Thursday, April 19, 2012

Barry Goldwater and segregation

It's a common tactic in political campaigns to taunt the other side with positions their party once took that they now seemed to have abandoned. We hear it in the 2012 Presidential race, when commentators suggest that Ronald Reagan would have been too liberal for today's Republican Party. Actually, Reagan generally pushed as conservative of policies as he could get away with. But it makes good politics.

Unfortunately, it also can make for bad history. Barry Goldwater was the leader of what came to be known as "movement conservatism" in 1964, when he won the Republican nomination for President. His brand of conservatism was crushed in the election of 1964, in which the two primary issues were the Vietnam War (Goldwater was for escalation, Lyndon Johnson against it) and desegregation in the South (Goldwater against, Johnson for). Goldwater's disgust for ministers in politics later found him trading insults with Christian Right leaders like Jerry Falwell. But the Goldwater brand of conservatism is what now dominates the Republican Party.

Jason Morgan Ward in Defending White Democracy: The Making of a Segregationist Movement and the Remaking of Racial Politics, 1936-1965 (2011):

Goldwater churned out a manifesto in 1960, but with much more fanfare. Published and distributed by the senator's influential right-wing supporters, The Conscience of a Conservative shot up the summer bestseller charts. Ghostwritten by William F. Buckley's brother-in-law, L. Brent Bozell, the slim volume summed up Goldwater's stance on a variety of political issues, from government spending to "the Soviet Menace." But nothing encouraged southern conservatives more than the successive chapters on states' rights and civil rights.

The subjects required separate chapters, Goldwater argued, because the civil rights struggle had both obscured and dramatized a much broader issue. Blasting attempts "to disparage the principle of States' Rights by equating it with defense of the South's position on racial integration," Goldwater championed the concept as a bulwark against growing federal power. Goldwater, who had voted for civil rights measures as a sitting senator, reassured southern conservatives by criticizing Brown [v. Board of Education] and arguing for limits to racial reform. He criticized the "extravagant and shameless misuse" of civil rights, a blanket term he accused liberals of expanding to include "human" and "natural" rights not granted by the Constitution. So Goldwater could be for "civil" rights such as voting while still maintaining that "the federal Constitution does not require the States to maintain racially mixed schools." Whether or not Goldwater liked segregation did not matter. In a concise and carefully worded chapter, he declared white opposition to integration a perfectly legal and downright American stance. "It may be just or wise or expedient for negro children to attend the same schools as white children," Goldwater argued, "but they do not have a civil right to do so." [my emphasis in bold]
This is the same brand of conservatism and "libertarianism" that we hear today in different forms from the Ron "Papa Doc" and Rand "Baby Doc" Paul, from the Ludwig von Mises Institute and these days more and more often from the Republican Party generally. Though retroactively agreeing with Goldwater's opposition to the landmark Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965 is still a little risky for Republican candidates to say out loud.

This is why it's worth listening carefully to Republican warnings about "tyranny" and so forth today. Ward also relates:

Barry Goldwater bucked his party leadership, and his own voting record, by opposing the Civil Rights Act of 1964. A week after the cloture vote ended the southern filibuster, the presumptive Republican nominee voiced his "constitutional" objections to the bill. Declaring his opposition to "discrimination of any sort," Goldwater warned that the bill authorized "the creation of a federal police force of mammoth proportions" and encouraged "an 'informer' psychology" among citizens. "These ... ," Goldwater declared, "are the hallmarks of the police state and landmarks in the destruction of a free society." If the public "misconstrued" his vote as a defense of segregation, Goldwater concluded, he would accept the fallout. [my emphasis]
When Papa Doc Paul and Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney talk about their devotion to the Constitution and their opposition to federal oppression, they are speaking from the same segregationist perspective from which Barry Goldwater spoke in 1964. The segregationist ideology of 1964 is thriving today, alive and well in the Nixonized, Reaganized, Bushized Republican Party.

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