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Goldwater and Civil Rights

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"Goldwater and Civil Rights"

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I always find it shocking that conservatives in 2010 openly say that the political founder of their movement and an icon to be admired is Barry Goldwater, and that Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign was an admirable thing that constitutes a key foundationstone of the modern conservative movement. After all, on the most important issue of the early 1960s Goldwater was totally wrong:

Goldwater also carried his small-government convictions into the arena of civil rights. “Conscience” features numerous dog-whistle appeals to American racists. Pretty much everyone, including Martin Luther King Jr., Roy Wilkins, and Julian Bond, is willing to concede that Goldwater was not personally bigoted. But his vote against the 1964 Civil Rights Act would speak for itself, even if Goldwater didn’t speak for it: “the Supreme Court decision is not necessarily the law of the land,” he said in 1964, and he (or [ghostwriter Brent] Bozell) said likewise in 1960, describing Brown v. Board of Education and allied decisions as “abuses of power by the Court.” In italics, Goldwater declares that politics needs to take into account “the essential differences between men.” And the only states he won in 1964, apart from his own, were Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina, a Deep South bloc that, with the exception of Louisiana in 1956, hadn’t gone Republican since Reconstruction.

Obviously liberals have been wrong about things in the past as well, but according to conservatives this was a foundational moment in their movement! Whenever I bring this up, people quickly rush to assure me that Goldwater didn’t stand shoulder-to-shoulder with white supremacists on the most important political issue of his time out of racism, instead at the decisive moment in his career he stood shoulder-to-shoulder with white supremacists out of principled constitutional reasoning that made it impossible for him to do otherwise. But this is actually more damning. You could imagine the founder of a movement being afflicted by an unfortunate character flaw that his followers lack. But the argument is that Goldwater didn’t suffer from a character flaw. Instead, having acquired a major party presidential nomination he stood shoulder-to-shoulder with white supremacists on the most important issue of the day because his sincere political ideology led to horribly wrongheaded conclusions.

Odd hero.

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