close with the end of the Vietnam War. He was annoyed when bellbottoms went out of style, but he got over it.

Comments (6)

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  1. Erich Vieth says:

    Modern Bush-Conservatives don't conserve. Rather, they excel at wasting. We should call that branch of the Replican party the Waster party. Actually, I'm going to call all Replublicans Wasters, since the ones who aren't directly doing the damage are sitting on their hands, failing to speak up and thereby contributing to the damage they could be stopping.

    The Waster policy platform seems to be that we should allow the precious national resources (e.g., energy, infrastructure, intellectual capacity) to be wasted. The Waster party favors squandering the national budget. The Wasters allow our hard-earned Constitutional rights to be wasted away (thereby inviting the government to invade our lives, including our sex lives). The Waster party tears down the wall separating government from religion. The Waster party wastes the lives of our soldiers in Iraq. How many U.S. soldiers have died? More than 3,700. Assuming bodies to be one foot thick and assuming that you could stack all of those dead bodies on top of one another into three piles, those piles would be be as tall as both of the two 1,727 foot tall World Trade Center towers AND the 305 foot tall Statue of Liberty. That's an incredible number of lives wasted.

    The Wasters are a party of decay and desperate wasteful expenditures. Their shameful conduct is probably making Mr. Goldwater roll in his grave.

  2. Edgar Montrose says:

    Thank you for pointing this out. Throughout my adult life, I have always considered myself a conservative-leaning moderate, with a bit of libertarian thrown in. Yet, for the past several years, I find myself identifying much more with what the current conservatives pejoratively label as "liberal" than with anything the conservatives embrace. I listen to Ed Schultz, read Democratic Underground and Huffington Post, belong to MoveOn and BORDC, and even occasionally post on Dangerous Intersection. And I don't think that *I* am the one who has changed.

  3. Erich Vieth says:

    Here's more on the fiscal irresponsibility of Republicans. The perplexing question is how do Republicans get away with claiming that they are the party of fiscal restraint?

  4. Edgar Montrose says:

    Apparently I am not alone in my "transformation":

  5. Erich Vieth says:

    Edgar: I went to the site you recommended. My political compass is

    Economic Left/Right: -4.75

    Social Libertarian/Authoritarian: -5.23

    This puts me near Gandhi in the lower left quadrant, and far from most politicians (who inhabit the upper right –right wing authoritarians).

    I'm proud to find that my attitudes are akin to Gandik, but I just don't know how this could have happened. After all, I voted for Reagan in 1980. I don't remember changing. I didn't TRY to change. It seems to me that I insisted on better information and that my opinions are the natural result. I assume (but I don't really know) that others who insist on better information would also end up in the lower left (left leaning/libertarian).

    Thanks for sharing.

  6. grumpypilgrim says:

    Further to Erich's and Edgar's comments above, clearly America has swung to the right. It seems to have began with the so-called "Reagan revolution," continued through the 1994 "Contract with America," and peaked during Bush Jr.'s first term. Accordingly, policies that were considered moderate or even mildly conservative a quarter-century ago are now considered "liberal." Meanwhile, dismantling the U.S. Constitution now appears to be mainstream Republican, while supporting the Bill of Rights has (until very recently) been considered by many right-wingers as "traitorous." Fortunately, this swing appears to have peaked — thanks in large part to Bush's utter incompetence and flagrantly unconstitutional policies — but only time will tell how far back to the left the pendulum will eventually swing. The 2008 election might be a good indicator.

    Curiously, my own politics have moved slightly to the right during the past quarter century, though, by current standards, I am perhaps considered farther to the left on most issues than I would have been back then.

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