Elizabeth Tandy Shermer: Barry Goldwater's Early Senate Career and the De-legitimization of Organized Labor

Roundup: Talking About History

In the spring of 1960, a slim 123-page pamphlet grabbed the attention of audiences across the nation with a powerful restatement of the conservative world view: "the radical, or Liberal, approach has not worked and is not working." With this declaration, Senator Barry Goldwater's Conscience of a Conservative climbed to the top of best-seller lists across the country. Inside were ideas drawn from a decade's worth of the senator's speeches and writings and the research of the Arizonan's ghostwriter, Brent Bozell, William F. Buckley's brother-in-law. Goldwater and Bozell condemned New Dealers and Fair Dealers as well as moderate Republicans, such as President Dwight D. Eisenhower, because they were allowing "socialism" to subordinate "all other considerations to man's material well-being."1 Conscience of a Conservative was an outcry against the New Deal order for Goldwater and American conservatives who followed his lead. It touched on issues dividing the nation: the balance between states' rights and civil rights, the increase in taxes and farm subsidies, as well as the expansion of the labor movement and the welfare state. But the villains were not Soviet commissars or domestic Communists. Instead, Goldwater and Bozell trained their fire on liberals, including those who called themselves moderate Republicans. Targeting liberal wolves in GOP sheep's clothing was a shift in the strategy of the Right as it directed political focus away from the McCarthyite witch-hunts and toward a political rhetoric that sought to exploit fissures in the postwar liberal consensus. 1
In recent years, Goldwater and Conscience of a Conservative have received renewed attention. In the academy and in politics, Goldwater's legacy seems to be in flux with libertarians and even some liberals who hail the senator's latter-day hostility to the religious Right and his tolerant attitude toward homosexuality and abortion. In an interview for the 2006 documentary film Mr. Conservative: Goldwater on Goldwater (made by Goldwater's granddaughter CC), Madeline Albright, President Bill Clinton's former secretary of state, captures the film's central argument: "Today, he looks liberal to me." In the 2007 Princeton University Press edition of Conscience of a Conservative, the conservative columnist George F. Will maintains that Goldwater would be disgusted with "social conservatives" and their "strong government conservatism," which has "an active agenda to defend morals and promote virtue, lest freedom be lost." That kind of Republican, Will asserts, is not Goldwater's heir apparent. In the book's new afterword, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. claims the senator was not "a mere shill for Wall Street or the wealthy elite" and would actually side with those calling for more regulation and restraint.2 2

Those new assessments of Arizona's most famous senator offer more insight into contemporary political debates than into Goldwater's politics. Indeed, the very libertarianism that makes Goldwater intriguing today is chief among the characteristics that led the historian Richard Hofstadter and the sociologist Daniel Bell to denounce the movement Goldwater led more than forty years ago as one of alienated "pseudo-conservatives" on the fringe of American politics. This historiographical about-face cannot be divorced from the seemingly dramatic erosion of the New Deal liberal-regulatory order and the meteoric rise of a religiously inflected Right, whose narrative has become a staple of recent scholarship. Yet recent work has, for the most part, focused on the racial and cultural politics of the 1960s and 1970s to explain that dramatic political transformation. Efforts to understand the Right prior to that era have emphasized Cold War anticommunism or the cultural and political impact of postwar affluence to fathom the fracturing of the New Deal coalition and the waning of support for an activist, liberal state. Most of the narratives in this literature that have intersected with labor history have focused on the emergence of an assertive social conservatism within the working class, which was graphically symbolized by the violent 1970 New York City clash between unionized construction workers and anti–Vietnam War protestors. This "hard hat" phenomenon and the emergence of the culturally conservative Ronald Reagan Democrats—who proved so important in the 1980 election—seemed to demonstrate the degree to which the "culture wars" of the 1970s and 1980s subverted the New Deal order.3...
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