Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Barry Goldwater and 2012 Republicanism (1)

I've been puzzling over how to construct a post on political violence that addresses some current issues without using the proverbial "30,000 foot" clichees. Maybe it's just not a one-post concept.

Because Digby hits on one of the key points that has become increasingly central to our political life, as it has been for African-Americans for decades thanks largely to the "war on drugs": the legitimate and illegitimate violence of the state. Her post is Goldwater to Ryan to what? Hullabaloo 10/07/2012. She takes off from this thoughtful piece by Elias Isquith, Paul Ryan's Debt to Barry Goldwater—Who'd Be Mortified by Paul Ryan The Atlantic Online 10/05/2012.

But before I get to the violence issue, there's another point I want to deal with.

Isquith's piece touches on one of my pet peeves in political analysis and commentary of "movement conservatism" and the far right. That's the habit of going back 15 or 20 years or so and pointing out that some conservative hero of the earlier moment seemed to be far more enlightened, pragmatic and sensible than those occupying more-or-less the same political space in the present moment. I trace it to historian Richard Hofstadter's book The Paranoid Style in American History and Other Essays (1965). It appeared in book form in 1965 (link is to that essay only) after its publication as an essay in Harper's of November 1964. It's generally an excellent, insightful essay. But it appears to be the only remotely theoretical piece most of our Pod Pundits ever heard of - it would be to much to expect they had actually read it - dealing with the far right in American politics. As I wrote a couple of years ago,

In an essay in that book on the 1964 Goldwater campaign, Hofstadter compared Goldwater unfavorable to Sen. Robert Taft (1889-1953), who was a leading Republican conservative circa 1950. (On Taft as isolationist, see my post Old Right isolationism, then and now 07/22/2007.) Since he claimed rhetorically to accept New Deal innovations like Social Security, Hofstadter set him up an a sensible conservative foil against Barry Goldwater's radical image.

Frank Annunziata made a similar argument in 1980 in "The Revolt against the Welfare State: Goldwater Conservatism and the Election of 1964" Presidential Studies Quarterly 10/2 (Spring 1980):

Barry Goldwater's critique of the welfare state deviated substantively from that of Dwight Eisenhower or Robert Taft. Both Eisenhower and Taft were advocates, if reluctant ones, of various aspects of the federal government's role in promoting social justice. The crucial difference is that they knew the welfare state could not be repealed. They attempted to halt, but not reverse America's drift to welfare state policies. Whatever their rhetorical similarities with Goldwater, Eisenhower and Taft never considered repealing the Sixteenth Amendment or the Social Security Act nor did they deny the federal government's role in education reform. Senator Taft conceded a federal role in securing every family housing, medical care, welfare payments and education subsidies. He successfully championed public housing legislation. He did not oppose minimum wage laws nor recommend abolition of farm price
supports. He wanted to expand the Social Security program and once informed President Eisenhower that the "best way" to stymie bureaucracy "and at the same time help people would be to have the federal government pay a flat fee to the states for every child in school, and automatically to send out a monthly pensi" Eisenhower characterized Taft as being "twice as liberal as I am" with views "miles away from those of some self-described 'Taft stalwarts'." Taft "did not shrink" from required governmental action to preserve liberty."
As Charlie Pierce might say to this whole be-nice-to-Robert-Taft theme: Honky, please! That would be the Sen. Robert Howard Taft to whose name we refer when the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 is mentioned, one of the most notorious pieces of anti-labor federal legislation and one still on the books. He was a bitter opponent of the New Deal and a pre-Second World War isolationist. He bitterly criticized, even campaigned against, the prosecution of Nazi war criminals in the Nuremberg Trials, a truly dubious cause for which he was rather bizarrely celebrated by fellow Sen. John F. Kennedy in his famous Profiles in Courage (). It was to appeal to Taft supporters that Dwight Eisenhower shamefully softpedaled Joe McCarthy's attack on George Marshall. Time magazine's obituary for him, with the not very creative title "An American Politician" 62/6 08/10/1953, described his politics this way:

Taft was against the spread of federal power; his welfare bills gave jurisdiction to the states. He stood in the way of collectivists of all varieties,-from the creeping to the rampant. He was against their kind of progress.

"When I Say Liberty." Taft stood for individual liberty. "And when I say liberty," he wrote, "I do not mean simply what is referred to as 'free enterprise.' I mean liberty of the individual to think his own thoughts and live his own life as he desires to think and live . . . liberty of a man to choose his own occupation, liberty of a man to run his own business as he thinks it ought to be run, as long as he does not interfere with the right of other people to do the same thing . . . Gradually this philosophy has been replaced by the idea that happiness can only be conferred upon the people by the grace of an efficient government. Only the government, it is said, has the expert knowledge necessary for the people's welfare."
Taft was known as "Mr. Republican," and he was the generally accepted leader of Republican conservatives and as such was Eisenhower's main rival for the 1952 Presidential nomination.

Taft's support for Social Security was along the lines parodied by Franklin Roosevelt and remembered by Jenifer Granholm in Granholm: ‘Get up, dig in and fight on!’ The War Room 10/04/2012. He didn't openly attack it directly because he knew it was way too popular, as President Obama is finding out in the current Presidential election.

As I wrote a couple of years ago (Richard Hofstadter, Broderized 03/01/2012), it was reasonable - though, I would add, dangerously superficial - in 1965 to think that an age of Broderian Centrism had arrived:

So it actually made sense in 1965 that Sacred Centrism had prevailed and that real reforms like the Great Society could happen because the Democrats and Republicans had respectively walled themselves off from the toxins of the fringes. Hofstadter's analysis was far more sophisticated than that, but that's pretty much what High Broderism assumes to this day.

But applying that model to today's politics makes about as much sense as saying that this snazzy new invention of color television is just as cool as the latest version of the iPhone. The Democrats today are almost as desperate to wall themselves off from New Deal/Great Society ideas as the Dems back then were to avoid Communist associations of any kind. While the Republicans have such a symbiotic relationship with the crackpot radical right of the Birchers and the Birthers and the Tea Partiers that it's hard to picture how they could cut the cord.
Isquith focuses on Goldwater's criticism of the Christian Right in the 1970s and 1980s to say that Goldwater would have disapproved of Ryan. And it's true that Goldwater criticized Jerry Falwell and the Christian Right generally, and they returned the favor. But Goldwater's criticism was largely a faction fight among the far right. Goldwater was irritated by the idea of ministers mixing in politics in particular because of clerical activism against the Vietnam War. Goldwater's parents were also Jewish converts to Christianity, and a not-so-underground portion of Goldwater's quibbles with the John Birch Society (JBS) in 1964 surely owned something to the Birchers' suspicion of his "Jewish" background. Another reason for him to cast a skeptical eye on the rise of the Christian Right. But, as Kurt Schuaparra pointed on in an article on the Goldwater campaign in southern California, "The JBS, ... while clearly supporting the Senator, did him the favor of foregoing a formal endorsement; but members discreetly worked hard for him during the campaign." ("Barry Goldwater and Southern California Conservatism: Ideology, Image and Myth in the 1964 California Republican Presidential Primary" Southern California Quarterly 74/3; Fall 1992)

Barry Goldwater had some aspects that were attractive for liberals, like his disgust with the Christian Right. But he's no model to be holding up today as a foil to show how silly today's "Goldwaters" are.

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